The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Volume 4. The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro, Bodley Head, 736 pp, £40
That his biographer, Robert A Caro, rates Lyndon Johnson as the most important president of the twentieth century may surprise supporters of both Theodore and Franklin D Roosevelt, among other candidates. Johnson’s career ended in political disgrace in 1968 when he was driven from power for his inability to bring America’s increasingly disastrous war in Vietnam to a close; he had also garnered a soundly based reputation for dishonesty and was indeed the first president to be associated with the “credibility gap”.
Described by De Gaulle as the face of America, in contrast to JFK, whom the French president saw as the mask of America, LBJ had a reputation as a devious, two-faced, unprincipled, cheating bully, a reputation confirmed by Caro, in his major (four volumes and still counting) biography. Adding to the charge sheet, Caro shows LBJ to have been cowardly, fawning, a liar, a cheater on his wife and a close associate and beneficiary of some of the great racists in the American Congress. To balance the scales, Caro throws in a portrait of an utterly driven man who “so long as he was still seeking power … passion [to help the downtrodden] had been subordinated to the passion for power – subordinated almost totally”; but once that power was achieved “ … the compassion and the ability to make compassion meaningful, would shine forth at last” – whether as a young teacher in a poor rural Hispanic school, driving his pupils to heights poor Hispanic kids were not supposed to reach, or as a congressman forcing through the electrification of his rural home county in Texas. Perhaps the greatest example of this sense of compassion was when, as a president of just three days, LBJ argued to a staff still shocked and, in many cases, numbed by the assassination of JFK, that the time was right to push for a proper civil rights bill, something which had proven beyond every president since the 1870s, including JFK. It was pointed to him directly that “ … a President shouldn’t spend his time and power on lost causes no matter how worthy these causes might be”. “Well what the hell’s the presidency for?” he replied.
Caro’s biographical volumes to date cover Johnson’s early years, falling into and rising out of deep poverty (The Path to Power), his New Deal and Second World War years (unlike JFK, LBJ saw almost no active service but a lot of FDR) and his campaign to become senator for Texas (Means of Ascent), his rise to majority leader of the Senate, where he turned the job from one no one wanted into one whose power was exceeded only by that of the president (Master of the Senate). In the fourth part, The Passage of Power, he tells the story of Johnson’s botched run for the presidency, his humiliation as vice-president (an office famously described by a predecessor as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”) and, finally, his achievement of office on the assassination of Kennedy, his gathering of power in the few days after the assassination and his extraordinary use of that power in the following seven months.
Caro writes with a light touch, with a thriller writer’s ability to build tension scene by scene even where, as in most instances, the reader will already know the outcome. His description of Johnson’s bid for the Democratic nomination to run for the Senate in Texas in 1948 kept this reader up until four in the morning on successive nights. Johnson was running against the governor of Texas, who apart from being a thoroughgoing racist (not necessarily a major drawback in Texas in the late 40s) and anti-labour to boot, was considered by most white people in the state as an utterly decent man and a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination (which, in turn, in the late 40s, made him a shoo-in for the Senate seat). LBJ, who was an also-ran in the polls, realised that, if he lost this election, his long-term bid for the presidency was at an end. Caro’s account of Johnson employing a helicopter (an electoral first in the USA) in a desperate (pre- television) bid to get to as many electors as possible is worth the price of the book alone. With no time to lose in any of the towns he targeted, LBJ would fly across the state of Texas, day after day, landing in small and large communities, delivering a speech and flying away. As particularly small groups of people came into view, he would instruct the pilot to effectively dive-bomb the group and, leaning out of the helicopter with a megaphone in his free hand, Johnson, the future leader of the Free World, would be seen roaring at the crowds below as the helicopter dipped, dived, distributed flyers to the stunned citizens and disappeared. It reads like a mix of Burt Lancaster as a coked-up Elmer Gantry and Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. The final scenes of the election, with Johnson arranging the wholesale stuffing of ballot boxes and the race by his opponent to have the boxes re-examined independently before the election result was completed give new depth of meaning to the phrase “it’s mine, dammit. I stole it fair and square”.
Caro’s third and perhaps most technical volume, centres on Johnson’s twelve years in the Senate – described by his wife, Lady Bird, as the happiest years of their. As in the other volumes, Caro does not give a chronological, timelined view of LBJ’s life in those years but concentrates on key periods, including his becoming leader of the Democratic senators and, through force of character (including bullying, intimidation, cajoling etc), building the office from one without power to perhaps the second most powerful position in the USA. Caro details Johnson’s genius in getting bills through that no one else could, including the first civil rights bill to be passed since 1875. While the latter was to all intents and purposes practically useless, it was, as LBJ noted, a first breach in the wall and of symbolic importance.
