The Good Lyndon

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power

by Robert A. Caro, Knopf, 736 pages, $35.00


“Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” became a standard refrain at rallies against “Lyndon Johnson’s war” in Vietnam. The term “credibility gap,” if not the dissembling that led to it, originated with Johnson’s presidency. The Democratic Party seemed bound for permanent majority status after a landslide victory in 1964, but the polarization that stained Johnson’s last year in office spilled over into riots at its 1968 convention. Yet early in his sudden presidency, as he comforted a grieving nation and orchestrated the passage of historic measures to extend civil rights and battle poverty, Johnson appeared a good bet to have his likeness carved on Mount Rushmore.

How would the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s monumental yet famously unforgiving biography of the 36th president account for Johnson’s high phase of triumph and inspiration? The charged anticipation of The Passage of Power has much to do with the figure striding from the West Texas Hill Country to Washington, D.C., single-minded in recasting the landscape of American politics in the mid-20th century. This figure, of course, is Caro, the former investigative reporter who has been on Johnson’s trail for more than 35 years, conducting interviews in the thousands, burrowing into archives at the presidential library in Austin, even moving for a time to rural West Texas, where young Lyndon—haunted in Caro’s telling by the humiliating failure of his straight-arrow father—first dreamed of becoming president.

Caro’s first two volumes present an unsettling epic, astonishingly detailed and dramatic. He uncovered a wealth of evidence to sustain his depiction of Johnson as infinitely manipulative, obsequious toward prospective patrons, and abusive to almost everyone else. But at times Caro allowed his muckraking fervor to force a complex personality into a preset mold. He followed a familiar line in narrowly emphasizing Johnson’s genius at the unscrupulous game of politics, while tending to downplay and dismiss the evidence in his own books that Johnson was also a man of empathy, vision, charisma, intellect—a genius, plain and simple, who happened to go into politics.

Johnson won election to the House of Representatives in 1937, a man with “a seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit” who in Caro’s view had an unproductive tenure and did not appear to stand for much of anything—this even though Caro described with his signature intensity of detail Johnson’s operational brilliance as Texas director of the National Youth Administration and later as a champion of electricity for his poor home district. Elected to the Senate in 1948, and rising to majority leader in 1955, Johnson accomplished much more. Finding levers other than the traditional rule of seniority by which to run things, he made the Democrats a more cohesive force and the Senate as a whole a far more effective institution.

At last, late in Master of the Senate, the third volume, Caro found a deed worth admiring at length: Johnson’s key role in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Though a weak bill, it was a precedent to build on and proof that the Southern segregationist bloc was not invulnerable; Johnson did not just find common ground where none had seemed to exist between Northern civil-rights advocates and Southern opponents—he created it. Even so, readers finished the book with Caro’s stern reminders echoing from earlier volumes that Johnson had pursued power “unencumbered by philosophy or ideology,” and so fiercely that “even in the generous terms of political morality, it amounted to amorality.”

The Passage of Power begins as a tale of purgatory, marked by Johnson’s descent into near irrelevance during the five years “from late 1958, when [he] began campaigning for the presidency, to November 22, 1963—before that flight from Dallas to Washington.” Normally surefooted, Johnson had committed to the 1960 campaign too late and too timidly to halt the Kennedy juggernaut. Despite helping carry the South as Kennedy’s running mate—stumping with self-conscious swagger, tossing his Stetson into the crowds—once elected, Johnson endured a thousand days of frustration as Camelot’s fool, dubbed “Rufus Cornpone” by Kennedy courtiers.

On the cusp of the vice presidency, Johnson tried to extend the office’s power, bidding to preside over the Senate Democratic caucus as though he were still the majority leader, then submitting an executive order for Kennedy’s signature to expand his staff and his supervision of national-security matters. Failing each time, he settled in for a gloomy tenure. Worse still, his corrupt business dealings and influence peddling were starting to become public knowledge. Whatever his potential legal troubles, Johnson feared the issue would provide a pretext for the Kennedys to drop him from the 1964 ticket without alienating the South.

