The Years of Robert Caro – A review of his Lyndon Johnson biographies Part Three

The Years of Robert Caro – A review of his Lyndon Johnson biographies
Part Three
           The Passage of Power is Robert Caro’s fourth book in his Years of Lyndon Johnson series (Alfred A.Knopf, 2012; ISBN # 978-0-679-40507-8). This volume covers the 1960 presidential campaign to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
            By now Caro’s style is firmly enmeshed:
            The book opens with a tease of things to come. In previous volumes it was the beginnings of his quest for financial stability or his speech on civil rights legislation. Here we are on Air Force One in the late afternoon on November 22, 1963 after …
            The next 20 (or so) pages of its 805 pages (not counting index, bibliographies and end notes) repeats the relevant facts from the previous three books – LBJ’s desire to be president since his hard-scrabble teens, his election to the House and the Senate and his rise to power to become the most powerful man in Washington second only to President Eisenhower.
            These recaps are necessary for new readers. It is possible to read one of the four books without the others. If one is only interested in LBJ’s time in the Senate, you can skip the first two volumes. Caro recaps enough information and provides enough back-story to avoid confusing the readers with Johnson’s motives. Reading the books together can make that redundant. But for a reader like me, who would put each of the books down for several weeks (or months) before resuming, the recaps are helpful.
            I must admit Caro cheats a bit in Passage of Power. He hypes his previous work in footnotes (“for an example of how Johnson could ruin another politician’s career, see Master of the Senate, pages x-xx”). Having read through the previous Years… series I remember the reference. Someone picking up Passage as the first book of the series may be frustrated. I advise the new reader go to the library and read the selected passage. If he or she is intrigued enough – check out the book and then buy your own copy!
            After the “In our last episode” reminders the biography describes Johnson’s desire to run for president in 1960. Most of the candidates were other senators – senators who were beneath him during the past decade. He wielded more power, and could call in more favors, than they. The power brokers planned how he would get the votes – mostly from the south, the west and the big city bosses. There were only 16 primaries at that time and some of them – such as conservative Indiana and states promised to him (Robert Byrd’s West Virginia, for example) – he likely would have won the nomination.
            (I enjoyed reading this section and noting how alien the nomination process was compared to “modern times”.)
            Caro ignores speculation how he would have done against a Republican nominee. How would he have faired against Nixon?
            But Johnson delayed and delayed running for the Democratic nomination until it was time for the convention. Why?
            Caro is as confused as Johnson’s aids. Was Johnson so scared of losing – as he did in 1956 – that he did nothing? That doesn’t sound like the opportunistic LBJ we’ve come to know in the past three books.
            In the end, LBJ hoped for a deadlocked convention and for the “smoke-filled room” to give the nomination to him as a dark horse candidate. That way he could avoid the campaign trail against the charm of Kennedy and the oratorical skill of Hubert Humphries – both traits he distinctly lacked. 
            After the intro and recap, we watch the race for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination.
            But first, as with the prior volumes, we read a short but thorough biography of people important to this volume’s narrative. Previously we read about Sam Rayburn, Richard Russell, the Hill Country of Texas, LBJ’s father and Lady Bird. Here Caro gives us bios of John F. Kennedy. Not a complete bio – books on Kennedys could fill the libraries of an entire state – but on JFK’s political career and his history of poor health. Caro says if Johnson had known of Kennedy’s health struggles and determination to rise above his constant chronic pain, Johnson would have taken the scrawny playboy more seriously as a competing candidate for the presidential nomination.
            Caro also gives us a brief bio of Robert Kennedy. His and LBJ’s hatred of each other permeate the book as it permeated LBJ’s life and career throughout the 1960s. Ironically before Passagecame out I read Jeff Shesol’s Mutual Contempt (1998, Norton paperback, ISBN # 0-393-04078) – the only book I could find that dealt exclusively with the Johnson-Kennedy feud. I disagree to Shesol’s critics that it is Kennedy-leaning. I find it even-handed. It enjoyed reading another view of the feud along with Caro’s in Passage – Robert Kennedy and LBJ’s convention fight, their interaction during JFK’s presidency, the assassination, the first year of LBJ’s presidency, etc.  I recommend it, not as a companion to Passage of Power but on its own merits.
            The LBJ-RFK feud hit critical mass at the convention – neither man forgave the other after their actions during the primaries and the convention. Robert Kennedy’s threats warning Johnson not to accept the vice-presidential nomination was wonderfully portrayed in both books.
