Tragedy and triumph

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert Caro, Knopf $35/Bodley Head £30, 736 pages

Robert Caro started work on The Years of Lyndon Johnson in 1976, and since then has created what has become one of the most compelling political narratives of the past half-century. It’s a richly detailed account of an extraordinary politician – ruthless, crude and manipulative, but also the man responsible more than any other for desegregating America.

And it’s much more than this. These volumes paint a vivid picture of how political power worked in the US during the middle of the 20th century, at local, state and national level, culminating with Johnson’s years in the most powerful job in the world. What fascinates Caro more than anything else – and explains his devoted following among political leaders in the UK as well as the US – is the subject of power: where it comes from, how it’s used and the ways in which it can be deployed to shape events.

The Passage of Power is the fourth volume in the series, and in some ways is the most exciting of them all. It starts in 1958, with LBJ’s hesitant and ultimately unsuccessful run for the Democratic party nomination in 1960. Then comes the humiliation of his time as vice-president, when he learnt what being without power meant in a city where power was everything.

The second half of the book covers in gripping detail the horrors of Kennedy’s assassination, seen as never before through the eyes of Johnson and his entourage. It concludes with a day-by-day account of the first few weeks of LBJ’s administration, when he grasped the levers of power and set off to make his own mark on the presidency. Warned by one of his advisers not to use up too much political capital at an early stage on the apparently hopeless quest for civil rights, he growled: “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Johnson’s mistake had been to underestimate the Kennedys. He never rated JFK in the Senate, “a young whippersnapper, malaria-ridden and yellow, sickly, sickly”. His loathing of brother Bobby, which was mutual, further soured the relationship.

Why did LBJ agree to exchange the job of Senate majority leader, the second most powerful role in Washington, for the embarrassments of the vice-presidency – “not worth a bucket of warm piss”, as a fellow Texan had once observed? Partly because he would be 60 by 1968, and was convinced he was going to die young. Partly because he had his staff work out the odds: seven out of 33 presidents had died in office, and 10 vice-presidents had succeeded to the White House. And partly because he was convinced that he could take an unglamorous job, as he had done several times in the past, and turn it into something very different. “Power is where power goes,” he told one of his allies.

He was dead wrong. The Senate rebuffed his efforts to maintain authority on the Hill. The Kennedys kept him well away from decision-making – JFK with elaborate courtesy, Bobby with brutality. And the glittering court of Camelot openly mocked the lumbering Texan. They called him Uncle Cornpone.

By November 1963, the chances of him being dropped from the ticket in the 1964 presidential election were being openly discussed. Journalists were closing in on scandals involving his allies and his own finances. “My future is behind me,” he told one of his staff.

And then everything changed.

As Caro says, it’s at times of maximum stress that the fundamental realities of power can best be observed, and the seven-week transition period between JFK and LBJ demonstrates this clearly. The conventional accounts of what happened focus on the efficiency of the US constitution, and the orderly transfer of authority from one president to the next. Caro tells a different story. This was the middle of the cold war, conspiracy theories abounded, and danger was in the air. LBJ rose magnificently to the occasion. He provided reassurance and continuity. He spoke to the nation in a manner that no one had imagined he was capable of. His mastery of the Senate enabled him to drive through legislation that had appeared to be dying under Kennedy – above all, on civil rights.

Yet he was the man who for most of his life had fiercely resisted any attempt to push in this direction. Caro’s explanation is that while power may corrupt, it also reveals. LBJ had shown sympathy to the oppressed throughout his life: told years earlier that a Mexican-American war hero had been denied burial in a whites-only cemetery in Texas, he’d snarled, “By God, we’ll bury him in Arlington.”

But a Southern Democrat would never have got to the White House by championing such views. Now, the position was different. One of the most moving moments in the book comes in Texas at the very end of 1963 when he makes an unheralded visit to a whites-only club in Austin accompanied by his glamorous African-American assistant. The next day, someone phones the club to ask if he could bring black guests in that afternoon. “Yes sir,” comes the reply. “The President of the United States integrated us on New Year’s Eve.”

Caro writes with pace and style, drafting and redrafting in longhand before getting to work on his old-fashioned typewriter. He has read every memo, listened to every tape, interviewed every available witness. He has the eye for detail of the investigative reporter that he once was. As someone once said of LBJ, “I never thought it was possible for anyone to work that hard.”

Vietnam is no more than a shadow in this book, of interest to the president only insofar as it might cause trouble in the 1964 election. No doubt it will fill many pages in what Caro promises will be the fifth and final volume. But still to come, too, are the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Medicare and Medicaid health programmes, and 60 separate education laws. And Caro has already done enough to ensure that this extraordinary work will remain essential reading for decades to come.

Richard Lambert is chancellor of the University of Warwick. He is a former director-general of the Confederation of British Industry and a former editor of the Financial Times

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