Power Without Principle

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


The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert A. Caro. Knopf, 736 pages, $35

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."

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.

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…"