Ron Briley: Review of Robert A. Caro's "The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)


Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In the fourth volume of Robert A. Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, the author employs over six hundred pages of text to trace Johnson’s life and career from the presidential election of 1960 through the first seven weeks of the Johnson presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The massive manuscript covering these five years would certainly appeal to Johnson’s Texas-size ego. Nevertheless, Caro’s meticulous research and prose entertain the reader with amusing anecdotes and insightful commentaries which shed considerable light on the enigma that was Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The focal point for Caro’s study of Johnson is the pursuit of power and what obtaining that power reveals about an individual. In Johnson’s case, the senator from Texas enjoyed considerable legislative power in his position as Senate Majority Leader, a narrative which Caro chronicles in the third volume of the biography, Master of the Senate (2002). After an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1960, Johnson surprised many of his supporters by accepting the second spot on the Kennedy ticket.  Johnson justified his decision by asserting that “power is where power goes.”  But the influence Johnson exercised during his Senate tenure did not transfer to the vice presidency. Stymied by his nemesis Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who plays a pivotal role in the narrative, Johnson was miserable as vice president, until a sniper’s bullet elevated him to the presidency. During the next seven weeks, Caro praises Johnson for his leadership, which provided continuity for the nation while also placing his own brand on the presidency, culminating in passage of the Kennedy tax cut and civil rights legislation.  Proclaiming a war on poverty in the 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson was at the pinnacle of power which would eventually be undermined by the Vietnam War -- a topic which will be the centerpiece of Caro’s next volume. 

Johnson was often merciless in his pursuit of power, but Caro perceives his compassion for the poor as a sincere desire to better the condition of all Americans and not simply a product of political expediency. Yet, the tactics of secrecy and duplicity which governed Johnson’s path to power proved disastrous in Vietnam and destroyed the Great Society he once envisioned.

Caro begins The Passage of Power with the presidential election of 1960 and Johnson’s ambitions to become president. He refused to actively campaign, instead believing that party leaders would reward him with the nomination if he stayed in the Senate and concentrated upon legislative matters. This strategy, of course, backfired. Caro asserts that Johnson was reluctant to enter the primaries, afraid that he might suffer defeat and humiliation. He was terrified of revisiting the humiliation he endured as a young man, when his father’s cotton crop perished in the Texas heat and the family sank into poverty. In addition, Caro insists that Johnson underestimated the toughness of John F. Kennedy. Since Kennedy was not interested in the legislative detail of the Senate, Johnson dismissed the Massachusetts senator as lightweight and a playboy. By the time Johnson officially announced his candidacy on the eve of the convention, it was too late for him to block Kennedy’s nomination on the first ballot. Wyoming put Kennedy over the top, and Caro argues that with greater effort earlier in the campaign, Johnson might have enjoyed the support of Western delegations.

One of the most controversial aspects of the 1960 Democratic National Convention was the decision of Kennedy to present the vice presidency to Johnson, and not even the careful research of Caro is able to answer all the questions which still surround this controversy. Late in the evening of July 13, Kennedy received the Democratic nomination, and the next morning he offered the VP slot to Johnson. Although many of Johnson’s supporters, including Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, opposed acceptance of the office, Johnson believed that his best path toward the presidency would now lie in alliance with Kennedy. Labor and civil rights leaders, however, were opposed to Johnson and threatened a floor fight over his nomination. Robert Kennedy then urged Johnson to withdraw, maintaining that the nomination was initially offered only as courtesy under the assumption that Johnson would refuse the second spot on the ticket. There is considerable debate among participants in the discussions as to whether RFK was acting alone or on directions from his older brother. Caro suggests that Jack Kennedy may not have included Robert in all of his thoughts on the vice presidency and the role that Johnson might play in the 1960 election. In the final analysis, John Kennedy stood behind his offer, a floor fight was avoided, and Johnson campaigned vigorously in the South. His presence on the ticket was crucial in keeping such states as Texas and Louisiana in the Democratic column during the close election. But the animosity between Johnson and Robert Kennedy never dissipated. Caro proposes that the mutual contempt expressed by the two men was not only based upon their differing backgrounds, but also fears and insecurities regarding power and ambition.

Johnson’s notion that the power he enjoyed as Senate majority leader could be transferred to the vice presidency proved illusionary. An initial power grab by Johnson to expand the duties of his office was quickly rejected by Kennedy. Although he was officially treated in a polite fashion by Kennedy loyalists, Johnson was often the target of ridicule in more fashionable Georgetown cocktail parties where he and Lady Bird Johnson were referred to as “Rufus Cornpone and his little pork chop.” Even his efforts to take a more active role in civil rights were rebuffed. Fearing that he might be dropped from the ticket in 1964, Johnson frequently asserted his loyalty to JFK, but he remained miserable and powerless.

He did, however, attempt to take a more assertive role during the Cuban Missile Crisis, arguing for a military response to the Soviet missiles in Cuba, though Caro does not explore the motives for Johnson’s aggressive foreign policy -- a topic which the author will most likely expand upon in his next volume, when Johnson actually set foreign policy. Johnson was excluded from the group of advisers who agreed to end the crisis with a secret understanding that American missiles would later be removed from Turkey.

