Johnson in the White House

The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume Four: The Passage of Power
by Robert A. Caro
Bodley Head, 2012, 712 pages, $65

No other US president sows historical confusion amongst American liberals like Lyndon Baines Johnson. On one side of the balance sheet is his “Great Society” foray into fighting poverty through civil rights and infusions of welfare; on the other sits Vietnam. And then there is the unscrupulousness of this overpowering and incorrigibly crude figure, made all the more galling by political skills that vastly exceeded those of the adored John F. Kennedy. East Coast liberals disdained him as a schemer, and a southern one at that—certainly not one of them. Small wonder that the parlour game of ranking presidents throws up all kinds of results for LBJ.

Even by the rich standards of American political lives, Johnson is an extraordinary subject for a biography. His ascent of the political ladder is reminiscent of the fictional Willie Stark of All the King’s Men, except that Johnson reached the very highest rung. The latest instalment of Robert Caro’s massive account of this rise sits atop three predecessor volumes that have already won a mighty reputation. Volume one appeared in 1982 and charted the small-town Texan origins of what Caro calls Johnson’s “political genius”. The second covered the 1948 campaign that transformed Johnson from minor congressman to senator. Its account of electoral fraud and intimidation still shocks. The third volume, Master of the Senate, covers Johnson’s glory years in the fifties as an unprecedentedly powerful Senate majority leader. Each is largely self-contained (at the cost of some tolerable repetition) and reminds us of how much US politics is conducted outside the White House.

Ten years have passed since the appearance of that third instalment. The end is just in sight as volume four finally elevates Johnson to the White House, and we are promised a concluding fifth volume on the unexpected collapse of his presidency. Does this colossal work in progress live up to claims that it is the greatest political biography of our time? Can it surpass Martin Gilbert on Churchill, Ian Kershaw on Hitler and, perhaps, Australia’s Philip Dwyer’s ongoing study of Napoleon?

Caro began his researches when most of Johnson’s confederates were still available for interview. (The man himself died aged sixty-four in 1973, fulfilling his own prophecy that he would die prematurely, like many other Johnson men.) Lady Bird Johnson, a truly long-suffering wife, granted some interviews before abruptly withdrawing as Caro’s lines of inquiry became clear.

As a journalist of the highest calibre, Caro has developed a near-mystical fascination with the nature of political power. Johnson’s outlandish persona and acute grasp of the principles of power play perfectly to Caro’s own strengths. Johnson was ahead of his time in that his political professionalism overlay a grasp of policy that hardly extended beyond a few fuzzy ideas about social justice. Although a consummate liar, Johnson’s claims to have experienced hardship in his youth had some basis and fuelled an often well-hidden determination to attack poverty.

Caro does something few biographers do today—he anatomises a unique character in full and credible detail, then applies this to drive a remarkable story. Johnson’s obsessive need to dominate hardly makes him unique in the political zoo. His distinguishing feature is that he developed rare skills that set him far above the garden-variety schemer. He sensed possibilities that others glossed over; applied pugnacious charm; neatly judged when to avoid risking defeat; revelled in his own brand of physical intimidation (“the Johnson treatment”); and made a speciality of determining other men’s exploitable weaknesses. The Karsh photo on the cover only hints at his overpowering presence.

The first three volumes have the advantage over the fourth of revealing an early life few would be familiar with. From early adulthood, Johnson was driven by a visceral determination. At teachers’ college he won student elections by means that included the petty blackmailing of an opponent. Dubious tactics also featured in his election as chair of the “Little Congress”, a debating society for congressional staffers. In both instances he was first to spot the possibilities of nominally piddling positions. The student union helped give him a say in the dispensing of campus jobs during the Depression. Chairing the Little Congress provided access to real congressmen to fawn upon.

Volume four presents two central dramas—Johnson’s acceptance of the Democratic Party nomination for vice-president, and his unexpectedly skilful assumption of the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination.

Johnson desperately wanted to be president. The “LBJ” tag was a conscious aping of his first great mentor, Roosevelt, “FDR”. The emerging theme of Caro’s massive study—or drama, really—is that Johnson bore such flaws of character that he could not make it to the presidency alone and was destined to fail in office once he achieved his goal. Perhaps Johnson feared this himself. He was curiously reluctant to declare himself a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination in 1960.

Johnson had long thought that effort and will would always win, including his party’s nomination for the presidency. Then along came a junior senator he had misjudged as a nonentity. To his dying day, Johnson remained baffled by Kennedy’s magical appeal for the American public. His accepting Kennedy’s offer of the vice-presidential nomination has long been seen as a mystery unresolvable amidst the fog of wheeling and dealing at the Democratic convention. The chapter title, “The Back Stairs”, refers to a discreet route between the Kennedy and Johnson suites at the convention centre, up and down which ran the two men and their emissaries.

