A few years back, somebody gave me a copy of The Path to Power, the first book of Robert Caro’s planned five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. My enthusiasm was about as genuine as the combat reports from the Gulf of Tonkin attack that Johnson used as a pretext to launch the Vietnam War. Five books! One for each year of Johnson’s accidental presidency! Did the series include every morning’s breakfast menu? A quick glance at the opening chapter, which started with Texas rainfall reports from 1905 and then reeled backward into accounts of Cherokee Indian attacks of the mid-19th century, seemed to confirm my worst fears. Already I had lost sight of the light at the end of the tunnel.
But once I actually sat down and started reading, my fears quickly disappeared. When I finished a week later, I ran to buy copies of the next two books in the series—Means of Ascent and Master of the Senate—and read them too. By the end of the month, I had madly ripped through more than 2,500 pages about Johnson (and he hadn’t even reached the vice presidency!) and began saying nightly prayers for the good health of Caro, then nearing 70.
So far, they’ve been answered. Caro’s fourth volume, The Passage of Power, is every bit as transfixing as its predecessors and just as detailed. Its 712 pages cover only the years from 1960 to 1963: Johnson’s unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination against John F. Kennedy; the rancorous negotiations that led to Johnson’s inclusion on the ticket; his tormented internal exile in the vice presidency; and the first month of his tempestuous presidency.
Those first 30 days consume nearly 300 pages of text. Caro covers everything from the scandalized reaction of the Kennedy entourage when its members boarded Air Force One for the grim return from Dallas and found Johnson on the phone in the jet’s presidential bedroom to the bemusement of German diplomats eating barbecued spareribs with bare hands at Johnson’s first state dinner. The Passage of Power illustrates again something I learned on the night I reluctantly opened the first volume: Caro’s compulsive accretion of seemingly tangential detail is a strength rather than a weakness.
Those weather reports on the scorching drought that obliterated the tenuous agricultural economy of the central Texas hill country where Johnson grew up, and the tales of the vicious Indian raids (“women impaled on fenceposts and burned; staked out to die under the blazing sun with eyelids removed, or with burning coals heaped on their genitals”) endured by his grandparents and other settlers, were anything but irrelevant. Without them it’s impossible to understand the flinty stock of his early supporters, the low meanness of their lives, or the fanaticism of their support for Johnson when as a young congressional staffer he opened the spigots of New Deal aid into their communities. And because Caro is a masterful storyteller, his accounts never seem to wander off topic.
In The Passage of Power, Caro’s fundamental aim is to show that Johnson, reduced to a sulky mope by serial humiliations at the hands of the Kennedys during his vice presidency, instantly rose to greatness in his handling of the difficult transition following the assassination in Dallas. As long as you don’t confuse greatness with goodness, Caro makes a compelling and highly readable case.
At a dangerous moment for the country—Kennedy had been murdered by a lifelong Marxist who once defected to the Soviet Union and only weeks before the assassination was in Mexico City begging for a visa from Fidel Castro’s Cuban embassy—Johnson held Washington on a peaceful course. He kept peace, too, with a Kennedy team that nearly to a man detested him, seducing some members and quietly neutralizing others. And he rescued Kennedy’s hopelessly stalled congressional agenda with such alacrity that Kennedy’s presidency is remembered as a magical and transformative Camelot rather than what it was, domestically ineffectual and terrifyingly disaster-prone on foreign policy.
Johnson’s role in burnishing Kennedy’s reputation is ironic, because to the Kennedy White House he was anathema. JFK barely tolerated LBJ’s presence, quite literally; White House logs show that the two men spent less than 15 minutes a month alone together in the administration’s final year. And Kennedy’s brother Robert, the attorney general and virtual co-president, openly and proudly hated Johnson. The word hated is neither hyperbole nor to be taken lightly. As Robert’s notoriously ruthless father Joe once said, admiringly: “When Bobby hates you, you stay hated.
John Kennedy, after defeating Johnson in a bitter and dirty campaign for the 1960 nomination, offered him the vice presidential slot only because he needed to carry Texas. (Even so, Bobby spent three frantic hours trying to undo the deal while horrified party leaders looked on.) Once the election was safely won, the Kennedys methodically turned Johnson into what Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) would call “a bull castrated very late in life.”
Johnson would later write that “the White House is small, but if you’re not at the center, it feels enormous.” And he was as far from the center as Kennedy could keep him. Referred to derisively by the White House staff as Colonel Cornpone (“and his little Pork Chop,” if wife Lady Bird was along), Johnson found himself treated as a nonperson, even left off the guest list of official parties. (The gaffes he committed when he did attend didn’t help matters, especially when he tried to dance with one of Kennedy’s concubines and tripped, falling on top of her on the dance floor. “He lay on her like a lox,” reported another guest.)
The freeze-out extended well beyond social territory. Johnson got only a third of the staff he requested, and its members didn’t even technically work for him; they were attached to the Pentagon. He was not only barred from Air Force One but refused regular use of any other government plane as well. His travel requests had to be okayed by a White House clerk. So did his speeches and even his press releases.
And Johnson was excluded from most of the significant decisions of the Kennedy presidency. He wasn’t even in Washington when JFK launched the Bay of Pigs invasion; he wasn’t at the meeting where Kennedy and his intimates decided to end the Cuban missile crisis by offering Nikita Khrushchev a secret promise to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey and a pledge never to invade Cuba. Johnson never even saw Kennedy’s civil rights bill until he was president, reluctantly admitting to reporters that all he knew of it was what he read in The New York Times. He had withered into an obscurity so profound that when the hidden-camera TV show Candid Camera asked random passers-by who Lyndon Johnson was, the closest they got to a correct answer was an unintended but brutal irony: “Well, he’s not president.”
All this is almost—almost—enough to make you feel sorry for Johnson, if he hadn’t already emerged (in Caro’s previous books as well as The Passage of Power) as a liar, a thief, a grotesque bully (favorite management technique: forcing staffers to receive instructions at the open door of his bathroom, where they strained to hear his words over the din of his noisy defecation), and a man of such single-minded ambition that he was already calculating how his moves on the weekend of the assassination would affect his chances of blocking out other potential nominees at the Democratic convention a few months down the road.
And why not? The only reason Johnson accepted the vice presidency was that it put him one thin heartbeat away from the White House, and he was disconcertingly frank in saying so. “Clare, I looked it up,” Johnson told his pal, Time Inc. empress Clare Boothe Luce, as they rode together to Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural. “One out of every four presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”
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