A Look Back at Lyndon B. Johnson via Robert A. Caro
This fourth installment in “The Passage of Power” is a National Book Award (2012) finalist and there is no question why. It is masterful. Whereas the authors of other presidential biographies/histories emphasize LBJ’s tentativeness with regard to his foreign policy, Caro points out the sureness of LBJ’s domestic plan and the tactics to ensure its enshrinement into law (part five of “The Passage of Power” will explore LBJ’s foreign policy in detail). LBJ prioritized civil rights legislation, which in LBJ’s first speech to the nation after Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ said was Kennedy’s top priority. LBJ thereby created the image that strong civil rights legislation needed to be passed in memory of JFK. LBJ went on to enact health reform and other long sought after goals of the liberal American ideal of helping the poor and the minority.
Yet, LBJ also had his weaknesses and Caro pulls no punches in detailing those weaknesses. Lyndon was a man deeply afraid of failure. This fear led LBJ to procrastinate on his plans to run for the presidency in 1960. LBJ had been telling people for years that he wanted to be president and as the youngest majority leader in the nation’s history, and now experienced in that position, he certainly had the pedestal from which to propel himself to a successful run. Yet, the man who had the chutzpah to make the leap was not LBJ, but rather the sickly, but young, war hero from the privileged background, JFK. For a biography about LBJ, many pages had me feeling like I was reading a biography of Kennedy – a man seemingly lazy and living the playboy life while serving in the House and Senate, but who in reality used his easy charm and carefree nature to hide his physical maladies and quest for the presidency.
Even with LBJ’s dithering, there was a plan to win the presidency: get the democratic primary vote to the back rooms after no candidate is able to get the requisite 700+ delegates necessary for nomination outright. LBJ figured he was a master of the back rooms, but he faced a formidable adversary in JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy was on a mission to ensure that JFK would gets enough delegates to avoid a back room fight. Bobby Kennedy was a man who fought for the underdog, but was someone who couldn’t stand LBJ’s pension for lying. As a result, Bobby was downright rude to LBJ. The feeling was mutual and the relationship between LBJ and RFK would forever remain vitriolic. Bobby wound up getting commitments from delegates before LBJ could even ask them for their support. Bobby’s pre-election role presaged the importance he would play in the future Kennedy administration.
Then came the question of the Vice Presidential nomination where JFK favored LBJ while Bobby desperately wanted to avoid Lyndon as VP. On the one hand, it had always been a powerless position. On the other hand, you would be a heartbeat away from the presidency. JFK offered LBJ the vice presidency, and history has always doubted whether this was just a pro forma offer to a party leader, or a true outward manifestation of an offer, communicated to LBJ. According to Caro, the latter seems likely, especially considering JFK’s rational, pragmatic bend. JFK’s decision paid off as Kennedy-Johnson carried Johnson’s Texas (barely) and took Louisiana and the Carolinas as well.
LBJ’s VP nomination came on the heels of a political career marked by a growing relationship with power. The growth of power stopped as VP as JFK gently rebuked LBJ’s continuous grabs for express authorizations of new VP duties. JFK’s magnanimity was apparent, however, in his persistent attempts to include LBJ in official meetings. Yet, in unofficial meetings, foreign policy matters, and over time in all aspects of executive administration, LBJ was not a favorite son. Thus, the Kennedy crew shut LBJ out. For his part, LBJ sucked up to the young president but it did not change matters. Later, after Kennedy’s death, LBJ would suck up to Kennedy’s men as well in an effort to bring them to Lyndon’s team. It worked.
Despite his isolation, how would LBJ have handled the Cuban Missile Crisis if he were president during those events? Caro hints that LBJ probably would have handled the crisis more hawkishly than how JFK handled matters because LBJ disfavored Kennedy’s bargained-for-exchange of the removal of the Cuban missile bases for U.S. removal of missile bases in Turkey. Finally, when Kennedy decided not to make this exchange as a quid pro quo, but rather on a time delay, the president did not consult the VP. Thus, during one of the few times LBJ expressed his views to the president on a matter of foreign policy, the advice did not make a difference.
