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Johnson’s estimation of the Kennedys was certainly no higher than theirs of him. He regarded John as a playboy lightweight, a description not without merit. When Kennedy, while serving in the Senate, had been asked to chair a foreign relations subcommittee on Africa, he answered with a plaintive question: “If I take it, will it ever have to meet?” Assured that it wouldn’t, Kennedy grudgingly accepted. His standard approach to difficult political problems was to run away: When the Senate was voting on the censure of disgraced red hunter Joe McCarthy, a family friend, Kennedy conveniently absented himself.
In retrospect, given the copious amount of bad blood between Johnson and the Kennedys, it’s hard to imagine that they co-existed for nearly three years. And perhaps they weren’t going to continue doing so. Despite a flood of denials over the years from Kennedy hagiographers such as Arthur Schlesinger, who have tried to portray the brothers as generous and placid men incapable of grudges and political ambition (and, conversely, painted Johnson as a reptilian paranoid), Caro has assembled considerable evidence that the Kennedys were on the verge of dumping Johnson from the 1964 ticket. For one thing, Bobby Kennedy was developing a yen to succeed his brother in the White House in 1968, and removing Johnson would clear a significant obstacle.
And for another, Johnson’s ability to swing the Texas vote again was in question. His diminished influence in Washington, coupled with his home state’s infatuation with the rising local star John Connally, had cost him control of the feud-prone state Democratic Party. Any notions the Kennedys had about Johnson’s lingering political clout in his home state were surely settled by the president’s November trip to Dallas. JFK spent the last morning of his life like a substitute teacher trying to impose order on an unruly classroom of third-graders, ordering quarreling Texas Democrats to accept their assigned seating in motorcade cars and fund-raising banquets.
Given a background like this, you can see why Caro believes Johnson’s accession to the presidency was the stuff of greatness. It’s the tale of how Johnson unblocked the congressional logjam of Kennedy’s domestic bills that most fascinates him. Those bills included not only the plans for a tax cut that, the New Frontiersmen believed, would goose the economy and produce a gusher of new government tax revenue (that’s right, Kennedy’s version of Keynesian economics looked a lot like Ronald Reagan’s version of supply-side economics) but his civil rights bill and even the national budget. Despite a large Democratic majority in Congress, Kennedy hadn’t been able to steer any significant legislation through it.
The problem was the Southern Democrats, whose awesome tenure gave them control of nearly every significant congressional committee. Using slowdown tactics (and holding in reserve their nuclear option, the filibuster, which their votes made nearly impossible to override), the Southerners were fighting the civil rights bill by holding everything else hostage, confident that at the last minute Kennedy would jettison civil rights to save the rest of his legislation. Johnson, who during his 33 years in the House and the Senate had been field manager for the Southerners’ scorched-earth battles against civil rights, had tried to warn Kennedy to get his other programs passed first before sending the civil rights bill along. But as usual, the White House wasn’t listening to him.
Johnson saw the salvation of Kennedy’s legislation as a way to make himself look like a leader (and a viable 1964 candidate) rather than a caretaker. He immediately put most of his opponents on the defensive by draping the bills—and, by extension, himself—in the raiment of Kennedy’s martyrdom: “So let us here highly resolve that John Fitzgerald Kennedy did not live or die in vain!”
From there, he sorted it all out with a mixture of personal terrorism, cajolery, and adroit manipulation of parliamentary rules. On some recalcitrant legislators, he came on like a Mafia don, recalling an incident earlier in his career when he warned an errant colleague, “I’m going to give you a three-minute lesson in integrity. And then, I’m going to ruin you.” Others, like Harry Byrd (D-W.Va.), the craggy pay-as-you-go chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who had bottled up Kennedy’s tax cut, were flattered and beseeched. “I’ve seen him kiss Harry Byrd’s ass until it was disgusting,” reported one Johnson crony, equal parts appalled and admiring.