            Caro reminds us of LBJ’s knack for taking a small, ineffectual position or office and turning it into a seat of power. He did it in college with fraternal organizations and with a small student body job. He did it as a congressional aide in the “Little Congress”. He did it with the Minority Whip, Minority Leader and Majority Leader positions in the Senate.  LBJ tried to do the same with the Vice-Presidency, but this time without success.
            Passage shows us Johnson going through the few duties, assignments and positions given as vice-president; but focuses mainly on LBJ’s dislike of the job. He went from being the second most powerful man in Washington to the least (to paraphrase the author) in a town where power means everything.
            Little was said of Lady Bird. Perhaps this was an unintentional allegory: this volume had as much to do with Lady Bird as LBJ had. One passage was telling – when the secret service met with her at the White House to discuss the needs of the First Family in the private quarters, Lady Bird said Lyndon’s needs come first (in this case it was about the size of their bed), then the children, then hers. Other than quotes from Lady Bird about Jackie Kennedy and other events, she was no more present in this biography than, say, Bobby Baker.
            I looked forward to Caro’s take on the assassination. There has been more written about the events of November 22, 1963 than any other – perhaps with the exception of Lincoln’s assassination – from the technically detailed to the laughingly paranoiac to politically-motivated hack jobs. I wasn’t disappointed here.
            We are shown LBJ’s and JFK’s Texas trip – speeches given, banquets attended and people met. We learn about the feud between Texas’ governor and one of its senators; who wanted to ride with LBJ; who refused to ride with LBJ.
            We are with LBJ in the motorcade.
            We are standing with LBJ in the hospital as he grimly awaits the news.
            We walk with him through the bowels of the hospital to his limousine and to Air Force One.
            More importantly, we see LBJ’s transformation from the sulky moping vice-president to the firm, decisive President of the United States.
            Bravo to Caro for his portrayal of this magnificent transformation.
            Caro doesn’t come right out and say it, but it is obvious Johnson had planned this moment from the minute he agreed to be the vice presidential candidate.
            Neither I nor Caro are implying Johnson had a hand in the assassination – the author strongly states that in all his research he found NOTHING to imply LBJ’s knowledge or involvement. The only acknowledgement the author gives to any conspiracy is to name Jim Garrison, author of On the Trail of the Assassins, a publicity hunter.  I must admit to being a fan of assassination conspiracy theories and Caro’s opinion on it was short and brief – LBJ was not involved. The author stopped his inquiry there. Any other opinion would be his alone and is not a part of this book. Good for him, I say. Caro does state that both Robert Kennedy and Johnson believed the assassination was a conspiracy and the Warren Commission Report was wrong, but went no further than that; because Johnson went no further than that.
            Back to the point – it is obvious Johnson knew what he would do the moment he became president should it happen. Perhaps JFK would die from his various illnesses or drown or be in a plane or automobile accident. An assassin’s bullet was likely the last scenario on LBJ’s list. But it happened. Johnson was president. What would he do first?
            He met with the country’s leaders; he begged, cajoled and pleaded with Kennedy’s staff and cabinet to stay on. He had to pass a budget and decide whether to run in his own presidential election less than one year away (not counting the convention only ten-or-so months away).
            He had to keep the Kennedy people – even Robert – as allies and in his White House. He did not want to ostracize or anger them lest they form their own kingdom in exile. Robert Kennedy had already made noises about running on his own after his brother’s presidency ended. LBJ’s spoke his famous phrase “my worst fear was Robert Kennedy running for president against me” from Day One. Johnson did NOT want to be known as “the mistake between the Kennedys”.
            And he kept the staff and cabinet. Well, the essentials: Salinger, MacNamara, Sorenson, even Robert Kennedy. By the time they did leave Johnson had shown enough muscle in the office to make it his own. The rest of Passage shows how he did it.
            He broke the logjam in the Senate – first with a small bill involving sending wheat to Russia, then his tax bill, then, finally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
            LBJ made sure to have the other bills passed before the Southern Caucus could filibuster Civil Rights – thus the Caucus’ extortion or holding hostage of the tax and budget bills until the civil rights legislation was withdrawn. LBJ called it getting all the kids into the basement before the storm hits.
            He did it through a series cajoling and influence-peddling that is alien to us now. “NASA is looking for a place to build”, “You want that water works, don’t ya?”
            He reminded the Republicans they were the party of Lincoln – that gave great weight during the Civil Rights Act debate. One of the Act’s most ardent opponents was the Republican from Illinois Everett Dirksen. A Republican. From Illinois. Dirksen didn’t stand a chance.
