How to Defeat the President, the Senate, and your Party Leaders

Give me 4 minutes & I'll show you how then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson beat President Truman & the Democratic Party leadership in not confirming Leland Olds to a 3rd term on the Federal Power Comission (FPC).

This was originally published in my free weekly newsletter, How It Actually Works.

Let's say you're the new Senator Lyndon B. Johnson in 1949 & you need to prove to your Texas oil donors that you're on their team. (You're a Democrat after all.)

To prove your loyalty you're given an assignment: stop the Presidential appointee Leland Olds from being confirmed to a 3rd consecutive 5-year term as a Federal Power Commissioner.

You don't have much power yourself yet; you've only been in the Senate for less than a year.

How do you get the entire Senate, with a strong Democratic majority, to vote against an appointment from a Democratic President?

You can't tip your hand on your plan too early but you also need to make sure you get credit at the end.

How do you do this?


The first thing Johnson did was focus on what he could control: he didn't have sway in the Senate, but he was a member of the committee that would vote whether to recommend Olds to the Senate.

He then asked the committee chairman for two things:

1) To be the chair of the subcommittee doing the actual investigation

2) To allow the subcommitee to hold the hearings

He was granted both.

Next, he dug up as much "dirt" on Olds as possible. Olds was a very liberal type who'd written articles for wire services that had ended up being published in places like The Daily Worker. He'd had some pretty radical views for the time, including nationalization of some power companies.

Johnson's team went through over 1,800 articles Olds had written and selected 54 to enter as evidence. They highlighted paragraphs and sentences that made Olds look particularly bad.

LBJ also took time to personally interview potential witnesses to see whether they'd be a good fit for the hearings. (And once he'd selected the witnesses he even coached some of them on what to say in their testimony.)

And, at the last minute, he changed the members of the subcommittee.

He increased the membership from 5 to 7 people, knowing that since 7 was a majority in the actual committee, whatever the subcommittee decided would be what the committee recommended to the Senate itself.

Johnson recognized this & knew the power of inertia. By dominating the subcommittee he was able to scope the confirmation to a place where he had control.

Once the hearings started Johnson employed a bunch of unpleasant tactics:

1) He constantly interruped Olds, demaind yes/no answers to complicated questions. If Olds didn't give the answer he wanted, Johnson would interrupt and ask for a yes/no response.

2) Johnson made Olds look like a fool by asking him to show documentation to prove he'd resigned from the communist-connected American Labor Party.

Asking for details & proof is demeaning and undermines authority. E.g. see the reaction to asking for Obama's birth certificate. The request is what does the damage.

3) Johnson made sure to hide that he'd coached some witnesses: when he called their names to give testimony he acted as if he didn't know or even recognize them.

4) Johnson tried to get Olds to confess to having communist points of view by using free speech as his "good cop": "You have a right to say that & thank God in this country a man can still exercise some free speech"

The committee voted 10-2 not to recommend Olds'.

The final vote would take place in the Senate itself.

In the end Johnson needed credit for all this, so once they were in the Senate itself he gave a strong speech against Olds that included the famous line: "Shall we have a commissioner or a commissar?"

President Truman and other Democrats tried to use their support to win back the confirmation but it was too late: the Senate voted 53-15 not to confirm.

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