Inside Story

Eyes wide open

Lyndon Johnson took on the frustrating role of vice-president to shake off the taint of Southern racism and conservatism. And the rest is history

Jamie Hanson 25 June 2012 2439 words

Vice-president Lyndon Johnson (second from left) with President John F. Kennedy and senior aides in 1962. National Archives UK/Flickr Commons

The Passage of Power
By Robert Caro | Alfred A. Knopf | $51.95

Georgetown, Washington DC: dormitory to the political elite of the United States, home to powerbrokers from Thomas Jefferson to JFK. It’s the heart of the beltway, and the beltway is excited. By a doorway outside the auditorium of a local high school, rain-sodden men in suits are begging for tickets, offering five or six times the face price. No one is selling. We file past and into the auditorium.

Why the excitement? Finally, after a ten-year wait, has come The Passage of Power, the latest volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro’s monumental, and much loved, biography. And Caro himself is in town. We settle on the long wooden pews, and wait, surrounded by an expectant buzz of voices – accents from every state in the Union. Finally, after a brief welcome from the school’s principal, Caro himself enters the room. We stand and clap. He settles in a seat on the small stage, acknowledges the applause, and readies himself for questions. He proves to look his age – seventy-six – and to be a shy, softly spoken man with thick-framed glasses and a strong New York accent.

The Passage of Power is the fourth volume of Caro’s (now) 3200-page biography of Lyndon Johnson. At the suggestion of my father, I read the first three volumes back in 2002. “You might want to check out these books about Lyndon Johnson”, he said. “I think you’ll like them.” I was surprised that he’d think that. I’m Gen Y: people my age were suckled on a certain conception of the sixties, a telling in which that decade was a time of revolt, a time when rebellious kids wore flowers in their hair. Those kids were rebelling against Vietnam, and Vietnam was Johnson’s war: Hey! Hey! LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?

Johnson didn’t start Vietnam. It’d been simmering and periodically erupting since the 1940s. But he escalated it. During his presidency the number of US troops in South Vietnam rose from 16,000 to over 550,000. Vietnam was a terrible war, and it casts a shadow over Johnson’s legacy – as it should. The Johnson of modern memory is Johnson as he was during those years of protest, the man captured in 1967 and 1968 newsreels. Awkward. Isolated. Unheeding.

What Caro has done is reconstruct a more complex, nuanced, and interesting Johnson. One must not forget Vietnam, but if one wishes to understand America, to understand the shape that it took then and that it has taken since, one must understand Lyndon Johnson, the president who had such a great influence on its course. Caro’s engaging, informative and insightful books are the best place to start: he brings Johhnson out of the shadows of his Vietnamese legacy, revealing an amoral, dynamic, and passionate figure. And The Years of Lyndon Johnson is also perhaps the finest examination of the broader mechanics of the American legislature, and of the influence that a remarkable individual can have on it.

LYNDON Johnson was born in a hamlet in the dry Texan hill country, the son of a five-term Texan state representative, a populist Democrat called Sam Johnson. Sam Johnson was a prominent local personality, but when Lyndon was young the family hit hard times. A sudden move from comfort to deep poverty brought shame to the family– a shame that both shaped and in some ways damaged young Lyndon, and which may (Caro supposes) lie behind much of his later drive.

Brilliant and ambitious, Johnson was unable to afford the fees at the University of Texas. Instead, at twenty-two, he took his degree from the Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College. But politics was Johnson’s destiny, and nothing could hold back the talented, ruthless young man who possessed a genuine gift for cultivating powerful older men. In 1937, aged twenty-eight, he was elected to the US Congress. In 1948, in an election that he stole from former governor Coke Stevenson by fraud, he reached the Senate. By the time he was forty-five years old, Johnson was the second most powerful man in the United States – a uniquely powerful Senate majority leader, and one who transformed that role.

It is in the late 1950s, at the apogee of his Senate power, that The Passage of Power picks up Johnson’s narrative; it leaves off just four years later, with one of Johnson’s defining actions: the signing into law, on 2 July 1964, of the Civil Rights Act.