Caro shows Johnson as vice-president as being, for the first time since his youth, utterly powerless and at the mercy of Kennedy’s younger brother, Bobby, who disliked, distrusted and feared him in equal measure. Bobby Kennedy was not a man to have as your enemy and in a position of power over you. Ignorant of international affairs, Johnson had little to contribute to Kennedy’s presidency in this sphere. Unlike both Kennedys, who Caro show coming out of the Cuban missile crisis as genuine statesmen, LBJ’s contributions in those critical thirteen days were limited, simplistic and potentially very dangerous.
Despite his past mastery of political manoeuvre, LBJ made a crude power grab in his first days as VP, attempting to keep his influence in the Senate and to be almost an equal of Kennedy. This was slapped down immediately and he was sent into internal exile (to be rescued only by the assassin’s bullet). Lacking the educational refinements of the Kennedys and their circle, he was humiliated by Bobby and sneered at by the Kennedy entourage. JFK always maintained cordial relations but it was never clear whether Bobby was acting as his thug when dealing with Johnson. By the time they got to Dallas, and just before the 1964 election campaign unofficially commenced, Johnson was in effect begging JFK to keep him on the ticket. It should be noted that, while the Kennedy entourage appeared to buy into the image of LBJ as a country bumpkin, (calling him Rufus Pone and Uncle Cornpone), RFK’s appalling treatment of him was driven by a combination of personal hatred (returned by Johnson) and a clear awareness that his opponent was one of the great politicians of his generation and could not be given any room for manoeuvre. Johnson’s offer to assist in passing JFK’s proposed ‑ but completely stalled ‑ civil rights bill was rejected by the Kennedys, even though he was the only person since 1875 to have got any civil rights bill through Capitol Hill. (On Johnson’s accession to power and immediate announcement that he was going to push through the “Kennedy” Civil Rights bill, Richard Russell, the leader of the southern states in the Senate and the man who had spent the last thirty years killing any bill he didn’t like (including especially civil rights bills) stated that “[Johnson will] pass [the Bills] whereas Kennedy could never have passed them.” He was to be proved right.)
Caro’s research throughout his multivolume work appears to have been exhaustive. Every classmate, every relative, every colleague, everyone who could give a view or an insight on LBJ was interviewed by Caro and/or his wife as he built up a mosaic of Johnson. Although he has been heavily criticised by some for his public display of LBJ’s many faults, his account rings true.
Johnson’s childhood (set out in detail in the first volume) is, as might be expected, key to what is to come. His father, whom he looked up to as a child when he was a state senator, ended up broke and a very public failure. The Johnsons went from a position of influence and importance in the community to being sneered at or pitied, objects of local charity. Johnson transferred his love to his mother, appears never to have “forgiven” his father and never got over the humiliation and fear of failure. But from this childhood he got a visceral understanding of poverty, of what it meant to be the underdog, the loser in American society – which played a huge role in his use of power as a public representative. (Robert Kennedy is quoted as saying of Johnson when the latter was president: “What does he know about people who’ve got no jobs? Or are uneducated. He’s got no feeling for people who are hungry. It’s up to us.” In this he was simply wrong. LBJ did understand.)
Johnson was a doer – he got things done, he demonstrated what Caro, in a lengthy interview with the Financial Times, described as the “potentiality of political power”. He made a difference to people’s lives. As noted above, as a congressman, he organised the electrification of the Hill Country in Texas, where he was born and raised. Caro’s description of the life of the average Hill Country mother/housewife before electrification, the sheer grind involved in washing clothes, cooking food, saving produce etc is central to the first volume. By bringing in electricity Johnson changed those people’s lives forever and for the better. By driving the passing of the almost pointlessly weak civil rights bill in 1957, he made the first crack in the power of the Southern Caucus, by masterminding the passing of the much stronger bill in 1964 along with the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (to be described in the final volume), along with the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid, he significantly improved people’s lives.
Caro returns continually to Johnson’s unusual ability to “count” votes (and notes that one of the very few who could match him was Bobby Kennedy). Clearly in a strong whip system, where party discipline is all, counting votes is usually a matter of routine. However, in the US Congress, where representatives and senators often see themselves as only loosely tied to a party, such counting can be a key skill. Where LBJ differed from others was his ability to know how many votes he had for a particular bill, to know which promises to vote counted and which did not. Caro’s account of Johnson, standing in the Senate during debates, counting and recounting “his” votes, slowing down debates when he was not sure of a majority, speeding them up as a majority appeared likely and rushing the vote through when he had his majority, is masterful.
Unfortunately for both Johnson and Robert Kennedy, each had a period of control over the other and neither forfeited the chance to damage the other. As vice-president, LBJ was subject to constant and growing humiliation by RFK, a man who clearly had a nasty streak to match Johnson’s own. Finally, all LBJ’s speeches had to be vetted and agreed by RFK, the attorney-general. He was routinely excluded from key projects and discussions. JFK was hardly pronounced dead before LBJ was phoning the distraught brother, at least partly to let him know there was a new president in town. While both recognised that the other was unusually formidable, (Johnson noted, during Ted Kennedy’s inept PR handling of the Chappaquidick tragedy, that it “[w]ould never have happened if Bobby was there”), their mutual hatred blinded them to each other’s strengths.
