Faustian Bargains: Lyndon Johnson and Mac Wallace in the Robber Baron Culture of Texas
Bloomsbury. 359 pp. $37.
By John McAdams
The “Faustian bargains” in the title of Mellen’s latest book are the pacts she believes three Texans implicitly made with Lyndon Johnson, to serve Johnson’s corrupt purposes in return for his sponsorship and patronage. But unlike Goethe’s Faust, there was no redemption at the end for any of them.
The Texan named in the subtitle, Mac Wallace, was a student leader at the University of Texas during World War II, and some JFK assassination conspiracists believe Wallace shot John Kennedy. The two unnamed Texans, somewhat oddly, were far more notorious in the 1960s: Billie Sol Estes, a corrupt wheeler-dealer whose schemes ultimately ended in imprisonment, and Bobby Baker, a Senate staffer who parlayed his connections with powerful people into huge influence and wealth, but whose dealings also landed him in Federal prison.
Mellen is the author of a mind-numbing book in praise of Jim Garrison’s investigation in New Orleans (A Farewell to Justice), so one approaches this volume with considerable skepticism. Faustian Bargains is more of a mixed bag, but it does repeat deficits of that earlier work. Mellen, again, relies heavily on—to put it mildly—highly questionable sources, constantly relying, for example, on the statements of Billie Sol Estes. Yet in a latter chapter of the book Mellen herself trashes Estes’s credibility, accurately characterizing him as “an admitted liar, con man and convicted felon.”
Other dubious sources include J. Evetts Haley’s rather unhinged polemic A Texan Looks at Lyndon, and an unpublished manuscript by Stephan Pegues titled “Texas Mafia.” That’s right: a secondary source that never got published, written by an obscure author. Mellen admits that this source is “characterized by exaggeration” and that Pegues has passed away leaving “no source notes, nothing substantiated.”
Much better, in principle, is her use of the notes and private papers of Holland McCombs, a long-time Time Inc. journalist. In 1963, McCombs assiduously interviewed what appears to be dozens of people with stories to tell about LBJ and his allegedly shady dealings in Texas. Unfortunately, most of what McCombs uncovered was merely gossip. It is fairly well-established or accepted that the political culture of Texas in the 1950s and 1960s condoned a lot of questionable practices, but for the historian unfounded gossip, however tantalizing, still has to be proven. Often Mellen cites assertions from memoranda McCombs wrote to Life magazine editors with no indication who or what the primary source was. Even worse, Estes was an important source for McCombs.
Mellen’s reliance on McCombs makes one omission all the more interesting. It was none other than McCombs who, in 1967, first put the brakes on what had been Life magazine’s support for Jim Garrison’s “investigation” of the Kennedy assassination. McCombs happened to know Clay Shaw, and when he was arrested by the New Orleans DA, McCombs instantly realized the investigation had to be a miscarriage of justice if not worse: a clown show directed by a demagogue. Mellen conveniently sidesteps the contradiction between her hagiography of Garrison and dependence on McCombs in this book.