Hardy Hollers began his bid for Lyndon Johnson’s congressional seat on May 13, 1946 with these fighting words: “He went on a few months’ sightseeing tour of the Pacific with a camera in one hand and leading his publicity agent by the other.”
For the past year, LBJ had thought about running for governor instead of a fifth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. However, an opinion poll persuaded him to play it safe. Even though the 37 year old politician was the first choice of prospective voters in 23 towns, his 22-percent share in the field of six made him think twice about a statewide race.
Johnson warned of a sinister scheme to unseat him in a telegram to the Austin American in April 1946. With the “support of the same oil crowd that tried to defeat me two years ago,” veterans would declare their candidacies in each of the ten Hill Country counties in his district with nine dropping out at the last minute in favor of the strongest.
The last candidate left standing was 45 year old Austin attorney Hardy Hollers, a preacher’s son and decorated veteran of both world wars. After the second, he had played a small part in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.
John Connally called Hollers’ kickoff comments “a vicious speech” in a letter to Lyndon in Washington. “He hit the war record, yours and his, pretty hard.” The future governor confidently predicted that voters would soon be “awfully sick of a man publicly and blatantly patting himself on the back about what a great hero he is.”
Johnson’s campaign manager was far more worried about the challenger’s charges of corruption and unethical conduct. “His insinuations about your affluence and the enrichment of friends will have some effect and will eventually have to be answered.”
“Honesty in government” was the main theme of Hollers’ no-holds-barred “crusade against corruption in public office.” He said over and over again, “If the United States Attorney was on the job, Lyndon Johnson would be in the federal penitentiary instead of in congress.”
Hollers smelled the following “rats”: First, Johnson’s father-in-law turned a six-figure profit building rural electrification systems and made another bundle on a land sale to the federal government; second, Herman Brown of Brown & Root received contracts for construction of the Corpus Christi Naval Base and other defense installations while LBJ was on the Naval Affairs Committee; third, the Johnsons bought an expensive Austin home for cash from a Brown & Root partner; and fourth, the congressman used his influence in 1943 to purchase Austin radio station KTBC and later arranged for ten friends to go into sham competition with him.
Johnson publicly refuted some charges and ignored others. He flatly denied any involvement in his father-in-law’s affairs and simply gave him credit for being a shrewd businessman. He proved that the cash for the residential purchase came from wife Lady Bird’s inheritance. As for KTBC, that was her baby and he had nothing to do with it.
LBJ relied upon his experienced staff to do his campaigning for him until three weeks before the July election. Then he hurried home to deliver the knockout punch in a 17-day blitz during which he made 51 stump speeches and shook thousands of hands.
His well-oiled campaign machine left nothing to chance. Postcards were mailed to all registered voters in advance inviting them to come out and see their congressman. Newspaper ads, posted notices and telephone calls reminded them of the big event. Two hours before the rally, “Johnson’s Hill Billy Boys,” a four-piece band, toured the town on a flat-bed truck playing country music to attract a crowd.
Gene Autry returned a wartime favor by hitting the campaign trail with his benefactor. After singing his standard “I’m Back in the Saddle Again,” the popular movie star would tell his fans, “Let’s put my friend Lyndon back in the saddle again because that’s where he belongs.”
But in the end it was the congressman’s record, nine years of bringing home the bacon to his rural constituents, that made the difference. He proudly pointed to political protein like Colorado River dams, electricity for 13,000 farms, soil conservation, stable farm prices, farm-to-market roads, low-cost agricultural loans and the G.I. Bill.
And Johnson knew how to tell his story. He never tired of talking about “the hard times we had during the thirties, the banks going broke, people not having anything to eat or any jobs, and how we built back up and saved democracy.”
With his chances of pulling an upset fading fast, Hollers played the Nazi card. He claimed he came home from the war to find “my own people with fear in their eyes and fear in their hearts because they were afraid of the Johnson political machine. We were only one step ahead of the Gestapo system they had in Germany.”
Although Hardy Hollers gave him a mild scare, the outcome was never in doubt. The incumbent won with 69 percent of the vote, but it was the other 31 percent that bothered Lyndon, who never did understand why anyone would vote against him.
Bartee’s three books “Texas Depression-Era Desperadoes,” “Murder Most Texan” and “Texas Boomtowns: A History of Blood and Oil” are available at barteehaile.com. And look for his fourth book “Unforgettable Texans” this summer!