Yet Caro’s book turns suddenly, in the wrenching moment of Kennedy’s assassination, into a tale of redemption. In its immediate wake, the trauma was compounded by rumors of involvement by the Soviet Union and Cuba, nations that only a year earlier had confronted Kennedy with the threat of nuclear ruin. Johnson, his withered ego restored by sudden command, quieted public fears by persuading a reluctant Chief Justice Earl Warren, whom he regarded as “the personification of justice and fairness,” to chair an investigating committee. The Warren Commission may not have stopped conspiracy theories from festering in the long term, but it contained what could have become national hysteria.

The new president also pledged to bring Kennedy’s civil-rights and tax-cut bills to fruition. “Everything I had ever learned in the history books taught me that martyrs have to die for causes,” Johnson confided to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “But [Kennedy’s] ‘cause’ was not really clear. That was my job. I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into a martyr’s cause.”

Johnson did more than stay on course; he dredged Kennedy’s foundering legislative ship. The civil-rights bill had become mired in congressional subcommittees. Johnson worked behind the scenes on a petition to remove it from the control of Howard Smith, the 81-year-old Virginia Democrat who chaired the House Rules Committee and was planning to bottle the bill indefinitely. Once enough signatures from liberal Democrats and Northern Republicans were secured to threaten humiliation, Smith agreed to bring the bill to the floor. Here was the special Johnson combination of savvy and dynamism that Kennedy may not have even considered deploying. A few months later, the bill seemed unlikely to survive a filibuster led by Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, Johnson’s mentor and patron from his early days in the Senate, known as the South’s greatest general since Robert E. Lee. Johnson’s expertise in arcane Senate rules and maneuvers proved as deft as his teacher’s, helping to secure a four-vote margin for cloture after 57 days.

Then there were the new president’s public speeches, beginning on November 27. There could be no more fitting memorial to Kennedy, Johnson said, than to enact his civil-rights bill. Johnson had never been known for eloquence in large gatherings, but here he was, moving the nation. Offstage, he was mobilizing and prodding labor and civil-rights groups, discreetly coordinating a giant national lobbying effort for racial justice.

Caro mostly focuses on the seven weeks of transition. The civil-rights bill did not become law until July 1964. Johnson declared the War on Poverty in January but the troops did not land at Normandy, so to speak, until August, with the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act—past the main chronological focus of this book. The twilight struggle in Vietnam, more than a year before Johnson committed American combat units, is treated in passing here, with Caro portending a resurgence of Johnson’s “secrecy and deceit.”

Each of the first three volumes in Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson features a mentor or rival whose sense of honor casts in sharp relief Johnson’s alleged political amorality: Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn in The Path to Power (“There are no degrees in honorableness,” Rayburn summed up his creed; “you are or you aren’t”), the popular former governor of Texas, Coke Stevenson, in Means of Ascent, lionized by Caro (despite his right-wing racist bent) as “a true cowboy” whose “extreme idealism” contrasted with Johnson’s ballot-stuffing to steal a U.S. Senate seat in 1948; and Richard Russell in Master of the Senate, lonely and sadly tethered to the South’s lost cause of Jim Crow but an exemplar of “integrity and independence” for whom “the personal paled before the patriotic.”

The closest to such a foil in The Passage of Power is President Kennedy’s brother and the U.S. attorney general, Robert, a man of vulnerable compassion and glowering hatred of labor racketeers, the Mafia, communists, and Lyndon Johnson (who reciprocated in full). In 1960, to mollify liberals angrily complaining about Johnson’s presence on the Democratic ticket, Robert Kennedy had pressed Johnson to decline the vice-presidential nomination. Caro believes Kennedy did this on his own initiative, thinking it was what his brother wanted. Johnson never forgave him. “Bobby,” in turn, recoiled from Johnson’s false bonhomie and his capacity for deceit. Their visceral loathing led author Jeff Shesol, chronicling the “feud that defined a decade,” to call his account Mutual Contempt. Caro refines Shesol’s argument, highlighting their off-the-record awe and grudging mutual respect. Bobby confided to Richard Goodwin, a speechwriter for both men, that Johnson “is the most formidable human being I’ve ever met,” and Goodwin found Johnson filled with “more than hatred” for Bobby. “It was fear.” Still, when Johnson was expertly managing the transition, crafting bills of unexampled scope and moving them through Congress, Bobby muted his resentments, seeing in the president’s program his brother’s legacy.