Caro frequently uses the word “genius” to describe LBJ (“To watch Lyndon Johnson during the transition is to see political genius in action”) and backs up the claim again and again. He the three days immediately after the assassination. While a stunned elite sleepwalked through the mourning and burial of JFK, Johnson set about taking over the reins of power, appearing at all the state events, meeting almost every key international leader, most of whom had come to Washington for the funeral, persuading every key member of the Kennedy administration to stay on board (almost to a man against their instinct and inclination), identifying why all the key legislation of the Kennedy administration was still bogged down in Congress, figuring out how to unblock it and deciding that his key aim would be the establishment of a powerful Civil Rights Bill ‑ against all advice.
The problem was simple in essence. To get the Kennedy civil rights bill through, Johnson had probably only until the following July 7th to have it passed. Thereafter, the Republicans would hold their nominating convention for the upcoming presidential election and most likely choose Barry Goldwater, a strong opponent of the bill who would give sustenance to those conservative senators who would not want to support it. Further, a third of the senators would be up for re-election in November and would not wish to be in Washington in late summer/early autumn passing bills when they could be out campaigning. If the civil rights bill did not pass the Senate before the following November it would have to start all over again in the new two-year House of Representatives session. Unfortunately, the bill was sitting in the House of Representatives, in the House Rules Committee, which was controlled by a member of the racist Southern Caucus. It had to be sprung out of the committee and brought to the floor of the House of Representatives. From there it had to be brought to the Senate. Again, it had to pass through a sub-committee and committee of the Senate (both controlled by the Southern Caucus grouping) before getting to the floor of the Senate, where it could be further delayed by filibuster (a device at which the Southern Caucus members were past masters) before being finally voted on. To make the problem even more exquisite, the Southern Caucus was also holding up a key tax bill which JFK had been trying to get through the Senate to boost the economy and provide funding for some of his key liberal policies.
The caucus plan was to keep the tax bill in committee until (if ever) the civil rights bill got to the floor of the Senate. Knowing that the Kennedy administration wanted the tax bill passed above everything else, the strategy was to filibuster the civil rights bill until the government had no time to pass both bills. At that stage, the tax bill would be preferred, the civil rights bill would be dropped and would go right back to the beginning in the newly elected Congress after the November elections. In each committee the Caucus had the votes to stop LBJ and a game plan to match the votes. This it had been doing for decades. Against it there stood a bunch of liberals, of whom Johnson told his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey “… you liberals will never deliver. You don’t know the rules of the Senate, and your liberal friends will be off making speeches when they ought to be present.” Caro gives a detailed account of how LBJ harnessed the liberals in Congress, the civil rights movement (which didn’t trust him) and the labour movement (which trusted him even less), marshalling all of these and adding his unique ability to cajole, persuade, bully, intimidate and, most critically, count the only people who mattered in the final assault on a real civil rights bill, the politicians up on the Hill. (A key additional force for the bill was the clergy and church communities right across the States, who lobbied and rallied in Washington with great intensity)
The passing of the bill on July 2nd, 1964 was a watershed moment in US politics and for LBJ. While Richard Russell, leader of the Southern Caucus, remained personally friendly to Johnson and advised his Georgia constituents, on the bill’s enactment, that it was the law of the land and had to be accepted, he, along with most of the Southern Caucus, boycotted the Democratic National Convention later that year, in which Johnson was nominated as the party presidential candidate. Johnson himself is quoted by his aide, Bill Moyers, as stating, on the night of the bill’s passing, “I think [I] just delivered the South to the Republican Party for the rest of my life, and yours.”
Robert Kennedy’s view of Johnson never changed. He could never bring himself to refer to LBJ as president. The president was JFK. In the course of a series of interviews given in the Spring of 1964, Caro quotes RFK as stating “Our President was a gentleman and a human being … This man is not. … He’s mean, bitter, vicious – an animal in many ways.” Others did manage to change their view, if not immediately. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, who served in the Kennedy White House was one of the team whom LBJ persuaded to stay on after the assassination. His usefulness to LBJ was in those first weeks as symbol of the transfer of power. He was out of the White House by the end of January 1964 by mutual agreement and as a consequence of shared contempt. Notwithstanding this, and his strong identification with the Kennedys and “Camelot”, Schlesinger was to write in 1978 of Johnson: “For all his towering ego, his devastating instinct for the weakness of others, his unlimited capacity for self-pity, he was at the same time a man of brilliant intelligence, authentic social passion and deep seriousness …”
In 1976, Robert Caro began what he planned to be a three-part biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Over three and a half thousand pages and four volumes down, he is still at work, the target being to complete the fifth and final volume of what is a great political biography. I suspect most of his readers will be wishing the author, now in his late 70s, a long life to ensure that he delivers the final document.
Brian Cooney is a self- employed businessman