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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Context counts for everything when it comes to analyzing Johnson’s plight in November 1963. The deadlines and intractable problems LBJ inherited when Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy in Dallas included:
•Making decisions on and finalizing a new federal budget due in two months. That would be difficult enough, but was exacerbated by the fact that Kennedy and the cabinet had excluded LBJ from the decision-making and planning in prior weeks and months, leaving the new president to start from scratch. Here, as in other circumstances, Johnson’s extensive and encyclopedic understanding of how Washington works, a product of his decades in Congress and the Senate, made him perhaps the only man capable of handling the task.
•Persuading the Kennedy men to remain part of the White House and, in turn, continue their fallen president’s work. Johnson had to retain these men who had ignored and scorned him and thought him beneath the office. If they left in droves, as many expected, LBJ could never hope to gain credibility with Congress or the nation as a whole. (Said one JFK admirer in the aftermath of the assassination: “A Texas murder had put a Texan in power.”) Defying the odds, he pleaded, cajoled, and played on the vanities of Ted Sorensen, Robert McNamara, and others to keep the cabinet intact.
•Convincing the liberal faction of the Democratic party, the wing that would determine the next nomination, of his commitment to Civil Rights. As a Texan and Southerner, and the driving force behind two watered-down Civil Rights bills, Johnson remained suspect in the eyes of many. Self-interest in the form of political angling, combined with a passion for equality eventually praised by the likes of activists Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, among others, propelled Johnson to adamantly go farther than Kennedy would have.
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When some in Johnson’s administration wondered whether fighting poverty and discrimination could harm efforts to woo suburban voters, the president snapped, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
•Breaking the logjam in Washington. Those convinced by the recent debates on health care and debt limits on Capitol Hill that Congress and the executive branch have never been less productive or more at odds might want to read Caro’s book for a reminder that history repeats itself. The Southern caucus, beginning in 1937 with FDR’s failed bid to pack the Supreme Court, swatted away not just Civil Rights bills, but almost all of each president’s legislative agenda for 25 years. Even after Harry Truman won a tight race in 1948 by campaigning against the Do-Nothing Congress (cue the 2012 comparison for the current incumbent’s strategy), Capitol Hill proved every bit as recalcitrant over the next four years. The lone exception: LBJ’s tenure as Majority Leader from 1955-60, when he reached across the aisle to strike pragmatic accords with Dwight Eisenhower.
The stakes were, of course, enormous and became exaggerated when combined with Johnson’s lifelong insecurities and fear of failure. A man who graduated not even from the state university of Texas but instead from Southwest Texas State Teachers College took note of the Rhodes Scholars and Ivy Leaguers surrounding him now. Johnson openly feared being branded “illegitimate” and a “pretender” in the White House.