CCLaP Fridays: The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro

Between Camelot and Nixonland lay Johnson City. In the penultimate volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro chronicles Lyndon Johnson’s career from 1958 to 1964. Those pivotal years had Johnson occupying various positions, from his last years as Majority Leader of the Senate to his years as Vice President under President John F. Kennedy. The assassination in Dallas thrust Johnson into the Presidency. He had to preserve the legacy of his slain predecessor, forge a presidential style all his own, and secure his nomination before the Democratic National Convention. Since he was President during the Sixties, he also had to confront the very real threat of nuclear annihilation if diplomatic relations became heated with the Soviet Union and somehow get Kennedy’s tax cut bill and civil rights bill out of the hands of the Southern Caucus, where it lay stalled in committee. He had to do this before Congress adjourned for the Christmas recess. Caro packs his fourth volume with lots of detail and creates a narrative every bit as compelling as a fictional political thriller.

The Passage of Power picks up where his epic award-winning third volume, 2002’s Master of the Senate, left off. Since 1949, Johnson had served as a United States Senator, eventually becoming Majority Leader in 1955. In 1957, he organized the passage of the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. Senate includes a history of the United States Senate, its arcane rules and traditions, and the Southern Caucus’s longstanding power within the institution. As the old joke goes, “The South lost the War, but won the Senate.” It also introduces readers to the legislative term cloture, which occurs when there is a two-thirds majority to vote for the motion to end debate on a bill. This is important. Civil rights bills have failed again and again in the Senate because the Souther Caucus filibustered these bills, effectively killing them. In the legislative process, any bill not passed during the Congressional year is considered dead. The South had become masters of the waiting game. That is, until Lyndon Johnson became Majority Leader. Johnson remains one of the few modern legislative geniuses to have worked in the Senate.

In Caro’s fourth volume of the chronicle of Johnson’s life, he investigates the tension between two aspects that consumed Johnson’s life: the ambition to become President and the fear of failure. The latter made Johnson reluctant to begin his campaign, despite the pleas of his advisers. A wealthy playboy with family connections to Chicago beat him. One of the wonderful things about Caro’s writing is its cunning. We read about the young Senator Jack Kennedy from Johnson’s point of view, a young playboy who got his job because of his father and whose Senate record was inconsequential at best. Then Caro launches into a mini-history of John F. Kennedy, charting his youth in the Ivy League, his health troubles, and his war service. The health troubles cast a different light on the young Senator. Caro writes about these troubles, detailing the physical agonies, parental pressures to succeed, and the misdiagnoses and painful treatments. Kennedy’s health makes his early years read like the Stations of the Cross.

We also see Johnson’s early confrontations with Robert Kennedy, an aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Caro charts their vicious blood feud. After his defeat in the primaries, Johnson loses again at the Democratic Convention to the Kennedy political machine, having pre-emptively greased the wheels with the big city bosses. The same people Johnson counted on to buttonhole and persuade, since he had done it so well as Majority Leader. Eventually Johnson is brought on the ticket as a Vice President, mainly to secure the Southern vote. In demographic terms, two things became apparent: one was Kennedy’s Catholicism and the other was Johnson’s “taint of magnolias” (in other words, his Southern-ness). No Southerner had succeeded in the Presidential run since the Civil War and there had never been a Catholic President. New York mayor Al Smith ran in 1928, only to see burning crosses when his train rode through Democratic Indiana. The risk of the Democratic Party running a Catholic and a Southerner were immense. Johnson even worked at manipulating Texas law, insuring he could keep his Senate seat if this contest failed.

Once installed in the Kennedy White House, Johnson assumes the role of Vice President. And it wasn’t much. Given leadership but not control over two Presidential commissions, he wallows in impotence and frustration. He could only do things with the President’s approval and Kennedy gave it sparingly. Caro tabulates the hours Kennedy and Johnson had one-on-one conversations together over the years. By 1963, it was only a matter of hours. Besides the isolation and powerlessness, Johnson experienced mockery from the urbane and sophisticated members of the Kennedy Administration. One nickname was Rufus Cornpone, since his Southern background and penchant for corny anecdotes were such a contrast to the young stylish Jack Kennedy. Unlike the Harvard-educated war hero, Lyndon Johnson came from poverty and went to a Texas teacher’s college.

In 1963, Kennedy decided on a Southern swing to the upcoming 1964 Presidential campaign. One stop included Dallas. Caro bursts the bubble of any conspiracy theorist with his depiction of the assassination. Johnson rode in the same motorcade with Kennedy, experiencing the assassination firsthand. He had the weight of a Secret Service agent on top of him during the frantic ride to the hospital. In an instant, his role changed. Notified by an aide that Kennedy was gone, Johnson affected a sudden transformation. Caro chronicles those tense days and months, exacerbated by the new medium of television, which unified the nation as it witnessed history. Johnson quickly took the reins of power and worked feverishly to secure the office of the President and reassure a shocked nation. He organized the Warren Report, not as a cover-up, but as a means to assuage the nation’s fears. One has to remember this was only a short time after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The assassination occurring in his home state added emotional anguish to the situation. While Caro does not openly subscribe to the single gunman theory, he also appraises the Warren Report’s shortcomings. Once the nation’s hurt is comforted with a televised speech, Johson goes to work with Congress to get the tax cut bill and the civil rights bill from being permanently stalled. As Vice President, he urged Kennedy not to send the civil rights bill first, since it would be held hostage in the Senate. Kennedy’s charisma and speech-making are inspirational, but he lacked the legislative genius and going-for-the-jugular tactics of Johnson. As President, Johnson figured out ways to free both bills and get them passed before the Congressional recess.