Broadly, The Passage of Power falls into two parts. The first half of the book concerns Johnson’s period as vice-president, and particularly his relationship with the Kennedy brothers. The second half of the book is concerned with the period during which Johnson took the reins of the United States government after Kennedy’s assassination on 23 November 1963.

Johnson wanted the 1960 Democratic Party presidential nomination, but – to the despair of his advisors – refused to campaign or even admit to an interest in the presidency. Johnson’s chances were further hurt by his underestimation and misunderstanding of the Kennedys. He failed, for instance, to see JFK’s strength of character, his purpose, or his raw charisma, and he failed to grasp how potent a weapon the Kennedy political machine was, and just how effective the money and connections of family patriarch Joe Kennedy Sr could be.

John Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic nomination was well planned and immaculately executed, and he eventually won the nomination on the first ballot – albeit by just five votes. He then, to the surprise of most, and over the objections of liberal advisors, particularly has brother Bobby and the union movement, selected Johnson to be his running mate. Equally surprisingly, Johnson, a man already powerful in his own right, accepted that offer. Johnson seems to have calculated that the only path to the presidency for a Texan Democrat was through the vice-presidency – for only in that largely ceremonial role could the “smell of magnolias” (that is, the taint of Southern racism and conservatism) be removed.

Johnson walked into the largely powerless office with his eyes wide open. Nonetheless, there is pathos to the story that Caro tells us of Johnson’s time as vice-president. His vast talent and energy went unexercised, and he flailed inelegantly for power – any power at all. He seems to have supposed that he would be able to continue to exercise influence as vice-president, both in the Senate, and in the executive. He was wrong. His attempt to maintain de facto control over the Democratic caucus was unsuccessful. So too were his attempts to persuade JFK to cede him executive power. JFK didn’t trust Johnson, but Bobby Kennedy’s feelings were stronger. Bobby was JFK’s closest political confidant and his attorney-general, and he hated Johnson. He seems to have taken deep offence at comments that Johnson made regarding Joe Sr. If Johnson thought the Kennedys would cede power to him, he was wrong.

The finest aspects of these earlier sections of the book are Caro’s perceptive descriptions of events and relationships – particularly the events that shaped Johnson’s relationship with the Kennedys. Among the most vivid of these sections is Caro’s detailed reconstruction of the confusing events on the day in mid July 1960 on which Bobby seems to have gone rogue in his attempts to bump Johnson from the vice-presidential nomination.

THE second half of The Passage of Power concerns Johnson’s astonishing burst of political creativity following Kennedy’s assassination – a period during which he took the reins of government, gained the confidence of key figures in the administration, and managed to jam several key Kennedy bills through the House (including the Civil Rights Act). Finally, in an epochal State of the Union address delivered just seven weeks after Kennedy’s death, Johnson laid out his own distinctive vision – that of the Great Society – which laid the foundations for his domestic policy agenda over the following years, a period during which he was to pass a suite of civil rights, antipoverty and healthcare reforms that changed America.

In Caro’s telling, Lyndon Johnson’s success can be attributed to his unusually canny political mind. Caro’s metaphors are of “seeing”; he supposes that Johnson had the ability to perceive ways in which a particular proposal related to the complex politics of government that no one else could see, along with opportunities and points of leverage that were similarly obscured for most. Certainly, time after time, Johnson was able to get bills passed that others couldn’t. For all his many political gifts, JFK did not possess such abilities; Johnson inherited a stalled legislative agenda.

Johnson had not been included in most of Kennedy’s planning and policy meetings, and was unfamiliar with much of what the administration was doing, so his first task as president was to get a fix on Kennedy’s legislative program. Johnson then turned his energy to the problem of getting things moving again. The phone calls, meetings, threats and cajoling began. Within a short time – the space of a few weeks – Johnson found his points of leverage, the angles and arguments that worked. After months of stasis, sometimes years, Kennedy’s legislation started to move. First some appropriations bills were passed, then a budget, then a controversial Tax Bill that cut both income and corporate tax rates. But the greatest priority of the administration, and of Johnson in particular, was the Civil Rights bill. It proved the hardest to pass, despite the massive majorities of Americans who wished to see it signed into law. Johnson got it through Congress by mid 1964, and this was perhaps the most extraordinary of his achievements during those early months.

