The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro

ROSENCRANTZ: What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?
Hamlet, IV.ii

As Caro tells the story, Johnson and Bobby Kennedy never got along. On Bobby’s side, it seems to have originated in perceived (real) slights of his father, FDR’s ambassador to the UK. Johnson loved to tell the story of being in the room as a young Congressman with FDR when he was on the phone with Ambassador Joe Kennedy, all pleasantness. Then, after hanging up, FDR said, “I’m going to fire the son of a bitch.” Johnson loved to tell that story, and it got around to son Robert, who knew how to hold a grudge.

When John Kennedy captured the Democratic nomination at the Los Angeles convention in 1960, he immediately asked Johnson (staying in the same hotel) to be his running mate. Johnson had tried to run a “front portico” campaign, staying in D.C. as Senate Majority Leader and expecting to be anointed. He got out-hustled by Kennedy and jumped in finally when it was too late–too many delegates, even the western ones that Johnson thought were his people, had committed to Kennedy. But JFK wanted to strengthen his position in the South (Eisenhower had won Texas, and Louisiana and other Southern states, upsetting the normal order of things). Brother Bob wouldn’t have it. Caro’s research is down to the location of the hotel suites and the stairwells that day at the convention and the trips up and down as Bobby tried to undo what Jack had done. He lost. Johnson went on a whistle-stop tour of the South, and Texas and Louisiana returned to the Democrats.

Johnson thought that he could make of the Vice Presidency a position of power and even tried to keep his role as Senate Majority Leader–it had never been done before, but after all, he was constitutionally the President of the Senate–why not? Well, the Democratic caucus wouldn’t allow it, causing Johnson to remark that he now knew the difference between a caucus and a cactus–with a cactus, “the pricks are on the outside.”

The Vice Presidency wasn’t worth much; JFK appointed Johnson to a couple of commissions, but he had no power and not much to do. A great exception was the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Johnson was in on (most) deliberations, aligning himself with the hawks, and so, as Caro tells it, against JFK and the AG. The President left Johnson out of the meeting when he made the final decision–to trade the missiles in Cuba for our missiles in Turkey, as long as Khrushchev didn’t announce the withdrawal of the Turkish missiles right away, so that JFK could pretend that there was no quid pro quo. Caro’s version of the story has the Kennedys saving the world from nuclear hellfire, and Bobby was the voice of peace. They could do no wrong.

LBJ’s legislative genius was ignored by the Kennedy administration, and so JFK’s bills weren’t going anywhere. Johnson knew that the Southern Democrats in charge of the key committees weren’t going to advance the civil rights bill, and that meant that Kennedy’s other desired legislation was backing up behind civil rights. Caro quotes LBJ saying before November 22, “I’d move my children [the other bills] on through the line and get them down in the storm cellar and get it locked and key, and then, I’d make my attack. . . . You got to pass your tax bill. You got to pass some of your other bills. September is just about the time.” That was just ol’ Lyndon.

Johnson was on the downhill in 1963. His protegé, Bobby Baker, was implicated in scandal and under investigation that threatened to reach Johnson himself. Hearings were underway on November 22, 1963. Johnson compared himself to a steer–“that’s a bull that’s lost his social standing.” There was open talk that the President would find a new running mate for 1964. Like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he was becoming a mere bystander.

The events of Dallas, as familiar as they are, get a fresh look from the VP’s perspective. There are witnesses who say that they heard raised voices when Johnson and Kennedy were alone on the evening of November 21. Johnson was so low that even Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough didn’t want to ride with him in the motorcade and had to get a Presidential order before agreeing to share the back seat with him. Judge Sarah Hughes, who administered the oath of office on Air Force One, figured in the LBJ/RFK rivalry. Johnson had wanted her appointed district judge, but the Kennedys called her too old and had a preferred candidate. Johnson told that other lawyer that he would get the job, but then Sam Rayburn told RFK that he wouldn’t move the Administration’s bills unless they put Hughes up for the judgeship. They did, embarrassing Johnson, who now looked like a fool. Johnson sent for her specifically when he decided to take the oath before leaving Dallas. He wanted the former First Lady there for continuity. They didn’t have a Bible handy, but he put his hand on the Catholic missal from JFK’s desk.

Johnson was all energy once he became President. Within five days, he addressed Congress to ask for passage of the Civil Rights Act. He got to work on Senator Harry Byrd Sr. and others who stood in the bill’s way. The Civil Rights Act was linked to budget legislation–if Johnson could get the federal budget down to $100 billion, Senator Byrd, who hated deficits as much as integration, would bend on the rights bill. It passed on July 2, 1964.

The public perception of Johnson as President was largely formed during the period November 1963-January 1964. In a hilarious chapter, Caro tells of Christmas at the LBJ ranch and the state visit at the end of the year by West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, complete with barbeque dinner at a local high school gym (but with Van Cliburn, a Fort Worth native, for entertainment). Erhard got his own Stetson as a gift, probably his dream since reading Karl May as a boy.

In the State of the Union on January 8, 1964, Johnson declared the War on Poverty. A last chapter, anticlimactic, serves as a bridge to the (final?) fifth volume.

The book is constructed with two narratives–Johnson on his way down and apparently on the way out, then unexpectedly to the top; and Johnson vs. RFK. Johnson was in rivalry with Bobby Kennedy throughout his time as Vice President–but he needed him once he was President for continuity and legitimation. Caro is smitten by the Camelot myth even as his research shows that JFK wasted Johnson’s abilities (he could have helped him get legislation passed), and Bobby Kennedy had an irrational, petulant hatred of Johnson that the reader cannot sympathize with. Even if Johnson was above all an operator, he was struggling to pull himself up from nothing, but Bobby was trying to preserve his family’s position above all. Johnson didn’t like Bobby, either, but was willing to kowtow to him as he had to do. It is possible or likely that Caro is deferring excessively to his sources–he has another volume to write, and he needs the Kennedy side of things, so maybe he can’t be too critical of the family.

As detailed as the book is in 605 pages of text, the notes are worth reading. E.g., Caro is careful in the text to describe JFK putting on his back brace and carefully wrapping a bandage around himself when getting dressed on November 22, 1963, but only in the notes does he explain that the brace may have prevented JFK from ducking and avoiding the second bullet.

Caro’s telling is conflicted throughout–Johnson is the subject and clearly has the author’s sympathy. But out of an enduring belief in the Camelot myth and/or a need to placate his sources (a fulsome afterword praises Sen. Edward Kennedy for his long weekend with the author recounting the 1960 campaign), Caro never gives appropriate scrutiny of any actions by a Kennedy–JFK was a master in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bobby was a “breath of fresh air” at Justice, and so on. This multivolume biography, whose first volume appeared in 1982, has outlived the charm of Camelot, since no one under 60 at this point can really understand what all the fuss was about.

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