Bipartisanship with Styles Bridges and LBJ
As politics in the 21st century became characterized by intense, bitter partisanship, Congress degenerated into posturing, bickering and inaction. Some Washington pundits gripe that the 113th Congress was doing less than the “Do-Nothing 80th Congress” of 1946-47 and called for a revival of bipartisanship. Here’s one example of bipartisanship, the Senate relationship between Concord’s H. Styles Bridges and Texan Lyndon B. Johnson.
Crosscurrents of Change: Concord, N.H., in the 20th Century, describes Bridges as a worthy competitor of Johnson, the manipulative, powerful Democrat who served as Senate majority leader, vice president and president. “The only Republican that Johnson ever had any bare-knuckle thing with was Styles Bridges of New Hampshire,” reported William S White, the New York Times reporter and Johnson confidante. Johnson’s comprehensive biographer, Robert A. Caro, elaborates on that relationship in the 2002 book The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. Bridges became a senator in 1936 and served in the Senate contemporaneously with Johnson from 1948 through January 1961, when LBJ resigned from the Senate to become vice president of the United States.
Senate Preparedness Subcommittee
When Johnson was named to chair the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee (of the Senate Armed Services Committee) in 1950, Bridges became the subcommittee’s ranking (senior) Republican. The committee was charged with investigating the nation’s preparedness and defense efficiency. Caro writes that Johnson was obsessed with having all subcommittee reports be unanimous, maneuvering frequently to gain the backing of all the Republicans. In fact, all 44 reports the subcommittee published during Johnson’s two years as chairman were unanimous. Caro wrote:
The New Hampshire Republican (Bridges) was too powerful and shrewd to be gotten around easily, so Johnson, who had already given him two staff positions, now gave him anything else he wanted, including help with his constituents. New Hampshire manufacturers of wool blankets were demanding that their senator do something about recent increases in the price they had to pay for wool, increases that were reducing their profits. Following an inquiry by the subcommittee staff, Bridges was able to give them the good news that the Office of Price Stabilization would shortly be setting a ceiling on the price of wool. (Caro – Page 337)
Caro then writes about help Johnson gave Bridges with a different kind of constituent problem, as related in the transcript of a closed subcommittee session in July, 1951:
Local opposition to a proposal, dear to Bridges’ heart, to build an Air Force base near Manchester, New Hampshire was infuriating him – and he wanted to find out who was behind it. It was possible, he said, that the opposition came from people who simply didn’t want an airfield near their homes, but he doubted that explanation; there were, after all, Communists even in New Hampshire. Perhaps, he suggested, “some investigator from our committee should go up and find out … whether there might be some people with rather deeper feelings who didn’t believe in preparedness in our country that are behind it ….Who is behind it? People very prominent, for instance, in the American Legion tell me they think very deeply there is something beyond just ordinary opposition.”
Although Bridges didn’t push the investigation – “I don’t think I am ready to ask that it be formally investigated yet, but I may” – Johnson leapt at the opportunity to be of service. After an “off the record” discussion (off the record even for a closed session, subcommittee general counsel Donald) Cook told Bridges, “whenever you tell us that you would like that investigation made, we will send somebody up there immediately and get to the bottom of it.” Who could ask for more than that? A rapport sprang up between Johnson and Bridges, and often in the late afternoons they would have a drink together in one of their offices. (Caro – Pages 337-338)
The Senate Preparedness Subcommittee became inactive, until the Russian launch of Sputnik in October, 1957. The Sputnik satellite’s launch sent shock waves and worry through the nation, and the Senate revived the subcommittee, again with Johnson as its chair and Bridges as the ranking Republican. In November, 1957, the subcommittee work ramped up with Johnson, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Richard Russell, a Georgia Democrat, and Bridges gathering for what Caro describes as a seven and a half hour briefing at the Pentagon. After several months, public jitters about the Russians beating the United States into space exploration calmed down and, with that, Johnson lost interest in the subcommittee’s work. Congress passed a bill creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the law in July 1958. Caro concludes, “The creation of a space agency was significant in its institutionalization of the drive to explore space, but its form in practice was little different from the form it would have taken if Johnson had not held his preparedness investigation.” (Caro – Page 1030)
Campaign cash from Johnson to Bridges
According to Caro and many other sources, Lyndon Johnson solicited and received unreported cash campaign contributions and distributions. As he gained power, “Johnson sometimes took a personal hand in distributing money to other senators” even if they were of the other [Republican] party.” (Caro – pg 411)
Bobby Baker, a Johnson crony who served as secretary to the majority leader (Baker later was forced to resign his Senate position due to his involvement in a scandal surrounding the awarding of government contracts) , wrote in his autobiographical, Wheeling and Dealing (Norton, 1978), as quoted by Caro:
On one occasion, I was asked to transmit $5,000 from Lyndon B. Johnson to Styles Bridges. As was the Washington practice, Johnson handed me the boodle in cash. ‘Bobby,’ he said, ‘Styles Bridges is throwing an “appreciation dinner” for himself up in New Hampshire sometime next week. Fly up there and drop this in the kitty and be damn sure Styles knows it comes from me.’ (as quoted in Caro – pg 411)
A quid pro quo involving natural gas
Lyndon Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives, and then the Senate, with the backing of wealthy Texas oil men, and the lawmaker reciprocated by consistently looking out for the oil and gas interests in Congress. In 1955, the House narrowly passed, 209-203, a bill that exempted independent producers of natural gas from regulation by the Federal Power Commission. The same day the House passed the bill, the Senate Commerce Committee reported out a companion bill. The consolidated legislation became known as the Harris-Fulbright Natural Gas Bill (after their primary sponsors, Rep. Oren Harris and Sen. William Fulbright, both Arkansas Democrats. The issue became a target of intense lobbying.
