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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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