PASSAGE TO POWER BY ROBERT CARO
No President in American history is more controversial than Lyndon Baines Johnson. To the neocons, he is the embodiment of all that is wrong with government. To the liberals (yes, come on, you can say that word), he represents all that government can be.
Robert Caro has spent 35+ years exploring the life and times of LBJ, one of the greatest political figures in American history. Paths to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate and Passage to Power provide over 3,000 pages of LBJ and his times. Throughout there are mini-biographies or mini-histories of various people who came into contact with LBJ or of various organizations or groups to which he belonged. Often, Caro delves into murky waters, trying to bring to light certain ‘improprieties.’ LBJ lost one election when it was stolen from him and won another when he stole it. That seems to be the modus operandi in Texas elections - winner takes all and no sympathy for losers.
All of his life, LBJ sought power and more power. Finally, in November, 1963, he got it - real power. And he intended to use it.
Once, when an aide told President Johnson that Civil Rights legislation would never pass Congress and he shouldn’t try to do the right thing if it couldn’t be done, Johnson replied “Hell, what’s the Presidency for then?”
LBJ wouldn’t waste his time in power on doing the little things – he aimed big, after all, he was a Texan. There have been few Presidents who have a more impressive record of accomplishment or, if you believe that any government involvement in our lives is bad, a more damaging legacy of creating dependency.
The latest installment of Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson covers the period from 1960 to 1963. It tells the story of how the most powerful senator in American history gave up that office and agreed to take the most impotent job in government – the vice presidency. Unlike most biographers of Presidents, Caro has no desire to write hagiography; in fact, Caro mines every piece of dirt he finds on LBJ, from questionable election returns to outright accusations of bribery. Along the way, Caro paints a portrait of a man in transition – constantly moving toward the center of power, until, finally, he gets it. That is why Caro calls, this book, The Passage to Power.
It begins with Johnson losing the Democratic presidential nomination to John Kennedy.
Lyndon Johnson did not take defeat lightly. After he was elected Vice-President, he tried to retain the power he had garnered as Majority Leader in the Senate. But even a Promethean figure like LBJ could not breathe life into the corpse that the VP’s job is in American politics. Broken, sullen, politically castrated, Johnson went from Master of the Senate (Caro’s title for the previous installment of this multi-volume biography) to a has-been joke.
By 1963, Johnson’s star had fallen so far that he was on the brink of being thrown off the Kennedy re-election ticket in 1964 when an assassin’s bullet changed history and rocketed him into an office that he had striven for his entire the life, the pinnacle of power – President of the United States of America.
The story of Johnson’s fall from and then rise again to power is about as dramatic as history can be – with a cast of characters that rivals Shakespearean tragedy. At the center of the drama, there are men of mythical stature.
John Kennedy was a rich man’s son whose career in the Senate was about as lackluster as LBJ’s was spectacular. Accomplishing little, JFK had one ace in the hole when he decided to try for the Democratic nomination for President in 1960 – his father, Joseph Kennedy’s, enormous wealth and power.
Joe Kennedy had made millions in the stock market and multiplied those millions when he anticipated the stock market collapse in 1929 by selling short. When FDR created the Securities and Exchange Commission, he picked Kennedy to be its first head and then gave him his reward – an ambassadorship to England. As an Irish-American, Kennedy took great pleasure in being named Ambassador to the Court of St James. In 1960, he saw the opening that he longed for – a chance to put one of his sons in the White House. The problem was that his eldest son, Joe, Jr, whom he had groomed for the job had been killed in WWII. Now, Joe pinned his hopes on his second son.
Jack Kennedy was no Jack Kennedy when he started out – in fact, he was a sickly, but charming lothario. His battles with Addison’s disease, a crippling illness that was a death sentence before the wonders of modern pharmaceuticals, and a degenerative spine disease that required multiple operations, would have deterred lesser men from getting out of bed let alone running for political office.
