Power Without Principle

Robert Caro’s epic account of LBJ’s vice presidency

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Johnson began his rise to power as a congressional aide during the New Deal, learning every nook and cranny of the vast new bureaucracies created by Franklin Roosevelt, particularly those in which loose change could be found. His ability to deliver swag to constituents soon got him a congressional seat of his own, then a Senate seat. Johnson had nothing against big government, which was the launching pad of his career, and he appears to have had no philosophy whatsoever about what government could or should do. His only politics were those of ambition, to which spending money is well suited, and the only spending cuts he ever supported were horse trades for something else. If he spent even a few seconds pondering the validity of the advice from Kennedy’s Keynesian economic advisers that a tax cut would—counterintuitively, to most noneconomists—trigger a windfall of new government revenue, Caro hasn’t uncovered them.

It is there, in the realm of ideas, that Caro’s only weakness as a biographer can be found. Simply stated, he doesn’t care much about them: Like Johnson, he’s obsessed with power for its own sake. As subject and biographer, they are perfectly matched, which probably explains how Caro can have spent 40 years writing about a single man.

There’s a telling scene in The Passage of Power that takes place a few weeks after Johnson became president. At a meeting on economic policy, Horace Busby, one of Johnson’s veteran aides, clashed repeatedly with a pair of Kennedy advisers. Afterward, Johnson furiously chewed Busby out. “Here you’ve got Rhodes Scholars and you’ve got PhDs and all like that,” Johnson barked. “And…you’re telling them that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Don’t you understand? These are the people that Kennedy had in there. They’re ipso facto a hell of a lot smarter than you are.”

Caro relates the story as an illustration of the ongoing class warfare between the Kennedys and Johnson, which it certainly was. But neither he nor Johnson seems to care very much about the content of the argument. What mattered was not what anybody thought but who won.

For Johnson, that approach was disastrous; it was those impeccably credentialed, best and brightest Kennedy advisers he kept around who led him into the morass of militarism and social engineering that wrecked his presidency. Caro’s lack of interest in ideas does not matter so much. His small shortcomings in analysis are blown out of the water by his wonderful writing and reporting. The Passage of Power is, quite simply, a joy to read. If nothing else, we owe Caro a mighty debt for reviving the forgotten but delectable Bobby Baker scandal, in which one of Johnson’s cronies used kickbacks from candy machines in aerospace plants to run a Capitol Hill whorehouse where one of the ladies was possibly an East German spy. (Or maybe, as the German Defense Ministry claimed, she was just exercising her “somewhat nymphomaniacal tendencies.”)

And who will ever forget Caro’s account of the LBJ Special, a 13-car train that whistle-stopped through the South during the final weeks of the 1960 campaign? Blaring “The Yellow Rose of Texas” from a loudspeaker, the train pulled into little towns like Greer, South Carolina, where Johnson staged hurry-up meet-and-greets with local celebrities and brayed nonstop stump speeches that could still be heard as the train pulled away: “God bless you, Greer! Vote Democratic! Bobby, turn off that fuckin’ yeller rose…” 

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  • Drake||

    LBJ was never great or good. He was the opposite in every way.

  • Another David||

    LBJ was one of the most skilled politicians to ever set foot in Washington. The man could pretty much make laws as he saw fit. He also didn't give a rat's ass about the effects of the policies he pushed through Congress, and fucked things up royally as a result, but that doesn't invalidate his ability to manipulate the mechanisms of power.

  • Raven Nation||

    "As long as you don’t confuse greatness with goodness, Caro makes a compelling and highly readable case."

    Yeah, that's about what I remember from the portion of one of the volumes I read. Caro's argument seemed to be "LBJ was a complete a-hole, but since he (mostly) pursued good causes, then it's excusable."

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    That was the impression I got from reading The Path to Power--"Sure, Johnson was a racist, mysoginistic dick, but he helped these Mexican kids in their debate class and brought electricity to the hayseeds!"

    That said, Master of the Senate is actually really good. For political junkies, it's like crack reading about the various machinations of Congress, and really highlights what a crafty politician LBJ was.

  • Raven Nation||

    Kind of like a close up of watching the hot dog getting produced?

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    "All this is almost—almost—enough to make you feel sorry for Johnson"

    Nah.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    His standard approach to difficult political problems was to run away

    Gee, maybe Obama really is the modern JFK.

  • ||

    There really are a lot of parallels.

    No executive experience, or any real work experience at all for that matter.

    And while BO didn't grow up with the same level of comfort as Kennedy he has the same sense of entitlement in spades.

    The only place where they differge in with the pussy hunting. Unless BO is keeping secrets. Jack was utterly blatant about it to the point that the Secret Service was really concerned, the press today would never keep it quiet the way the press did then.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    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

    God, was there ever a worse political hack disguised as an "academic" than Schlesinger? Talk about someone whose reputation is way out of proportion to his actual abilities. Guys like him basically laid the foundation for the Howard Zinns of the last century to legitimize cultural marxism as an academic keystone.

  • rts||

    LBJ: The President Who Marked His Territory

    Once, he even relieved himself on a Secret Serviceman who was shielding him from public view. When the man looked horrified, Johnson simply said, "That’s all right, son. It’s my prerogative."

    No idea on the veracity of this.

  • Drake||

    It wouldn't suprise me. The man was a piece of shit.

    Caro can use this story in the sequel when he explains how "the great" LBJ got us into our most disastrous war - against the advise of every one of the Joint Chiefs.

    http://hnn.us/node/34024

  • ||

    Thanks for the link to an excellent piece.

  • ||

    I still haven't started the LBJ books. I only read The Power Broker...which was absolutely fascinating. I recall Caro being a bit too sympathetic towards modern urban planners, but still, I left the book with a keen understanding of Fuck You, That's Why. I suspect I'd come out of LBJ with FUCK YOU, THAT'S WHY.

  • John Thacker||

    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

    Harry Byrd was Virginia, not West Virginia. Pay As You Go and the Byrd Organization was synonymous with Virginia Politics for 50 years.

  • ||

    Michael Dukakis, who famously proclaimed that the 1988 presidential election was not about ideology but about competence—and then watched in horror as his pardon of torture-rapist Willie Horton was hung around his neck

    Dukakis did not pardon Willie Horton: Dukakis fought to keep the weekend furlough program open even for prisoners sentenced to life in prison.

  • wef||

    OK, so Kennedy and Johnson were mafia thugs.

    I still don't understand why I should waste time reading about these twisted creeps.

  • John Galt||

    Eventually my second wife almost ran out of vile hurtful names to call me. Finally, one day she glared at me with burning hate in her eyes and called me "Lyndon Baines Johnson. Then she was out.

    And, although, along the way, I had become quite calloused and unfeeling concerning her many insults hurled my way...that last one really stung.

  • jason||

    Power without principle is not the resultant because it is directionless and creates anarchy.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    What really strikes me is that, while Johnson was a classless douche, the Kennedys were really just as - no, more - douchey than Johnson. I'm sorry, but cheating on your wife with every chippy that comes along, passing a mistress from one brother to another and putting out mob hits makes you trailer trash, no matter how nice your suit or posh your summer home.

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  • شات عراقنا||

    very nice

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