Michael's Reviews > The Passage of Power

The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro
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's review
Aug 25, 2012

it was amazing
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Read from August 25 to September 14, 2012

I don't usually read biography books (especially 1000 page ones) but the subject of Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton's wonderful review in the NY Times made me want to read this one.
LBJ first came to my attention when, as an 18 year-old, I watched the 1960 Democratic convention and heard all about the surprise and controversy associated with him being selected as JFK's running mate. This was not a big item of interest for me at the time and during the next 3 1/2 years Johnson was largely forgotten and ignored as JFK captured the imagination of the nation and young people like myself. Then in November, 1963 the world changed and suddenly this stranger was cast into the leadership of the country. Robert Caro's magnificent fourth installment, covering LBJ's life during the period roughly from 1960-1965 sheds light on how this man who had grown up poor to become the most powerful man in Congress (as covered in Caro's first three volumes) and rose to the occasion, despite all expectations, to masterfully assume leadership and take control of the government, and then advance the most meaningful social legislation since FDR. He completely changed all perceptions about himself by remaking his personality in order to assume this power during this critical period in our history.

Lyndon Johnson had been a ruthless, power broker in the senate, as Majority leader who used every trick in the book from bullying and intimidation to fawning and supplication depending on the position of his opponent in dealing with members of congress to get what he wanted. He knew every man’s weakness and extracted favors from them. He was not above or below using any tactic that would put him in a position of total power over his adversary and always knew what the vote count was on any issue beforehand. LBJ had always had one burning desire to attain the highest position of power - the U.S. Presidency. He had only one fear and that was to experience humiliation as a result of failure. This fear came about from having watched his father fall from a position of prominence into humiliating poverty during his youth.

Caro sheds light on how he came about in becoming JFK's running mate in 1960. Johnson desperately wanted to be President but was so afraid of trying and failing that he let every opportunity to promote himself, through his refusal to run in primaries and declining speaking invitations, slip by until it was too late. He also knew that no southerner could win the nomination outright at that time. After reconciling to this he would not actively pursue the nomination. His thinking was that he could avoid failure and still get it via a brokered convention if his opponents couldn't get a majority of votes locked up beforehand. To his rare surprise, JFK was able to get the nomination on the first ballot. Johnson knew his hopes of ever becoming President were over unless he gave up his position in the Senate and found a way to become Vice President. He even had researched and calculated the odds of becoming President if his successor died in office. He was surprised when the Vice Presidency was quietly offered to him by JFK, who was thinking he needed him to carry the south in the national election. Even so it is not clear that JFK really wanted him and expected him to turn it down knowing that LBJ would be giving up his position of power in the Senate to take a meaningless job as VP. Robert Kennedy, who was sent to inform LBJ, had an ongoing hatred of Johnson and almost sabotaged the arrangement. But to everyone’s surprise, he took it and they barely carried the south in winning the election. Once in office, Kennedy then largely ignored Johnson and gave him meaningless jobs. Kennedy’s staff and especially Bobby were openly hostile and demeaning to him, referring to him as uncle “cornpone”. Johnson went into a depression and was withdrawn during the next three years, thinking his career in politics and his dream of becoming President was over. Even as Kennedy was crafting his civil rights legislation, Johnson was not consulted to aid in getting it through congress. In fact it was stalled, and all of Kennedy’s other critical legislation including a tax reduction was tied up with it. Johnson knew this would happen and had even warned some staffers that the legislation would get stopped by the key southern block and that Kennedy should be making sure all his other legislation should be getting pushed before civil rights so that it couldn’t be used to hold everything else up. Then November 22 came and everything changed.

Of the seven previous presidential transitions due to death of a sitting president, probably none had happened under such challenging conditions. For one thing, the 1964 election was less than a year away (and Johnson was likely to be dumped from the ticket) and the world was now a much more dangerous place with nuclear power and a very hot cold war with the Soviet Union underway. In addition, the very day of the assassination his close friend and associate Bobby Baker was being called before congress on governmental corruption charges which likely would have ensnared Johnson as well. All of this helped create later speculation of Johnson’s possible involvement in the assassination.

That day in Dallas, however, Johnson demonstrated a calm leadership in rapidly assuming command and persuading loyal Kennedy staffer’s to support him. In the first few days he pulled together and met with world leaders, congressional leaders, governors, civil rights leaders, and the national press to rally behind his leadership and then addressed the nation on television and within seven weeks gave a triumphal first State of the Union Address. The Johnson that the public saw was strong, decisive and humble but he used every device in his arsenal to get his way including the nation’s grief to get control. He rescued and greatly expanded Kennedy’s faltering legislation by declaring an “All out War on Poverty” program, which may never have otherwise have been passed, by courting and outfoxing powerful legislative leaders such as Harry Byrd and Richard Russell. He managed not only to get the tax cut bill passed first, to free up the civil rights legislation, but he actually reduced the federal budget below $100 Billion (hard to believe vs. today’s budgets).

Johnson went on to enact landmark legislation such as the 1965 Voting Rights bill, Medicare/Medicaid, and the Head Start Program. This, from a southern conservative senator who probably never would have been initially elected as President. For all his faults (and likely corruption), Johnson was among the greatest Presidents ever, based upon his legislative achievements. After reading this book, and understanding his personal demons of failure and humiliation, I can now better understand why this man of such political savvy would have gotten himself entangled into the Viet Nam war and undone all the positive that he gave to our country. Certainly his actions ended up affecting my life more than any President since his time (Viet Nam and Medicare being two polar opposites). Once we were initially involved (by Kennedy) he could never admit defeat and he double downed on his stakes. One wonders what might have happened if Kennedy had lived and had found a way of tapping Johnson’s political skills, what wonderful and lasting things could have been accomplished. While Kennedy had great charm, vision, and style in capturing the nation’s dreams and aspirations, Johnson had the real substance needed to carry them out and make them happen. However, after better understanding Johnson’s personality and driving forces from this book, one can see that he never could have shared power with Kennedy or anyone else. His statement about what else is the presidency for other than to use it’s power says it all. With him it was all or nothing. Probably Kennedy understood this about him very well.

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