The Civil Rights Bill was anathema to the powerful Senate Southern bloc, the group that controlled the most powerful Senate committees and used that leverage to kill bills it didn’t like. Johnson out-maneuvered it, and the bill moved from committee to the floor for debate. And so began a filibuster, the characteristic tactic of the Southern bloc – and one that had been successful in preventing the passage of a single Civil Rights bill between Reconstruction and 1957, when wheeling and dealing (by Johnson, of course) had finally secured passage of a weak bill. This time the filibuster lasted fifty-nine days.

The Southern bloc had two weaknesses, however. First, Johnson had locked away his important budget, appropriations and tax bills, and was thus able to wait them out. Second, outside the South, the Civil Rights Bill was very popular – Johnson had the weight of public support behind him. And he used that fact well, turning the screws on wavering Republicans and pressing for a cloture vote – a vote to kill debate and move to a final vote on the bill. In order to secure cloture, sixty-seven (of 100) votes were required – a high bar that had been reached only once in the preceding thirty-seven years. Johnson’s tactic was simple: he let Republicans know that he considered a vote against cloture to be a vote against civil rights, and that he’d use his bully pulpit to ensure that the public understood that the Republicans in question were voting against civil rights. He also took every opportunity to remind wavering Republican senators that they were from “the party of Lincoln.” Johnson got his cloture vote, and the bill was passed. He signed it into law on 2 July 1964.

THE Passage of Power is a very good book. But it suffers from two problems characteristic of all volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

First, Caro is an unconvincing psychologist. Insofar as he provides psychological analysis at all, that analysis is coarse-grained. Johnson, we are told, mostly acted from a lust for power or from a fear of shame. Occasionally, we are told, more honorable motives triumphed – in particular, Johnson possessed a visceral hatred of poverty and marginalisation that flowed from his childhood experiences. But Caro is able to offer us no insight into Johnson’s private recesses. An example: during the period of his vice-presidency, Johnson watched his dreams die; it came to seem less and less likely that he would ever be president and he was increasingly shut out from the Washington power elite. People were laughing at him. He must have been mortified, and he must have despaired, but Caro doesn’t probe. His narrative, for the most part, remains at the level of description. When reading about Johnson’s actions, I often asked myself, “Why did he do that?” Caro, so gifted at describing tactical machinations, is unable to provide a psychologically satisfying answer.

Second, while Johnson’s abilities and energy were the essential element in many of the events that occurred during his time in Washington, there are times at which Caro can seem to overestimate the scope of Johnson’s influence and to underplay the role played by other people or by the forward press of social movements. This objection is not unimportant, but it is perhaps characteristic of political biographies more generally. It is best corrected by reading The Passage of Power alongside other accounts of the American politics of the era – for instance, Ted Sorenson’s A Thousand Days (for a classic account of the Kennedy administration from a close JFK adviser), and David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross (a classic study of Martin Luther King’s role in the struggle for civil rights).

BACK in that beautiful wooden beamed auditorium in Georgetown, Caro is taking questions from the audience.

“A lot of people are saying that your book is an implicit criticism of the Obama administration,” says Mike Allen, chief White House correspondent for influential Capitol Hill newspaper Politico. “What do you make of that?”

Caro laughs. “The book is about Lyndon Johnson.”

There is some force to Allen’s observation. Time and time again, progressive American presidents have found their impact blunted by an uncooperative Congress. Bill Clinton, for example, failed to secure passage for his 1993 health bill and didn’t even try to get Kyoto ratified, despite the fact that his vice-president, Al Gore, played a key role in the negotiations that led to it. Years earlier, Harry Truman’s Fair Deal package, an ancestor of Johnson’s Great Society, had made no headway.

Politics in the United States is dysfunctional right now. Such dysfunction is not new; it fits into a long-established pattern. It takes special circumstances – or a special person – to move a progressive agenda in Washington. Lyndon Johnson, the poor Texan boy who became president, was such a person. Caro’s ambitious biography is the best way to introduce yourself to his story. •