Caro, as ever, leavens his narrative with vivid mini-biographies of the personalities that Johnson encounters (congressmen, it turns out, are not just ciphers) and gives even the history and layout of the White House Oval Office an absorbing tour. The book would have benefited from tighter editing where he coils languorously around a point: Johnson showed “a particular talent, a talent for winning the passage of legislation … that was more than talent, that was a gift, and a very rare one.”

More of a problem is the formatting of notes, which resists readers’ efforts to check the book’s documentation. Unnumbered endnotes, often with multiple sources, follow boldface words from the text—presumably indicating key words, but thoughtful readers may differ on which words in an extended quotation or vignette are key. Further, when you add Caro’s superhuman effort to chase down living witnesses to his diligent work in the archives, you suspect somewhere there must be a cost. In examining the missile crisis, Caro relies a good deal on Robert Kennedy’s posthumously published memoir, Thirteen Days. For a long time, this account seemed the last word on the episode. But over the years, scholars have realized that the Bible may not have been literally true. The memoir had an editor; the ultimate insider did not necessarily disclose all the inside information. Caro does not seem versed in all of these shadings. There are limits to what even the most tenacious researcher can do.

Caro presents a magisterial case for Johnson’s crisis management in making the aftermath of Kennedy’s death “not only a dramatic and sorrowful but a pivotal moment in the history of the United States.” Scholars have obscured this achievement, he contends (though Robert Dallek and others have been similarly laudatory), by viewing it mainly as a testament to the resiliency of the nation’s political system.

The notion of Caro defending Lyndon Johnson against his critics may surprise readers of his previous volumes. The protagonist in The Passage of Power is hardly without flaws—besides shady business dealings, Caro homes in on Johnson’s extortion of support from Texas newspaper editors—but they pale beside Caro’s earlier Shermanesque scorching of Johnson’s scramble for power. To free Johnson from the old view without recanting his past judgments, Caro argues here that “power reveals.” Once Johnson had attained the presidency, he could act on beliefs long suppressed in the service of his ambition. The gambit is ingenious. But it overlooks the truth that maintaining power is as hard as winning it and that incumbents and insurgents alike routinely tack with political pressures. The president who risked shattering consensus by refusing substantive compromise on black rights was made of sterner convictions.

The arc of Caro’s biography is building toward a Greek tragedy: A man of outsize talents restrains his arrogance for a time and flourishes, but ultimately will be brought low by flaws in his character. Yet it will be no simple matter for Caro to show that Johnson’s inner demons were fundamental causes of the growing turmoil at home and abroad. In his memoir The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, historian Eric F. Goldman writes that Johnson divided politicians into the “lucky” and “unlucky”: “Take the Vietnam War itself, LBJ would remark. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had skidded by it and it was dumped on him at a stage where drastic action had to be taken.” However self-serving and self-pitying, Johnson’s point has yet to be refuted. Could any president have calmed the racial hatred and violence, the youth revolt, the rising—and souring—expectations of government, and the demands to contain communism in every land and at any cost?

Whatever his final verdict, Caro’s view of power as liberating for the president has also freed Caro from the zealous crusading to strike down Johnson that marred the first two volumes. He acknowledges a key to Johnson’s early triumphs in office: In meeting a supreme test of leadership and national purpose, Johnson reined in his excesses; he “had, in a way, conquered himself.” This “heroic” effort marked his “finest moment,” transcending the base rhythms that had governed “all of his previous life.” “If he had held in check these forces within him … he wasn’t going to be able to do it for very long. But he had done it long enough.” 

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