It may seem like Caro has written as a hagiography of Lyndon Johnson. Strange as it sounds, it is a hagiography of sorts, since saints have their flaws and weaknesses. Johnson had both. For all his good points, Johnson also berated his staff, acted ruthless, deceitful, and secretive. He transcended these flaws during his early years as President, acting as steward to the legacy of his slain predecessor. But his flaws also made him a suspicious figures to Northern liberals and labor leaders. For the longest time, he had been a faithful soldier in the South’s Cause: segregation. His first Senate speech was against anti-lynching laws. To liberals in the North, he represented a fearful figure, a brilliant villain who could sink any chance of a real civil rights bill being passed. His heroic effort to help pass the 1957 civil rights bill appeared as “too little, too late” to civil rights leaders and liberals. But this is also a good time to explore the issue of political power and its uses. An adage that keeps appearing in Passage is, “Power is where power goes.” Readers sympathetic to the Occupy cause should take note. Speeches are great. Protests definitely make a message known. But if there aren’t seats of power occupied by legislators sympathetic to your cause or causes, nothing will happen. Granted, as of this writing, the Occupy movement is only a year old. But the acquisition of real political power and its uses should be on the minds of those who actually want to change things, not just write placards and post Facebook updates on the struggle. For decades, African-Americans had been invisible, powerless, beneath the terror and tyranny of American segregation, de facto and de jure. Johnson, coming from an impoverished background, sympathized with their plight, along with the plight of the poor Mexicans he taught and worked with in his youth. Everything he did, good or bad, was done with one goal in mind: never to be poor again. Caro puts him up with FDR in his creation of expansive social welfare programs.

All is not sunshine and roses for Johnson either, since Caro analyses his relationship with Bobby Baker, Johnson’s longtime political adviser. Baker’s scandals nearly came to a head in 1963, along with a separate newspaper investigation into Johnson’s finances. Despite being a public employee for decades, his personal fortune made him a millionaire. He also had a tendency to use blackmail and kickbacks to get his way. The specter of Vietnam looms in the background, touched on only briefly, but will be further elaborated on in the final volume. On the other hand, Caro’s multivolume chronicle of Lyndon Johnson gives the reader pause. A massive treatment disarms the usual knee-jerk responses when it comes to one’s opinion about a President. After reading all four volumes, I can’t give an opinion about Lyndon Johnson in the simplistic good/bad terms usually associated with such opinions. The reader will have to come to her own conclusions.

A word about Caro’s method. Readers not interested in historical method can skip this paragraph. Caro uses a plethora of primary and secondary sources, weaving them together to create a grand narrative of Johnson’s life. He quotes from newspapers and oral history interviews. With Robert Kennedy, he uses Kennedy’s oral history interviews from 1968 to color scenes. Sometimes Kennedy’s reminisces match the historical record, sometimes they don’t. It is a fascinating method of psychoanalyzing a deceased subject. At other times, he pieces together scenes based on oral histories he compiled. And as writer of histories, Caro stands shoulder to shoulder with British counterpart Simon Schama. Caro becomes a kind of Pop Foucault in his treatment of Lyndon Johnson. He explores how power is used. The New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses gets a similar treatment in The Power Broker, an earlier biography. Moses took a tiny and powerless government post and turned himself into the most powerful unelected official in New York City. (Caro makes an appearance on this subject in Ric Burns’s documentary series New York.)

For anyone interested in how government works and how it can be used for social change, The Passage of Power comes highly recommended. Why the high score? This is the first perfect 10 I’ve given. Not only is it for the present volume, but in Caro’s ability to weave together the various threads present in the previous three volumes. Besides the historical significance of this volume, Caro is a thrilling writer to read. He possesses an uncanny ability to recreate historic scenes, along with being a master of tone and pacing. The passages following the assassination have a poetic intensity. At the same time, he gives the minutiae of the last-minute battles between the President and Senator Harry Byrd the excitement of a political thriller. Not only does he make the usual dull formalities of legislation interesting, he makes them exciting to read. Furthermore, Caro expands the genre of political biography. He recasts the political irregularities of the 1960 campaign, shedding light on the mini-dictatorships in Texas. While attention has mostly been on Chicago’s place in that controversial election, Caro traces Lyndon Johnson’s handiwork in the matter. He also shows us the fearsome power of the Byrd family of Virginia, every bit as omnipotent and omnipresent as the Kims of North Korea. The book is at once a celebration of the power of participatory democracy and various manifestations of corruption and terror in the process. Johnson’s ambition was to get the Civil Rights Bill passed so that everyone, regardless of skin color, could get the right to vote, since from that right comes all others. Caro has succeeded in creating a book, and a series, that illuminates the risks and rewards in wielding presidential power.

Out of 10: 10

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