The Passage of Power
The Years of Lyndono Johnson
by Robert Caro
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Caro's series on Lyndon Johnson culminates in this book, the 4th in the series, focusing on the period leading up to the 1960 election through LBJ's re-election in 1964. The topics include great detail on:
LBJ "ran" for the presidency in 1960, but staged a "Washington campaign", remaining in D.C. as Senate Majority Leader, and did not campaign nor enter any primaries. He expected the 1960 convention to be deadlocked among several weak candidates (among whom was John F. Kennedy, whom LBJ considered too young, too legislatively unaccomplished, too much the rich playboy, and too Catholic to win), and a deadlocked convention would choose LBJ. That was the official strategy; Caro says that the real reason was LBJ's pathological fear of failure, which caused indecisiveness in entering the race.
How JFK asked LBJ to be VP, on page after page after page! The nomination was controversial because the labor unions, a key constituency, did not want Johnson, and RFK had promised them that Johnson would not get the nomination. JFK very much wanted LBJ, seeing the electoral math: LBJ would win for the Democrats not only Texas but most of the South, where LBJ was popular and JFK was not. At issue in Caro's book was exactly how JFK made the offer and exactly how LBJ accepted. Evidently RFK decided on his own initiative to suggest to LBJ that LBJ withdraw from the nomination to avoid a floor fight with the labor unions. RFK himself said he met with LBJ as JFK's spokesperson; Caro interviewed every other person on all sides of the issue and details their points of view. While this might be historically interesting, the book gets tedious in its repetition: no two stores are quite in agreement, but the same phrases get repeated over and over. The bottom line is that LBJ and RFK hated each other forever after that.
LBJ's role in the 1960 election:
LBJ, tasked with winning the South, came through in the majority of southern states, providing Kennedy his margin of victory. Many have reported about voting irregularities in Illinois in 1960; Caro documents that the more serious voting irregularities occurred in Texas in 1960. LBJ's cronies controlled all of the voting mechanisms, which on those days included poll tax tickets, non-secret ballots, paper hand-written ballots, ad infinitum, all of which were subject to manipulation by corrupt local officials. Caro's description of the GOP's protest in border counties about "voter intent" hauntingly echoes Florida in 2000. Nevertheless, LBJ won the majority of the rest of the South, where he controlled no election machinery. Caro attributes that victory -- a switch from Eisenhower's southern majority in 1956 -- to LBJ's campaigning. LBJ's methods included the "Cornpone Express" train tour -- talking southern talk while crisscrossing the South -- and endless schmoozing of local officials in smoke-filled back rooms, which had always been LBJ's specialty. In summary, Caro concluded, and quoted JFK concluding, LBJ won the South and JFK would have lost the election without it.
Animosity with RFK: LBJ didn't like RFK before the nomination incident above, and he liked him even less afterwards. Before JFK's assassination, LBJ viewed RFK as a rival for the 1968 presidential nomination; after the assassination, RFK was a rival for the 1964 presidential nomination. In LBJ's first term, his main goals were to look good publicly with the Kennedy family, in order to show the country that an orderly transition had occurred; RFK stayed on as Attorney General during that year but his power was greatly diminished (and LBJ denied RFK the vice-presidency in 1964). LBJ's second goal was to push legislation (discussed below) to improve his chances in 1964 and to deny RFK the claim that LBJ was just a "placeholder." This book details so much about RFK that it could be considered an RFK biography in its own right; the 5th volume promises to detail even more about RFK leading up to the 1968 presidential primary.
Limited role as Vice President: LBJ as vice-president attempted unsuccessfully to maintain power in the Senate, or establish power in the White House. Instead, he was mocked by the high society Camelot insiders as "Rufus Cornpone," and participated in no major legislation nor executive decisions.
Legislative role as President: After the assassination, LBJ had under a year to earn his own presidency. He focused entirely on getting several major pieces of legislation passed, since that was always his greatest strength as "Master of the Senate." Mostly he pushed legislation that had been initiated by JFK -- the Civil Rights bill and the tax reform bill in particular -- and Caro makes the case that without JFK's assassination, neither of those bills would have passed at all. LBJ also initiated his own "War on Poverty" which led to the "Great Society" legislation of his second term. Caro spends many chapters detailing the minutiae of all legislative processes -- way too much detail for most readers -- but 50 years later it feels like "history" rather than too much "inside baseball."
Caro's series serves as the historical standard for studying Lyndon Johnson. This volume includes the JFK assassination from Johnson's perspective: the morning newspapers on Nov. 22, 1963, included a financial scandal that included Johnson, and Richard Nixon's prediction that Johnson would be dumped from the 1964 ticket. Johnson was in the ill-fated motorcade that day, trailing unnoticed behind the president, which Caro describes as a metaphor for Johnson's vice-presidency and future prospects. This volume also covers Johnson's first term, but that topic has been well-covered elsewhere.The 5th and final volume, scheduled for perhaps 2014, covers Johnson's second term. The full series comprises:
More than most political biographies, it has more detail than most non-historians will find interesting, but those (often lengthy) parts are presented "for the record". Caro's series has already become the "must-read" book for anyone interested in Johnson (or John Kennedy, for that matter), even before the final book in the series is completed.
-- Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief, OnTheIssues.org, Oct. 2013
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The above quotations are from The Passage of Power
The Years of Lyndono Johnson
by Robert Caro.
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