Caro considers then discards the widespread belief that Kennedy offered Johnson the second spot on the ticket as a mere courtesy to a party elder and was stunned by his acceptance. As always, he presents a detailed drama of plotting, counter-proposals and confrontations. At one point Kennedy successfully sought a blessing of the deal from one of the few men Johnson deferred to, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, a sure sign he was serious.

Johnson’s move to the comparatively vacuous vice-presidency amazed many. “Power is where power goes,” he explained. Although conspiracist claims linking Johnson to the death of Kennedy are baseless, he coldly calculated that his only remaining chance of being president was to become vice-president and then wait and wonder.

This “coarse, ruthless, often cruel man” was frequently pathetically fearful. He felt humiliated by loss of authority, and so hated his descent from mastery of the Senate to the vice-presidency. His attempts to reassert authority over the Senate and to acquire a slice of presidential power were readily deflected. Johnson’s other major biographer, Robert Dallek, claims that President Kennedy was anxious to assuage Johnson. Maybe, but Caro’s deeper delving into the psychology of his subject portrays Johnson as shrivelling with shame. White House aides, an in-group “in love with their own sophistication”, derided him as “Rufus Cornpone” from the south. (He called them “the Harvards” in return.) Resembling “a bull castrated late in life”, Johnson hung about the White House like an aimless outsider.

He was also shackled by the long-standing loathing of the real number two in the Kennedy White House, brother Robert. Young Kennedy is himself subjected to the Caro treatment, giving us a picture of an intense and spiteful young man with much growing up still ahead of him. The relationship of the two was destined to be reversed in an instant one day in Dallas in 1963.

The assassination is reconstructed entirely from Johnson’s perspective—Johnson travelling in a limousine behind that of the Kennedys; a secret serviceman hearing a shot and leaping atop Johnson and his wife; Johnson at Parkland Memorial Hospital waiting grimly for the word on Kennedy; and finally Johnson over-ruling advice that Air Force One should take off immediately for Washington as he sought the judge of his choice to administer the oath of office. 

Johnson visibly regained his former assertiveness. Within days “an aura of competence and determination … emanated from the White House”. By an effort of will he worked well enough with the Kennedy crew. Johnson didn’t merely ride the wave of sympathy for his murdered predecessor—he drew to the full on his immense talent for navigating the tortuous passages through which the Congress legislates.

Power reveals, says Caro. Even he freely acknowledges that it was Johnson who now broke the Congressional logjam on civil rights for black Americans. His moves on welfare and the dismantling of segregation in the South astonished many, and to Caro they offer “new insight into some fundamental realities about the pragmatic potential in the American presidency”. Johnson did more than anyone to bring the South into the American mainstream. He made the US system work in the sense of leading the Congress to pass a stream of legislation. But this biography otherwise demonstrates many of the problems of US government—ramshackle electoral practices, a politicised bureaucracy and over-reliance on staffers whose first loyalty is to an individual.

Johnson was particularly anxious to head off a looming rabble of politically charged investigations of the assassination that could inflame tensions with the USSR. Caro’s account of the formation of the Warren Commission focuses on a classic Johnson working over of Senator Richard Russell, former leader of the southern Democrats in the Senate and a former mentor of Johnson.

Caro himself has a style so distinct that it could almost be satirised. He starts sub-chapters with a portentous short sentence, then proceeds to set out the clashes and courses of events. This is invariably massively detailed but stays focused and flows smoothly. Some points may be laboured, yet interest never flags. Even long digressions on familiar topics succeed, such is Caro’s clarity and eye for the engrossing—JFK’s early life, the rise of Robert Kennedy, the full course of the Cuban missile crisis and many others. There are no abstractions or ideologies. Personalities and their interaction are everything.

Even without volume five we’ve seen enough for judgment to be passed that this is a great work, easily the most distinctive political biography of our era. Its signs of greatness are an exact delineation of how Johnson exercised power, the full exploration of a huge subject into innumerable unlit corners of politics and the human psyche, and, not least, a near-unflagging fascination for the reader. There is indeed such a thing as journalistic literature.

Caro’s comfort zone is the anatomisation of character as a driver of power, not policy per se. To take this biography to its fullest potential, volume five needs to provide a convincing assessment of the legacy of Johnson’s presidency. Caro must weigh up whether the Great Society really addressed the causes of poverty and what, if any, credible alternatives Johnson had to using armed force in Vietnam. Thus far, Caro has signalled only in summary that he attributes much to Vietnam, including a leaching away of faith in the presidency. But he has still achieved much already—no less than the most compelling challenge so far to the Keynes dictum about the ultimate power of ideas. Johnson knew better.

Stephen Wilks, a freelance writer, lives in Canberra.

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