The Passage of Power
In Volume IV of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” biographer Robert A. Caro concentrates on the succession of political triumphs and defeats that accompanied LBJ to the Oval Office.
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Johnson’s lack of influence, after reading Caro’s meticulous interviews and research cataloging his ineffectual existence under JFK, can not be overstated. The Kennedy team – “The Harvards,” as Johnson called the academic, business, and political Eastern establishment elite recruited to run the administration – openly mocked the vice president. Robert F. Kennedy, the often-ruthless attorney general and brother of the president, hated Johnson. LBJ reciprocated. Others on the president’s team regarded Johnson as a hick, dubbing him “Rufus Cornpone,” and belittling his hardscrabble journey from poverty in the Texas Hill Country to leader of the Democratic Party during the Eisenhower era.Skip to next paragraph
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Among other slights, LBJ humiliated Robert Kennedy when the former reigned as majority leader and the latter served as a Senate aide. Later, the men feuded as Robert Kennedy sought to renounce the offer of the vice presidency extended to Johnson at the 1960 convention. Caro makes a persuasive case that such a move would have devastated the campaign. Without Johnson and his ability to sway Texas and other Southern states, Republican Richard Nixon would likely have become president in 1960.
None of that resonated with the new attorney general, who enjoyed repaying Johnson with all manner of slights in the vice presidency. Caro dubs the back-and-forth animosity, destined to take yet another turn when John Kennedy dies, “one of the great blood feuds in American political history.”
Despite more than 30 years spent researching and writing thousands of pages about every aspect of Johnson’s career and life (with at least one more entry remaining), Caro maintains a balanced perspective. He hammers Johnson and praises him when merited, all without falling into the biographer’s trap of celebrating too much of one or the other and remaining vigilant to his subject’s blend of outsized traits on both ends of the spectrum. LBJ, much like Robert Kennedy, can be cruel and ruthless, only to pivot into breathtaking acts of empathy and graciousness. Caro never lets his subject charm him beyond clear-eyed assessment, at one point reminding readers (and himself): “Ruthlessness, secretiveness, deceit – significant elements in every previous stage of Lyndon Johnson’s life story.” And, as we all know, few people change much, if at all.
Caro long ago mastered his subject – Johnson and power – the way LBJ gleaned all he could in political calculation. Thus, when the historian describes how and why Johnson responded to the ultimate challenge of replacing a slain, beloved president, he has all of the telling anecdotes, feuds, strokes of legislative genius, and both the bullying and the charm of his subject at the ready.