(Texas A&M University Press- Robert Harold Duke, 2015)
You've got to love a historian and professor like Robert Harold Duke who leads off his scholarly study of Lyndon Johnson and grassroots
federalism by mentioning the subversive 60's television show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The show' s satire was the gateway into which Duke developed a life long
interest into all things LBJ. At first glance, Duke' s book may seem a bit parochial- focusing primarily on 50's and 60's era 11th Congressional district of Texas.
It is of interest to me due to the book's subtitle: Congressman Bob Poage, Race, And Change in Texas - that and my Central Texas roots. But make no mistake about it,
Duke' s scholarship should be a great benefit to LBJ historians and researchers. After decades of focusing on LBJ' s foreign policy (mainly Vietnam failures), Duke
allows us to see a master politician at work through the narrow focus of Central Texas politics.
In fact, Duke' s writing is so compelling, I'm prone to read a book about the politics of his native Michigan if he so desired to
author one. Duke' s connection to the area is through his father who hailed from the tiny Central Texas community of Eddy. He tracks the friendship and political alliance of
New Dealers Johnson and longtime 10th Congressional district congressman W.R. " Bob" Pogue. Both of their fathers served together in the Texas legislature. As both men
would gain power and influence, Duke astutely follows their careers as it relates to Central Texas, particularly the 11th Congressional district. He spectacularly sparkles when
it comes to the building of the Lake Waco Dam. Documenting a Central Texas ravaged by drought and floods, Duke painstakingly lays out the process by which the Brazos River was
dammed up for the common good of its residents.
Dams aren't built overnight. Even with the famous Johnson treatment (the seemingly bullying and cajoling of lawmakers), the building of
the dam wasn't an easy task.
Even with Johnson and Poage' s considerable influence, it still took "relationship by relationship, handshake by handshake, favor
by favor, and phone call by phone call." And while often stilted and stiff in public, Johnson was a master behind the scenes, building consensus: even reaching down to
local businessmen and civic leaders to shore up support.
The lesson from the ultimate "political " victory in the dam' s completion is the amount of time and hard work it takes (in
this case decades) to achieve legislative success. While consensus building is now seen as a pejorative term, there are still massive infrastructure needs that only the federal
government can spearhead. While I'm increasingly skeptical of Big Government, farming out projects to "private contractors" hasn't worked out so well. Even if
Donald Trump wants to build that Border Wall, it will take consensus.
Poage and Johnson's lives paralleled each other as they left office. Johnson hounded out due to Vietnam, Poage humiliated by the
stripping of his powerful position as head of the House Agriculture committee. Both would get their own libraries named after them, Johnson's at The University of Texas,
Poage' s at Baylor University. The two men would become estranged toward the end of their careers. It's suggested that because Poage never supported Johnson on civil
rights legislation, that led to growing animosity between the two. The Johnson treatment wasn't even tried on his old friend. It's also insinuated that LBJ had a hand in
closing an economically vital air force base in the district. You see, what government can give with one hand (the dam), it can take away with the other ( the air base). The
book is also a cautionary tale.
Duke also documents the struggles and victories of the politically awakened Mexican American community in Central Texas. And while civil
rights legislation was primarily aimed at African Americans, Mexican Americans were beginning to demand their rightful place at the table of political discourse.
With a new Broadway play starring Brian Cranston as LBJ, and Mr. Duke' s insight , we are just beginning to grapple with the complicated
history of one of our most compelling public figures.