Wherein Our Antihero finally reaches the White House, but as Vice President, is profoundly depressed by the experience and then experiences a classic reversal of fortune. I'm not just kidding or making Bryan Cranston jokes when I say the whole thing reminds me of Breaking Bad
, season 4, because Walt there ( does spoilery stuff. )
Now Robert A. Caro emphasizes not once but twice that in all his decades of research he has found nothing to suggest Johnson had anything to do with the Kennedy assassination, but otherwise there are certainly parallels. The Passage of Power
starts with the presidential campaign leading up to 1960, in which Johnson entered almost absurdly late, given that this was his life long goal. Caro suggests two main reasons for this: firstly, precisely because
this was the life long goal and this was the hour; some last minute insecurity. Secondly, good old hubris; Johnson thought he had it locked, because as majority leader in the Senate, he controlled many of the worthies of the Democratic Party, and the competition were Stevenson, who'd lost two campaigns already, Stymington, whom nobody knew on a national level, and Kennedy, whom Johnson saw as a lightweight, in office only via his father's money, with no track record of his own. So there was no need to go through all the gruelling primaries. Caro then argues that Johnson, rare in his political life, made several miscaculations at once: for starters, he underestimated that the election process was changing, and the influence the new medium television had (whereas Kennedy was one of the first politicians who really understood what you could do with tv). And secondly, he seriously underestimated John F. Kennedy. Given that the Kennedys, Jack and Bobby, are in a way the antagonists in this book, as well as two of the most important "new" characters, I'm all the more impressed that Caro manages to maintain his top quality fo three dimensional characterisation with them. JFK's image has varied between dead hero and no good playboy in the tons of volumes written in the decades after his death; here in Caro's book, he comes across as more than just a pretty face and Sorensen-written inspiring words; Caro points out that all those illnesses, especially Addinson's disease, which the Kennedys were so keen to hide because they conflicted with the healthy athletic image appealing to the voters, actually made a positive point about the level of willpower Kennedy had, since he hardly spent any day in his life without physical pain and yet never complained about it. And of course he was very good at thinking on his feet and making unscripted quick retorts, which was a great advantage when campaigning. If "The Path to Power" gave an extended history on the Hill Country of Texas and "Master of the Senate" on the US Senate from the Founding Fathers onwards, the extended flashbacks in Passage of Power
are first on JFK and then, later, on Bobby Kennedy.
The whole Kennedy saga is of course even in my part of the world pretty familiar in the outlines, but not from LBJ's point of view. What Johnson thought the Vice Presidency, once he'd lost the nomination itself and Kennedy had made his offer, would be be like if Kennedy won was essentially what Dick Cheney got with George W. Bush: Johnson, als the older and experienced politician with all the connections, would virtually co-rule and dominate, since the younger man was there courtesy of Dad's money anyway, and not because he could actually do stuff. He was very quickly disillusioned, and not just by the Kennedys; the first time when he visited his old domain, the senate, which as Vice President he had to anyway, according to the eye witness descriptions Caro quotes he intended to basically continue as majority leader (making his actual successor are mere prop), which was met by indignation from the senators who'd previously bowed to him. When he visited the cloakroom where he'd made many deals, he was ignored. This turned out to be tone setting for the next three years. Vice President sounds like a frustrating office in any case, but Caro points out that Johnson saw more of Roosevelt - in terms of actual meetings and shared personal time, not in terms of Roosevelt having general meetings with Congress delegations - when he, LBJ, was a young Congressman in his 20s than he did of Kennedy during Kennedy's entire time in office when he was Kennedy's VP. He'd gone from one of the most powerful men in Washington to a joke figure with no influence on anyone, and soon everyone knew it. There is one episode Caro singles out that illustrates this crystal clear: when Sarah T. Hughes, a sixty-four-year-old lawyer and longtime Johnson ally was suggested by LBJ in early 1961 for a Federal District Court judgeship, the reply from the Justice Department (headed, of course, by Robert Kennedy) was that she was too old, since they were trying to get younger judges on the federal bench. Quoth Caro: In turning her down, however, the Kennedys had been unaware of a salient fact: Ms. Hughes was an ally not only of Lyndon Johnson but of Sam Rayburn. (...)(A)after several months Robert Kennedy realized that a bill important to him, one that he had expected to make its way smoothly through the House Judiciary Committee, was in fact making no progress at all. He asked Rayburn for an explanation - and got it. "That Bill of yours will pass when Sarah Hughes gets appointed," the Speaker said. Bobby explained that she had been ruled too old for the job. "Sonny, everybody seems old to you," Rayburn replied. Ms. Hughes' appointment was announced the next day. Rayburn's remark - and Hughes' appointment - had occured while Johnson was on an overseas trip for the President. When he returned, O'Donnell sas, "You never saw such an outrage. He went through an act which is beyond belief with the President and me. 'Mr. President, you realize where this leaves me? Sarah Hughes now thinks I'm nothing.' (...) The outrage was understandable. In the Evans and Novak summary, "The Speaker had demonstrated that he possessed enough power to make the Attorney General waive the age requirement" - and that Johnson didn't.