Caro expertly tells the tale of how JFK battled illnesses that would have put most men into a wheelchair. As the toll of illnesses, complicated and made worse by ill-advised treatments, makes JFK teeter on the brink of permanent incapacity, we begin to see the steel beneath the suntan of JFK’s character. There was nothing in JFK’s professional career that made anyone – LBJ included – think that he could win the greatest political prize, the Presidency. It was his personal battles and the way he handled them that gave a clue to his eventual political success. He never quit and he never let anything get to him.
Jack Kennedy had grace under pressure. He showed that grace to the American people in the debates with a far more experienced politician and debater – Richard Nixon. When he was a very young President – the youngest ever elected - he showed it to the US military and Intelligence leaders when he stood up to them and refused to send in the Marines when they botched the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. And he showed it to the world when nuclear holocaust was just a blink away - there was never a time when he and the people he represented needed that grace more than in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And Joe Kennedy had another son.
Robert Kennedy was the son most like his father. As Joe Kennedy himself said – “Bobby hates like me.” And there is no one that Robert Kennedy hated more than LBJ. And just like Jack, Bobby Kennedy was no Bobby Kennedy when he began his career. A communist hunter, a union buster, a man who never hesitated to kick a man when he was down, RFK played to win – at any cost. He ran his brother’s presidential campaign in 1960 and went on to become his Attorney General and closest advisor.
JFK offered the Vice-Presidency to LBJ after defeating him for the 1960 Democratic nomination. There are many versions of how and why this happened. Caro tries to tell everyone’s side of this complicated story, but the truth is rarely found in repeating the lies that men have come to believe. The dispute about what actually happened is between those who were Bobby’s friends and continue to write the history of that time so as to burnish the glow of RFK’s place in history (Sorenson, Schlesinger, O’Donnell) and those who were LBJ’s men (Busby, Reedy and Moyers). The RFK faction wants history to reflect that JFK offered the vice-presidency to LBJ as a mere gesture, never expecting that he would accept it. LBJ’s men tell the story of how JFK made the offer and then his brother Bobby tried to renege on it. Caro concludes that JFK wanted and, more importantly, needed LBJ on the ticket to win in November. LBJ accepted the offer because he believed that, as a southerner, he would never get elected President - and to more than one person, LBJ pointed out that, at that time, seven vice-presidents had succeeded to the presidency. While Caro makes clear that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that LBJ had anything to do with Kennedy’s assassination, he also documents that LBJ was well aware of Kennedy’s many illnesses.
Caro is greatly aided by the tapes of many White House conversations that are now available to the public. Both JFK and LBJ used a tape system that they – and they alone – could activate. Therefore, the tapes are somewhat selective (as opposed to Nixon who had a more advanced and more revealing voice-activated system). Those tapes confirm that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK stood alone in holding out against those who advocated an immediate invasion of Cuba. Caro falls victim to the lure of the RFK supporters in writing that Bobby advised his brother to make a deal rather than confront the USSR with a choice between surrender and war. In fact, the tapes make clear that RFK was as hawkish as the rest of JFK’s advisors. The deal that JFK eventually agreed to – that the US would take its missiles out of Turkey within six months if the USSR would remove its missiles from Cuba, immediately – was brokered by RFK in discussions with the Soviet ambassador, but JFK used his bother to make the contact with the Russians because he knew that the Russians would understand that Bobby, as the President’s brother, was offering a deal that came directly from the President. RFK was not the architect of the deal, but merely the messenger.
LBJ’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, as in all other phases of JFK’s administration, was as a spectator. He had no power and neither JFK nor anyone else in his administration thought that much of the man they referred to as the “Cornpone” because of his unsophisticated manners and speech. JFK had gathered around him the ‘best and the brightest’ and LBJ was painfully insecure in his ability to interact with these Ivy Leaguers – especially when he had no power, and when these men – and there were no women in any powerful positions except for the First Lady – had no reason to listen to a has-been who, probably, would not be on the ticket in 1964.