There was another matter in which LBJ attempted to advise Kennedy – the cause of civil rights for African Americans. LBJ wanted to pass a beefed up civil rights bill (he had already passed two softer civil rights bills during his tenure in the Senate), but LBJ knew that sending a civil rights bill to Congress risked a filibuster that would hold up not just a civil rights bill, but also every other important piece of Kennedy legislation. Therefore, LBJ advised Kennedy to thrust the full force of Camelot behind the cause of civil rights, while ensuring passage of the tax bill first so that it would not be held up. Later, as President, although civil rights was his top priority, LBJ would deploy this very tactic of pushing through a tax bill in late 1963 before civil rights legislation reached the Senate from the House in January 1964. Although LBJ did not succeed in becoming the point person for Kennedy’s civil rights reform ambitions, LBJ succeeded in making JFK see the fight for civil rights for African Americans as not merely a legal or legislative issue, but a moral imperative. LBJ’s belief in the cause may have also changed the course of history because no president has expressed support for a cause of civil rights without it eventually becoming the law of the land.
JFK came around to LBJ’s view that civil rights for African Americans was a moral imperative, but LBJ’s apparently new liberalism on civil rights, matched with an apparent inability to moderate Kennedy’s liberal policies (as was assumed LBJ would do) turned the South against Lyndon. The South’s about-turn reduced Lyndon’s pull in the South. LBJ’s overall declining importance came amid rumors that the Kennedy administration was considering replacing LBJ on the ticket for the 1964 re-election campaign. The word on the street was that a scandal ensnaring an LBJ protege – Bobby Baker – could be the means of easing Lyndon out of office. It did not and Kennedy stuck with LBJ for the ’64 re-election campaign.
As transitions from VP to President go, this book had an awkward one. But the transition in real life was quick and steady – LBJ took the oath of office immediately after Kennedy’s assassination; he regained his confidence at once; and he persuaded many Kennedy men to stay on in the new administration. By pandering to the arrogance and sense of self-worth of the Kennedy men, LBJ got them to join his team. There was continuity with Kennedy’s policies as well. It was a signal to the country, but it was also easier. Whereas new presidents have 11 weeks for transition time from candidate to president, LBJ had 2 hours before taking the oath of office. Pandering may have been a tactic LBJ used to keep the Kennedy men, but it was well worth the effort. To the American public, LBJ exuded solemnity, grace, and confidence in his first speech to the nation – a speech where he boldly made strong civil rights legislation the top priority. To tame conspiracy theories, he appointed honorable men across party lines to investigate the death of his predecessor. This group, which included an initally reluctant to join Chief Justice Earl Warren, became known as the Warren Commission. The Warren Commission was influential in shifting public opinion to the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman/cause of Kennedy’s death.
After Johnson’s flurry of initial moves, his attention turned to passage of the Kennedy tax cut as a means of stimulating the economy. In exchange, LBJ acceded to enough painful spending cuts that conservatives in Congress could tout that they forced the new president to a $100 billion budget (which was their goal all along). Johnson then wooed the media successfully through carrots (bringing some of them out to his ranch for two weeks) and sticks (silencing or forcing out journalists who were not favorable to him). He faced Vietnam head on. Although the author deals with Vietnam and LBJ in depth in the next book in this series, there were some important early decisions on Vietnam in late 1963. There was a minor escalation of the war, but the goal was to maintain the status quo during the election year. Finally, LBJ signed up for a signature LBJ goal – an anti-poverty program – and set aside $1 billion of the budget for it. It became the war on poverty and we are still fighting it today. In allocating funds for the war on poverty, passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the face of a 57 day filibuster, and ensuring a middle class tax cut in 1963, LBJ proved early on that he would be a president of compassion who had the capacity to cajole Congress to join in his vision.