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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Over the course of seven weeks, from Nov. 22, 1963, to Jan. 8, 1964, when Johnson outlined the War on Poverty in his first State of the Union speech, the president made expert use of the crisis. He clashed with Robert Kennedy privately, but, otherwise, maintained an air of graciousness and humility amid the relentless tide of tributes to the late president. When he first addressed the nation on Nov. 27 as president, Johnson struck a pitch-perfect tone. In a speech even his critics acknowledged for its sincerity, Johnson began, “All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today.”Skip to next paragraph
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Nothing of significance escapes Caro’s watchful gaze. He delves into the rapidly advancing political importance of TV, of how it converted the dead president into a mythical figure during three days of constant coverage during and after his death, and finds a counterpoint as LBJ toils in obscurity off-camera. The tragic glamour of the widowed First Lady and her young children, the majestic funeral with the horse-drawn casket, as all of this unified America in grief, Caro writes, Johnson, marooned across the street from the White House, established a framework for a historical run of legislative success that remains unmatched.
Along the way, the author digresses into delightful historical asides. A brief example: He follows a chapter on LBJ’s first presidential address to Congress with a summary of the Oval Office. William Howard Taft, Caro tells us, expanded the West Wing in 1909 to include an oval-shaped office. The oval LBJ inherited from Kennedy came to life 25 years later, built on the southeast corner of the West Wing at the behest of FDR because it eased the way for his wheelchair. Jackie Kennedy, “as a surprise for her husband,” ordered the office redecorated when JFK left for Texas, a makeover tinged with heartbreak since Kennedy never lived to see it.
The historian serves up much-needed levity in a retelling of Johnson’s Christmas vacation to the family ranch in 1963. Here the Washington press corps glimpses a commander-in-chief who serves the German chancellor barbecue and beer in the Pedernales Valley, delivers seemingly impromptu policy shifts from a hay-bale rostrum and punctuates a press gathering by hopping on a horse and riding away. Farewell, Camelot; howdy, Bonanza.
Late in the book, Caro signals the Shakespearean fall that, no doubt, will comprise much of the next volume. In an assessment of Johnson’s earliest decisions on Vietnam, made during the Christmas sojourn to Texas, he writes, “two aspects … are clear: first, whatever steps he took during that vacation, he took as well steps to conceal them, to keep them secret from Congress and the American people; and, second, the steps he took had, as their unifying principle, an objective dictated largely by domestic – indeed, personal – political concerns.”
Ruthlessness, secretiveness, deceit, remember? But, as bad as the next years in the Johnson story will be, Caro is right in his summation of the seven-week transition, considered by many the most difficult set of circumstances ever inherited by an American vice president thrust into the presidency. “To watch Lyndon Johnson during the transition,” Caro writes, “is to see political genius in action.”
This biography matches those lofty words. For a nuanced, unbiased portrait of American political power in all of its grim machinery, students of history should prepare to go all the way with LBJ — and, of course, Caro, too.
Erik Spanberg is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.