LBJ at the helm: ruthless and masterful
Winner of the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography
When Lyndon Johnson was a teenager, in a family of modest means, he predicted that some day he was going to be president of the United States. In the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s superlative multi-volume biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, this one titled The Passage of Power, Johnson reaches that office but only because of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Caro’s narrative grabs us from the beginning and, with his meticulous research and insight, shows how the two hugely ambitious and competitive politicians dealt with each other in a town where gaining and using power is the name of the game. Although there are forays into other areas, the author tells essentially two stories. The first story deals with the period from late 1958, when Johnson began to think seriously about gaining the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination for himself, and ends when President Kennedy is killed. LBJ agreed to be JFK’s running mate, although, pragmatist that he was, he remained on the ballot in Texas as a candidate for his Senate seat. He endured three years of humiliation and embarrassment as vice president. The second story begins when Johnson masterfully takes charge and details his presidential leadership, including very significant legislative achievements, in particular a historic civil rights bill, during the first seven weeks after he became president. The period covered in this volume is no doubt one of the high points of Johnson’s career.
Political biography doesn’t get any better than what Caro does. When I interviewed him for BookPage in 1990 on the occasion of the publication of the second of his LBJ volumes, Means of Ascent, he said he would cover his subject in four volumes. But as his research, including interviews with many participants, has continued, Caro has uncovered important details that make his books indispensable to anyone interested in how LBJ gained and used political power, and he wants to share them with his readers. With the rest of the 1961-1965 presidential term to be completed, the 1964 presidential election triumph, the Vietnam War and his decision to not run again, there may be more than one additional volume to be written.
Caro always shows us the many sides of LBJ. He could be “crude, coarse, ruthless, often cruel” and had a penchant for deception and secrecy. But he could also be cool and decisive under pressure, as he demonstrated in the weeks following the assassination. He was definitely a political genius, a legislative strategist and tactician of the highest order. This book is filled with examples of his mastery in this regard, but it is especially shown by LBJ’s approaches to senators Harry Byrd and Everett Dirksen when he needed their help in moving legislation forward. While Caro is well aware of how power can corrupt, he also believes it is equally true that power reveals a politician’s deepest commitments. In LBJ’s case, this led, despite his friendship with Southern senators who were opposed, to his vigorous effort to pass the 1964 civil rights bill. LBJ went on to introduce other groundbreaking progressive legislation, including the War on Poverty.
After Johnson retired from the presidency, he said, “The one thing I feared from the first day of my presidency” was that Robert Kennedy would announce “his intention to reclaim the throne in memory of his brother.” Caro details the LBJ-RFK relationship, based on mutual distrust, disdain and hatred. The author notes the opposition by some liberal groups and their disappointment at the 1960 Democratic convention to Johnson’s nomination as JFK’s vice presidential choice. But he discounts Robert’s contention that his brother did not really want Johnson on the ticket. JFK’s close aide and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen acknowledged that Kennedy had “gambled” on LBJ and the “gamble paid off.” The presidential race was so close that, without Johnson as his running mate, Kennedy would have lost the election to Richard Nixon.
Caro concludes that in the seven weeks after assuming the presidency, Johnson did much more than give the country continuity and reassurance. He achieved those objectives masterfully. But in addition, he used the momentum brought on by JFK’s death to launch what he envisioned as the transformation of American society, a pivotal moment in the history of the United States, a time to launch a crusade for social justice on a grand new scale.
There is much more to come. We eagerly look forward to Caro’s next volume.