Being thought of as nothing, as the preceding volumes demonstrated, was just about the worst thing that could happen to LBJ. Flash forward to November 22nd, 1963: Johnson automatically became President the moment JFK died, so there was no real need for him to be sworn in, let alone be sworn in in Dallas, other than the symbolic one. However, not only did he insist on the ceremony taking place in Dallas, he also requested a specific judge: Sarah Hughes. (Who, I hear, to this day is the only female judge to swear in a President.)
Caro does make you feel sorry for Johnson through the almost three years of humiliation and powerlessness, but he never lets you forget Johnson himself had been an expert in humiliating people (and would be again). He also doesn't fall into the easy trap of playing to stereotypes in oder to win sympathy for his subject (those rich kids and poor Lyndon from the Hill Country): Robert Kennedy's darker side - the ruthlessness, the ability to hate on a match with Johnson's - Caro calls theirs the biggest blood feud in American 20th century politics - gets described, but so do his better qualities (the ability to question his own judgment, instinctive sympathy for underdogs (and actions following up on this). As someone who has read a great deal of biographies in her time: it's a rare thing if a biographer bothers to do that with people who aren't their main subject.
And then, of course, we get to Dallas. Caro builds this up like a thriller, making a good case that Johnson might not have been on the 1964 ticket and in any case had a financial scandal hanging over him through his protegé Bobby Baker, so he likely was at his most depressed and hopeless. And then, everything changes. From the moment Kenny O'Donnell tells him at the hospital that Kennedy is dead, Johnson-the-depressed-VP is gone and Johnson-the-Master-Politician has returned, taking charge, organizing the transition, and then, once back in Washington, getting bills languishing for now leven months through the house with breathtaking speed. He had very practical reasons for this: 1964 was an election year, and because of his powerlessness in the preceding years, his time as Master of the Senate had already been forgotten by the public in as much as they knew about it in the first place. If he wanted to do more than serving out the rest of JFK's term, he needed to impress, and to impress fast. And impress he did. (This included the African-American leaders of the five key civil rights organizations, with whom Johnson promptly had a strategy coordinating meeting; quoth Martin Luther King, "LBJ is a man of great ego and great power. He is a pragmatist and a man of pragmatic compassion. It just may be that he's going to go where John Kennedy couldn't.") The description of Johnson doing his cajoling, intimidating and bargaining and the bills being passed through during his first seven weeks in office make the last part of the book exhilarating to read, but Caro also foreshadows, inevitably, Vietnam, a subject his next book will deal with. He ends this volume at what he suggests may have been Johnson's finest hour: turning a tragedy which would have been the trigger of a terrible national and international crisis (especially if anyone had openly accused the Russians or the Cubans of having plotted Kennedy's death) into the beginning of a series of direly needed reforms, managing to work with people who'd openly ridiculed and despised him (for now; everyone was aware that should Johnson win an election in his own right, things might get different very quickly) instead of giving into the urge for vengeance (except for one case, and even with RFK, he limited himself to one thing), and using all his experience for the best.
Vietnam isn't the only thing he foreshadows. As in his introduction to his first volume on Johnson, Caro argues that while Nixon did much of the damage on how an US President was perceived in his country, the loss of the automatic reverence and respect for the office started under Johnson. Caro seems to regard the loss of "the respect and reference for the institution" as a tragedy, which I'm not sure I concurr with, not to mention that when I visited the US for the first time at age 14 as part of a student exchange programm, it was the year of Reagan's reelection, and the Reagon adoration in my host family and their friends was as uncritical as they come. Which bewildered me. Anyway, I should think it's good if a head of state isn't automatically revered because he's the head of state, if he - or she! - has to earn that respect first. Be that as it may: this multivolume biography is incredibly compelling, and I can only hope Mr. Caro survives to complete the last part, seeing as he's 76 already. In his books, he describes Johnson's habit of absorbing the people who worked for him; I wonder whether he ever feels this happened to him, too?