Curiously, Caro pays comparatively little attention to the other main thread of Johnson’s efforts to smooth the presidential transition: his appointment of the Warren Commission, purportedly to investigate the assassination but really to calm mounting speculation of a foreign hand in Kennedy’s death. In post–Oliver Stone America, we tend to associate Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories with the Mafia, Texas oilmen, the CIA, or even Johnson himself. But in the days following the assassination, talk of conspiracy invariably focused on assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s connections to foreign communism. Had the public known, as Johnson did, that the Kennedy brothers had spent much of the previous two years trying to kill Castro with exploding seashells and poisoned cigars, the fears would have pyramided.
Caro essentially dismisses all this as right-wing claptrap. Johnson did not. In the days after the assassination, he wondered if Kennedy’s involvement with plots to kill Castro or his involvement with a military coup that toppled and killed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem just a couple of weeks earlier had triggered a “divine retribution.” (Characteristically, Johnson repeated his theory in front of a staffer he knew would repeat it to Bobby Kennedy, twisting it like a knife into his guilty Catholic conscience.) Johnson’s theory turned less cosmological over the years as he learned more about the Kennedy White House’s use of the Mafia to stalk Castro. “We were running a damned Murder Incorporated down there in the Caribbean,” Johnson said later. “Kennedy was trying to get Castro, but Castro got him first.”
But in November 1963, Johnson was not searching for truth or justice, just stability. Kennedy’s administration had been one eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Soviets after another, from the Bay of Pigs invasion to the Berlin Wall to the Cuban missile crisis, and any hint that Castro or the Soviets had even an indirect link to the assassination could well have meant war. The Warren Commission—seven men with impeccable establishment credentials, including former CIA Director Allen Dulles to ward off any pulling of threads that might lead back to the Castro murder plots—saw to it that none was established.
The Warren Commission was a short-term success in defusing the mounting tension over the assassination, but in the long run the obvious gaps in its report (even if, ultimately, it correctly identified Oswald as the assassin) corrosively undermined the credibility of American government. That makes Caro’s relative lack of interest in the commission (which, to be fair, may receive greater attention in his final volume) odder still, because it goes to the heart of what really interests him.
Like Michael Dukakis, who famously proclaimed that the 1988 presidential election was not about ideology but about competence—and then watched in horror as his work furlough for imprisoned torture-rapist Willie Horton was hung around his neck—Caro has a high regard for “governance,” the ability to press the levers of legislative and bureaucratic power. I once saw him, during a TV interview, recoil from a question about whether he “liked” LBJ. “People are always asking me, do I like him or dislike him?” he complained. “You know, those words don’t even apply to my feelings about him. I’m watching a man who was a genius in the use of political power. I’m awed by him.”
Yet it was precisely Johnson’s belief that there were no limits to what government, skillfully invoked, could do that ran his presidency so hideously off the rails. He thought racial animus and poverty could be legislated away and that Ho Chi Minh (who had defied French colonialism for 30 years before decisively defeating it) could be bent to his will via bomb tonnage. His failures were so abject that, four years after defeating Barry Goldwater by the biggest voting margin in U.S. history, he was so totally and obviously unelectable that he didn’t even run.
Amusingly, the Kennedys regarded Johnson as a heartless right-wing ideologue. “What does he know about people who’ve got no jobs?” Bobby asked family speechwriter Richard Goodwin. “Or are uneducated? He’s got no feelings for people who are hungry.” (Who, apparently, were regular participants in the touch-football games the Kennedy kids staged in their Hyannis Port compound when they weren’t counting their trust funds.)
This was a misreading of Johnson on many levels. He certainly had a more intimate acquaintance with poverty than did the Kennedys, having grown up in a hardscrabble Texas farm town where his family survived mostly on meals cooked by charitable neighbors. He went not to Harvard but Southwestern Texas State, where there was just one Ph.D. on the whole faculty. It was the school of last resort for kids who couldn’t afford the University of Texas. More fundamentally, Johnson was not a conservative by any measure except civil rights, on which he toed the Southern Democrat line.