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.

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. 4 By Robert A. Caro Knopf 712 pp.

Before Richard B. Russell became known as the name on a Senate office building, he spent 38 years on Capitol Hill as one of the most powerful members of the Southern Democratic caucus.

Russell, a Georgian, commanded respect. An incurable racist, he presided over Senate matters with authority and acumen. When he spoke, legislators listened.

Soon after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Russell lamented the fate of the late president’s legacy: enacting meaningful Civil Rights legislation. He worried, of course, that it would happen, not that the dead president’s ambition would go unrealized.

“We could have beaten Kennedy on civil rights,” Russell said, “but we can’t Lyndon.”

In The Passage of Power, his fourth installment of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” Robert A. Caro concentrates on the years 1958 through 1964, an era when Johnson endured a roller-coaster existence of political triumphs and defeats. The book begins with Johnson riding high as Senate Majority Leader before backing into an unsuccessful presidential bid in 1960, followed by his unexpected spot on the Kennedy ticket and a vice presidency marked by mockery and the mundane. A familiar taunt (“Whatever became of Lyndon Johnson?”) heard at Georgetown cocktail parties and all around the Beltway haunted Johnson.

Then came Dallas and Dealey Plaza, thrusting LBJ into the role he had spent a lifetime chasing, but had come to view as unattainable. With characteristic detail and precision, Caro frames the assassination from Johnson’s vantage point, providing a horrifying, pulse-pounding account of what it was like for a humbled man – even one as ambitious and power-hungry as LBJ – to shoulder the grief and burden of an entire nation.

The circumstances surrounding Johnson just before Kennedy’s death, in Caro’s depiction, warrant reconsideration. Matters such as Johnson’s isolation from the Kennedy team come as little surprise, but the depth of the estrangement dug up by the author lends the situation much more severe context. To cite but one example, LBJ, the vice president, wasn’t even in the room when Kennedy reached his most important decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. By way of comparison, think of Vice President Joe Biden by the side of President Obama during the Osama bin Laden raid or Dick Cheney in almost every meaningful moment of George W. Bush’s two terms.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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