In November 1963, Johnson appeared politically vulnerable. His protégé Bobby Baker, whom Johnson elevated to secretary for the Senate majority, was under Senate investigation for influence peddling.  The allegations regarding Baker encouraged Life Magazine to conduct an investigation into the financial affairs of Johnson, raising serious questions regarding soliciting of bribes and accepting gifts. Johnson also disappointed Kennedy when he was unable to mend the rift between the liberal and conservative wings of the Texas Democratic Party. Oswald’s bullet brought a halt to publication of the Life story, distracted the Senate investigation into Baker, and provided an opportunity to unify the Democratic Party in Texas. The assassination was perfect timing for Johnson, but Caro insists that he can find no evidence to corroborate conspiracy theories implicating him.

Rather than rehash the familiar details of the Kennedy assassination, Caro offers a fresh perspective as he describes what happened to Johnson after shots rang out in Dallas. Caro gives credit to Johnson for the quiet calm with which he grasped the reins of power after he was informed that Kennedy was dead. Against the advice of his security detail, Johnson insisted that he would not leave Dallas on Air Force One without Jackie Kennedy and the dead president’s body. He also asserted that he would take the oath of office on Air Force One with Jackie Kennedy at his side, but Caro finds his phone call to Robert Kennedy to obtain details regarding the oath of office to be insensitive, furthering the antagonism between the two men.

But during the public mourning period following the assassination, Johnson was careful to not confront the attorney general, believing that he needed key Kennedy advisers such as Arthur Schlesinger, Ted Sorenson, Pierre Salinger, and Kenneth O’Donnell to stay on the job (at least in the short run), reassuring the American people and providing a sense of continuity. He also evoked the memory of the slain president when he urged congressional passage of Kennedy’s legislative agenda such as a civil rights bill and a tax cut to boost the economy.

Johnson, however, believed that the Kennedy administration mishandled their legislative program, allowing conservative senators and congressmen from the South to hold the tax bill hostage to a civil rights filibuster. Johnson was able to secure passage of the tax bill by cutting the administration’s budget to secure the support of Virginia Senator Harry Byrd, chair of the Senate Finance Committee. With enactment of the tax bill, Johnson moved on civil rights, supporting a discharge petition to report the bill out of Howard Smith’s House Rules Committee and working with Republicans to assure cloture and end a Southern filibuster in the Senate. To reassure anxious Americans, Johnson moved quickly to appoint the Warren Commission, although Caro acknowledges that in the long run the haste of the Commission’s work has contributed to continuing questions about the Kennedy assassination.

In early 1964, Johnson moved to put his own stamp on the presidency. While entertaining German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard with barbeque at the Johnson ranch, the president was able to develop his own sense of style, so different from that of the Kennedy White House. Behind the scenes during his ranch vacation, Johnson maneuvered to halt newspaper investigations of his finances, displaying the secretiveness and duplicity which would later characterize his Vietnam policies. On the other hand, Johnson returned from vacation with a draft for the 1964 State of the Union address which made an eloquent plea for economic opportunity, social justice, and a war on poverty; reflecting a sense of compassion drawing upon Johnson's childhood experiences in Texas. Of Johnson’s first seven weeks as president, Caro writes, “The higher use Lyndon Johnson made of the crisis: using it, using the transition, as a platform to launch a crusade for social justice on a vast new scale -- made these weeks not only dramatic and sorrowful but a pivotal moment in the history of the United States.” Johnson’s commitment to civil rights and ending poverty represented the better angels of his nature -- he chafed when some supporters urged him to go more slowly on civil rights, remarking what good is the presidency and its power if one cannot do the right thing -- but the insecurity, boasting, bullying, and duplicity which also characterized Johnson were not permanently silenced and would play a greater role as Johnson plunged into the “big muddy” of the Vietnam War.

This reviewer must interject a personal note sharing Caro’s frustration with the enigma and tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. Although I grew up in the Texas panhandle rather than the hill country between San Antonio and Austin, I experienced the rural poverty which shaped Johnson’s worldview and is well documented in The Path to Power, the first volume of Caro’s work. Anyone who has picked cotton to support a family will never forget the experience.  Beyond sharing a background of rural poverty, during the 1960s I was directly impacted by Johnson’s policies. My first job beyond the cotton fields was under Johnson’s Neighborhood Youth Corps, laboring in the local cemetery. Johnson was also responsible for me being the first in my family to attend college. As I witnessed friends being drafted into the Vietnam War, I opted for a college deferment, culminating in a life of teaching and scholarship which I had never envisioned. Many classmates, however, were not so fortunate, and I joined in the protests against Johnson, celebrating when the president announced that he would not seek re-election in 1968. Mellowing a bit over the years, I have lamented what might have been with the promise of the Great Society. Similar to Caro, I wonder how the soundtrack for the Johnson presidency changed from “We shall overcome” to “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”  Robert Caro will examine this question in his next volume for The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and I look forward to Caro’s musings on the misuse of power and the disaster in Vietnam. I only hope that we do not have to wait another decade for Caro to complete his labors.

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