Caro never decides whether to believe the RFJ faction that Johnson was going to be dumped in ’64. He does relate the story of how a business associate of Bobby Baker (an LBJ operative in the Senate bureaucracy) was testifying before a Senate investigative committee on November 22, 1963 that Johnson had financially benefitted from a bribe paid to Bobby Baker to get insurance business. Caro tells the tale as fact but there are no records of the Senate Committee’s investigation. When the news came in from Dallas that LBJ was the new President, the investigation was ended. Caro believes that if it went forward, it could have been the ammo that RFK needed to blast LBJ off the 1964 Democratic ticket.
The heart of Caro’s short book (less than half the size of other volumes in this series – Caro originally intended to write a four volume work, but decided to release this book and make it a five volume biography) is the period following JFK’s assassination. Caro relates how Johnson took control of the government and held it together while the nation mourned the loss of its leader and the world looked on in horror as violence ripped the open the stolid dignity of US world leadership.
It was not easy to hold things together at that turbulent time.
Most of the JFK team disliked Johnson, and those who didn’t dislike him believed that he was a lightweight, incapable of being President. Johnson desperately needed them to stay on to prove to Americans and world leaders that there would be continuity in the US government. Most of them wanted to go home – they came to Washington to serve with JFK, not some Cornpone glad-hander who didn’t know a Picasso from a Polaris.
LBJ went to work on them immediately, playing on what he knew was their widely-held belief that he was not up to being President. “I need you a lot more than Jack ever did,” was a mantra that Johnson repeated endlessly in the days after the assassination. When this tactic didn’t work, he played on their patriotism – “If you want to honor his memory, help me pass his programs.” LBJ effectively used both arguments to keep in place JFK’s entire team – including his brother Bobby as Attorney General.
The other vital item on Johnson’s agenda was to place before the American people the facts of what had occurred on that incredible weekend when an assassin killed the President and then was, himself, murdered on live television. Johnson needed to create a Committee to investigate what had occurred, and to head that Committee he had to have the one person who was perceived as being above politics and capable of an impartial judgment, the Chief Justice of the United States, Earl Warren. The problem was that Warren did not want the job. Repeatedly, he told the people who Johnson sent to talk to him that he was not interested in the job. Johnson asked to see him in the Oval Office. When the Chief Justice arrived, he made clear to Johnson that he had no intention of heading such a Committee. As Johnson did so often, he didn’t take no for a final answer. He reminded Warren that when his country needed him in WWI, Warren did not hesitate to enlist and fight for his Country. Now, Johnson told him, his country needed him more than ever because he was the only person who could head this Commission and give America what it deserved and needed – the truth about what had happened. Reluctantly, Warren agreed to serve. Regretfully, the Warren Commission raised more questions than it answered but, at the time, everyone praised the decision and the men appointed to serve on it.
Finally, LBJ saw the opportunity to pass the social legislation that he had always believed was necessary to make America what it could be - a Great Society where the government protects the weak, helps the unfortunate and forever bans the scourge of racial prejudice.
Perhaps he was the only person in government capable of passing this agenda through a Congress that was dominated by Southern Democrats who wanted neither social justice nor racial equality. That Johnson had been ‘one of them’ and shared their backgrounds if not their prejudices was his great asset. Most importantly, he knew how to count votes – he knew what it took to pass legislation, who to push and who to pull.
Caro is effusive in his praise of the Lyndon Johnson who took control of the government in a moment of crisis and stood tall. He praises his courage in walking out in the open on the days following the assassination when no one knew if there were more assassins out there. He acknowledges that it was LBJ’s will and intelligence that were the main reasons why a reluctant Congress passed a Civil Rights Bill that guaranteed to all Americans equal treatment, and passed Medicare and a host of other laws that changed America forever – and for better.
But just below the surface of Caro’s praise is an underlying, fundamental belief that Johnson’s demons outnumbered his angels. Caro makes constant reference to the next volume of this work, the final volume, and we know that in spite of all that Johnson did to make America a better place for all of us, waiting there in the distance is LBJ’s nemesis, more deadly than any high-powered rifle bullet, more divisive than any controversial legislation, more difficult to ‘manage’ than even a War on Poverty – Vietnam.