LBJ pulled together the necessary majority of senators to pass the bill. Some of those votes came through his relationship with Styles Bridges. Caro writes:
In obtaining the necessary votes from the other side of the aisle, he needed more than Eisenhower’s support, so he was deepening his alliance with the Republican senator who, as chairman of the GOP Policy Committee and ranking GOP member of the Appropriations Committee, held power over bills vital to GOP senators. The glue for part of that alliance was social: “he had Styles (Bridges) down (to Hunt lands) during the natural gas fight,” Oltorf (Frank C. “Posh” Oltorf –member of the Texas legislature) recalls. Part was philosophical — to Bridges, of course, any assault on business has to be Communist-inspired – and part, as always in the Johnson-Bridges relationship, was pragmatic. The five thousand dollars in cash from Johnson that Bobby Baker carried to New Hampshire for Bridges was only one episode – in either October or November of 1955, Elmer Patman (Superior Oil lobbyist) made a “lobbying” trip to that state. And in the overall pattern of the Johnson-Bridges relationship, these were minor episodes. The key figures in the major episodes were Connally (John Connally, Johnson staffer and confidant) and Clark (“Big Ed” Clark, known as the “Secret Boss of Texas”). Asked why Bridges would not only support the natural gas bill himself but would also bring the support of other Republican senators, Connally replied, “The reason was money.” He said he did not recall the amount involved, but that it was large. “I told you, I carried inordinate amounts of cash,” he said. Asked the reason for Bridges’ support, Clark smiled and rubbed together his thumb and index finger in the gesture that means money. Asked how much money, Clark said he could no longer recall, but, asked if it might have been about five thousand dollars, he laughed. “It would have been man y times five thousand,” he said. “Styles Bridges was no piker.” (Caro – Page 664)
There was to be more intrigue connected to the Harris-Fulbright bill and the all-out lobbying effort by the oil interests to see it pass. Before the vote on the bill a supporter, Sen. Francis Case of South Dakota, declared that an oil lobbyist had with an envelope containing $100 bills, 25 of them. This led to widespread calls for an investigation. Johnson, maneuvering to limit the scope of any inquiry, got the Senate to establish a four-senator “Select Committee for Contribution Investigation.” The money set aside for the investigation was a paltry $10,000. The senior member? Styles Bridges.
After severely restricted hearings, Johnson was forced to set up a new “Special Committee” with an appropriation of $350,000. Johnson promised a “far reaching and thorough” investigation dedicated “to uncovering any wrong-doing of any kind and accomplishing something constructive.” Despite that statement, Caro writes that Johnson made sure the investigation limited:
That insurance was put in place by naming to the committee, as the senior Republican member, the ubiquitous Bridges, who was totally unabashed by the revelation that he had been one of the senators visited in his home stage by Elmer Patman and hence might himself be a target of the investigation. (Caro – Page 674)
As the Special Committee met to organize, its most outspoken and independent member, Senator Albert Gore, Democrat from Tennessee, expected to be elected chairman, Caro continues:
Bridges said that since the committee was not a Standing Committee but a Special Committee, the Senate’s normal rules for a committee did not apply, and that new rules would have to be made. “Speaking for the Republicans,” he said, an agreement on the rules would have to come ‘before we proceed to election of any personnel such as chairman.” Among the rules the Republicans wanted, Styles Bridges said, was the right, should a Democrat become chairman, to name the vice chairman – him, Styles Bridges. And, he said, the vice chairman must have the right to co-sign all subpoenas. Furthermore, if the Democrats selected the chairman, the Republicans must have the right to select the chief counsel – who, he made clear, would be a Republican with whom he was personally comfortable. Since the Democrats did not have a majority in the committee, Gore was helpless. No chairman was elected; no counsel appointed; no subpoenas issued; after one meeting, Newsweek reported, Gore, “boiling with rage, ran out of the building, and leaped into a cab before newsmen could catch up. Journalists’ initial enthusiasm faded before reality. … (Bridges told reporters that his conditions were simply “reasonable proposals drawn up to prevent abuses by a “runaway committee.”) (Caro – Page 675)
Arkansas Democratic Senator John McClellan, whose Little Rock law firm represented several natural gas companies, was eventually elected chairman and Bridges was elected vice chairman. Caro writes, “The investigation finally petered out in 1957.” (Caro – Page 675)
• Richard W. Osborne