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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.

(Page 4 of 5)

Caro sums up the self-loathing this way: “Nothing the Kennedys felt about Lyndon Johnson could be any worse than what Lyndon Johnson felt about himself.”

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So, even as Johnson courted the Kennedy cabinet, did a delicate dance with his enemy RFK while honoring the fallen president’s memory, grappled with an intractable Congress and, oh by the way, had less than two months to prepare his first State of the Union while also eyeing a presidential election less than a year away, the new president also summoned some of his worst traits to fight off personal scandal. His longtime protégé, Bobby Baker, a Senate staffer, had already become, in the weeks before Kennedy’s death, the subject of national media scrutiny over kickback schemes involving government contracts and vending machines. The morning of Kennedy’s assassination, a team of editors from Life magazine met to discuss a planned exposé of how Johnson became a millionaire despite a life in low-paying government jobs. It died when Kennedy did. In other cases, Johnson quashed dissenting and critical stories in Texas newspapers by threatening regulatory and investigative retaliation of various media companies from the White House.

Caro makes a convincing argument against the conventional wisdom submitted by the late historian and Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger and a score of others that JFK intended to keep Johnson as his running mate in 1964. By 1963, Johnson had fallen so far from relevance that it was his former aide, John Connally, now the governor of Texas, who controlled the state’s political power, and not LBJ. Just before his death, President Kennedy told his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, “I will need as a running mate in sixty-four a man who believes as I do.”

Johnson knew he had to simultaneously honor Kennedy’s legacy, mainly through a long-stalled proposed $11-billion tax cut and the promise of a Civil Rights bill, while also establishing his own identity. All of it seemed impossible, but LBJ personified the notion outlined by Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, in 2008: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”


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