In the 20th book of a diverse oeuvre of biographies, cinema, and literature, Joan Mellen documents Lyndon B. Johnson’s career in cronyism, mainly in his home state but also on the international stage. The title reflects LBJ’s penchant for obscuring his personal and financial affairs and his membership in a cadre of pols and business types given to enriching themselves at voters’ expense. The subtitle might well have mentioned Billie Sol Estes, who, after serving his king, tried unsuccessfully to drag him into disgrace.
Citing recently released FBI files, interviews, books, newspaper and magazine articles, and diaries, Mellen traces Johnson’s lifelong dance with power and infamy. Analyzing the 1948 campaign, she shows how Johnson, ever the clever puppeteer, had marionettes falsify records and destroy ballots at arm’s length from their boss to defeat Coke Stevenson by 87 votes in a Democratic primary runoff that assured Johnson of a U.S. Senate seat. “Johnson was not elected to the United States Senate, and so should not have served there,” Mellen writes.
In the Senate, as he had in the House, Johnson toadied to his betters, engineering profitable arrangements that Mellen illuminates using sources well-known but in this context previously untapped–Estes, influence peddler Bobby Baker, and federal contractors willing to kick back dough to a frenemy they mostly feared. Mellen establishes Johnson’s corruption by showing that he directly awarded government work that was worth millions to cronies.
As LBJ was amassing paydays and political clout, men and women in his circle were dying under mysterious circumstances. The fallen included Johnson’s loose-lipped younger sister Josefa, who expired at 49 only hours after leaving a Christmas party at her brother’s home in 1961. As Lyndon Johnson rose, so did Mac Wallace, one of Josefa’s beaus. LBJ counted Wallace among his elves in the 1948 campaign. Wallace later worked for the U.S. Agriculture Department and a military contractor favored by Johnson. A 1952 murder conviction seemed no bar to advancement.
Wondering whether Johnson pondered which, if any, of many dangerous secrets Wallace knew, and whether LBJ did anything about that, Mellen plunges into Wallace’s self-destructive story: college corner, weapons merchant, holder of a controversial security clearance, convicted but unpunished murderer, chronic drunk, dead in a one-vehicle accident for which all official reports disappeared.
Faustian Bargains stands apart from the latter-day run of LBJ books by distinguishing fact from opinion and primary from hearsay evidence, conscientiously not vaulting to conclusions and satisfying the author–and this reader–that Lyndon Johnson was a killer more than metaphorically.
–Richard Culyer is a writer in Hartsville, South Carolina