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the passage of power

22 july 2012

With The Passage of Power, Robert Caro's decades-long research into the life of Lyndon Johnson takes LBJ from the Senate through his Vice Presidency to the legislative successes that followed his sudden installment as President upon the death of John F. Kennedy. Most of the Johnson Administration lies ahead, and LBJ lived on for several years after that, complicating his biography with memories and pronouncements. I reckon there will be two more volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, though perhaps three: much depends on Caro's stamina, health, and rhetorical decisions.

I was mildly disappointed in The Passage of Power. After the hardscrabble youth, the bizarre Senate election, and the legislative Machiavellianism that characterized Caro's first three volumes, The Passage of Power presents LBJ in a much better light, reinforcing over and over again not just his ambition and will to power but his great statesmanlike qualities, and the supreme control he exerted during his first months in office. Much of Caro's narrative is not truly a conventional biography of achievements and activities (as much of his first three volumes truly is), but a portentous commentary on personalities. What Caro has to say is probably largely true (though Robert F. Kennedy and his adherents would have demurred). But though true, it's somewhat less interesting than revelations of LBJ in abjection, or behaving like a scoundrel. And even when true, interesting, and significant, the praise of Johnson is repetitive and at times unnecessarily fulsome.

Though we do get a bit of LBJ the abject, and occasionally glimpses of LBJ the scoundrel. His entire Vice Presidency is one long scene of abjection, liberally seasoned with self-pity. How did he get to be Vice President, a job in which he'd seen Jack Garner and Richard Nixon reduced to ciphers? He knew the score. Caro suggests that LBJ half-believed he could transform the office via willpower. He also suggests that Johnson had exhausted his chances of getting close to the White House any other way. More time as Senate Majority Leader would just mean an eventual nice retirement from the Senate. And he was unlikely to be elected President without some further platform or credential. (I don't really believe, as Caro half-suggests at one point, that LBJ liked the odds of JFK dying in office; I think he liked his own odds of emerging as the 1968 nominee, as Nixon had weathered the doldrums of the Vice Presidency to do in 1960.)

Of course, when he'd tried to be elected President in 1960, Johnson hadn't tried hard enough. He remains unique among modern Presidents in never truly having lost a primary election. In 1964, he was unopposed ("favorite sons" won several spiritlessly contested primaries, with the intention of delivering their state's delegates to LBJ); in 1968, he dropped out of the race after winning New Hampshire; and in 1960, despite lining up delegates via the old-boy network, he never actually contested an open primary. Caro paints a vivid picture of LBJ: terrified of losing a primary election, convinced he could maneuver into the nomination via the back room, if not from the sheer patronage he controlled as Majority Leader. As a result, while Kennedy was proving he could win votes in the open, Johnson's skulking around won him nothing at all.

Except a spot on the ticket. Caro, like W. J. Rorabaugh, credits Johnson with delivering the electoral votes of many Southern states, and crucially Texas, to the Democrats in 1960. Kennedy needed Johnson to win the Presidency; but for the next two-and-a-half years, he needed him to open public facilities and make the occasional state visit to Liechtenstein.

All this changed on 11/22/63, of course. Caro retells the continuously-told story of Dealey Plaza from LBJ's perspective, a new sidelight of great interest to students of the assassination. If Caro's treatment of the early Johnson presidency is by contrast full of rehashed awe at the big man's power (including a long chapter on random stuff that LBJ did at his ranch that Christmas to look down-homey Presidential), it is still a story crucial to the history of civil rights in America. Just as only Nixon could go to China and only Bill Clinton could end welfare as we knew it, only Lyndon Johnson could deliver a powerful civil rights bill. As Majority Leader, he had passed two weaker ones, and he knew how to logroll votes into place, the final piece being the assent of conservative Republicans who had long joined Southern Democrats in blocking true progress. But these Republicans would never have come over if Johnson hadn't systematically cut them off by pressuring all other possible Senators, person by person and issue by issue, into joining the liberal ranks on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In the end, only the diehard segregationist Democrats, plus Barry Goldwater and a handful of intransigent Republicans, stood against Johnson. There was arguably no greater legislative triumph in the 20th century.

Caro does foreshadow LBJ's tragic pursuit of the Vietnam War, though. And he prepares the reader for it not just via allusions to the future, but by showing Johnson in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as the most hawkish and intransigent member of JFK's Cabinet. Johnson had a very crude sense of how military power should be deployed; he had learned one lesson from Munich, and it was not a nuanced one: smash them or they'll take advantage of you. By contrast, Robert Kennedy – the anti-hero and nemesis in this volume – swayed the Cabinet toward a resolute but non-violent approach. Johnson thought that RFK was a weakling, but the younger Kennedy's eschewing of violence was certainly more grounded in Realpolitik than Johnson's belligerence was. What the rest of the world thinks of a superpower is not just a cosmetic, bleeding-heart-liberal concern. It is the basic currency of diplomacy, and by investing in that currency, the Kennedys set the stage for detente and perestroika down the road.

Caro, Robert A. The Passage of Power. New York: Knopf [Random House], 2012. [The Years of Lyndon Johnson, vol. 4]