            At this point Passage of Powerbecomes glorious reading. The author himself beams with pride and admiration at Johnson’s accomplishments.
            The book leaves us with an LBJ nearing the peak of his power and influence. The election of 1964 will validate that. At the end of the book Johnson has a 77% approval rating. He was at the very top.
            … and when you are at the top there is only one place left to go.
            Passage of Power finally solves the mystery brewing over the previous million words. Well, a mystery at least to me: why was such a cruel, Machiavellian autocrat so concerned about civil rights, about educating and feeding the poor and providing them health care?
            Caro points to a few phrases: LBJ’s aids at the beginning of his presidency advised how difficult passing a Civil Rights Act would be. Should he waste his time on it? “What is the Presidency for?” he said. In another (and to me, more telling) he said he wanted to help the blacks of Mississippi and the Mexicans in California and the Johnsons of Johnson City.
            Johnsons of Johnson City? He was comparing his perceived shame in growing up destitute thanks to a “failure” of a father with the plight of the oppressed lower classes in America.  He saw the lower class’ humiliation and lack of respect and dignity mirrored in his own. Robert Caro makes us believe LBJ wanted sincerely to help – a sincerity that this reader did not believe existed in the prior volume.
            But LBJ was president now. Before, he cajoled his way to the top. He did EVERYTHING to reach his goal; and now that it was reached, he could afford to be munificent as well as magnificent.
            Some criticize Caro’s earlier books saying that Johnson was portrayed as a villain. That is because he was, in fact, a villain. With rare exception LBJ was unlikeable. If you could benefit him in some way (financially or politically), he could be your best friend. If you were a detriment, you were removed. If you were neither, you were ignored.
            But Caro transforms Johnson into a magnanimous champion of civil rights in a matter of a dozen pages. He compares LBJ to Lincoln. No president, Caro says, none of the 17 men between Lincoln and Johnson did as much for civil rights as Johnson. He was the 20th-century Lincoln, Caro concludes.
            Shocking hyperbole, but after reading Caro’s defense of the statement, I am inclined to agree. LBJ finally becomes the man he claimed to be in his campaign speeches. The author raises LBJ up to almost Kennedy-esque idealism. I happily joined the ride.
            Caro mentioned that the cruelty would return during his full term as president – the belittling of staff, the crushing of opponents and the ignoring of anyone else. He foreshadows Viet Nam withering the advancements made in civil and social rights; almost as if he were preparing us in case Volume Five is not finished.
            This book ends at Johnson’s height of power and popularity. It would make a good place to end the series if required. Fortunately, Caro promises a fifth volume.
            Robert Caro’s first book in The Years of Lyndon Johnson was released in 1982, the second in 1990, the third in 2002 and the fourth in 2012. Despite this once-every-decade schedule, he says he will publish the fifth and final volume in two or three years.
            I hope so. I’m looking forward to it. I also hope it will be in three years and not in the 2020s.
            Caro turns 79 this October: that he will be around to publish the fifth book after a decade-long wait is … well … unlikely.
            Can he finish the fifth book in one-third of the time it took him to finish the others?  To answer yes is not necessarily being optimistic.
            Most of the people he interviewed for the series are gone now – Connally, McNamara, Sallinger, Lady Bird – and he plumbed as much as he could from them. Bill Moyers still refuses to be interviewed, but Caro does a splendid job without Moyers’ input. Imagine the flavor of the book with Moyer’s viewpoint.
            Surely Robert Caro is smart enough to have asked McNamara, for example, all he wanted to know about Viet Nam and Johnson’s involvement before McNamara’s death in 2009.
            Additionally, of Johnson’s entire career, the topics fifth and final book has already been covered extensively by others. He can justifiably rely on secondary sources. I doubt there will be any surprises or bombshells.
            What there will be is the story of Johnson’s full term as President of the United States; the Great Society and Viet Nam told in Caro’s style. That is something to look forward to.
            But a personal plea, Mr. Caro – make copious notes of how you want this book to be. Have your estate ready to pick the person to complete the book if your health demands you cannot finish it. Find someone who can emulate your style – make sure it reflects your voice.
            With the fifth book we will say goodbye to Lyndon Baines Johnson; but also goodbye to you as his biographer. Thank you for 32 years of an excellent series. Thank you for helping us know our 27th President.
Original material copyright 2014 Michael G Curry

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