The Passage of Power is the fourth volume in Robert A.Caro’s epic work on the The Years of Lyndon Johnson. There’s at least one more to come, and despite having consumed well over 2000 pages, I can’t wait for what’s coming next.
Caro has phrased his subtitle to express the notion that he’s writing not just a life of one man, but the history of an era in American social and political life. LBJ’s life spans the years from the New Deal through Vietnam, years which saw the emergence of some of America’s greatest triumphs and greatest shames, and this Texas poor boy-cum-power-broker was right in the middle of it all.
Caro has extensively recounted in his previous books how the intense and humiliating poverty of Johnson’s childhood planted in his psyche both a determination to succeed and a haunting fear of failure, how those elements combined with the natural inclinations of his personality and talents to make him perhaps the most hated, feared, and successful political figure of the American 20th century–matched or surpassed only by FDR. Except FDR never inspired the scope–intensity yes, but scope, no–of hatred that LBJ had accrued by the time Vietnam got into full swing.
From his takeover of the political life of West Texas State Teacher’s College (the place never had a political life till LBJ arrived) to his shadowy election to the house in 1931 (Kellogg, Brown, and Root, the predecessors to today’s Halliburton corp were crucial here.) to his unquestionably stolen election to the Senate in 1948 to his probably corrupt ascension to the vice-presidency in 1960 (JFK’s victory owed at least as much to Johnson’s stranglehold on Texas vote-counting as to Richard Daly’s on Chicago’s) LBJ engineered his rise to power with deft thuggery. His years in congress were spent learning and exercising every rule and trick of procedure, spotting and manipulating the strengths and weaknesses of his colleagues, bowing and scraping to those in power, bullying and demeaning those who weren’t. By the time of the 1960 elections, he had become as the Senate Majority Leader, the arbiter of all legislation foreign and domestic, the second most powerful man in Washington. Some called him more powerful than the president himself.
In doing so, he allied himself with his southern colleagues in the senate to block every attempt to advance the cause of civil rights for decades. It took the supreme court to invoke school desegregation in 1954, but by 1960, little had been done to implement the decision. Jim Crow was still the way of life not only in the south, but to a somewhat lesser degree countrywide.
Suddenly, Johnson was vice-president. He’d always wanted to be president, but he was on the ticket only because JFK needed Texas to win, and he decided that one step closer to power was better than the Senate. As it turned out, he gave up any power he had. The Harvard-dominated cliques despised him, mocked him, called him Rufus Cornpone. Kennedy did not consult him. In power-hungry Washington, he was instantly i.d.’d as a man with none. He tried to retain some of his influence by engineering his constitutional role as president of the Senate into leading the Democratic caucus in the Senate, but that body was way too jealous of its role to allow an executive intruder into its legislative midst no matter how powerful he had once been.
Most of this, I more of less knew. What I didn’t know is how much LBJ and RFK hated–really, really hated–one another. I also didn’t realize how wise and strong JFK had been during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had to hold off not only the Russians, but the cabinet hawks around him–LBJ included–who were convinced that the only way to handle the problem was to bomb the bases and invade the island. Makes you wonder what he would have done with the Vietnam crisis.
Then, in the midst of depression and despair over his nobodyness, came the assassination. Suddenly, it’s president LBJ. And he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for what happened in the first years in office.
I had no idea what an accomplishment it was to maintain the continuity of Kennedy’s staff and cabinet. They had followed JFK and his ideas into office. They were in no mood to serve under a countrified buffoon. But he persuaded them to stick around, most of them, appealing not only to their patriotism, but to their personal inclinations. One-on-one, he could sell anything to anyone, it was said of him. He knew what you wanted and how to assure you you’d get it without exactly promising. He knew where you were weak, knew how to threaten to exploit or promise to help you shore up that vulnerability. And nearly everyone stayed on for that first crucial year, when the country needed to know the government wasn’t going to fall apart.
Finally, most important came JFK’s legislative agenda. I’d always assumed that the civil rights bill and the war on poverty passed because of the post-assassination sympathy for JFK. Not so. JFK and even the tough-as-nails RFK were babes in the woods when it came to legislation. They didn’t know the rules, the men in charge, or how to maneuver their way through the legislative thickets. LBJ had made his life about all this. He was the protege of Senate “bulls” like Harry Byrd and Richard Russell. It was only his tutelage of inexperienced liberals like Hubert Humphrey, his combination of fawning and threatening the powers that were in both houses, and his expert strategizing that brought forth the most astounding civil rights legislation since emancipation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments 100 years earlier. Accomplishments it’s almost certain that Kennedy, given his inexperience in the congress and his refusal to consult his cornpone vice-president, would not have achieved. It’s worth reading this book for this story alone. Gives great insight, in my opinion, into Obama’s difficulties with congress. Make no mistake, LBJ’s sympathy for the legislation was real. He had an historic sympathy for the underdog, for equality, but it had always taken a back seat to his yearning for power. Now it was the source of his power, and he made the most of it.
Add to all this, Johnson’s sudden and monumental imposition of self-discipline to suppress the temper tantrums, the staff-bullying, the arm-waving expostulations that had made him such a lousy boss and ineffective public speaker all his public life, and you get an historic transformation of American society and a powerful man, both accomplished in an amazingly short period of time.
None of this remarkable record, however, canceled the history of venality, corruption, and cronyism that had been at the center of his existence all those years. he continued to manage his “blind” trust over unmonitored phone lines from the white house bedroom; he arranged and denied mergers to assure friendly newspaper, TV, and radio coverage; he dealt out favors and punishments in ways that were not simply power politics but plainly illegal.
So it is that this basically immoral man became the vehicle for creating the greatest legislative instruments for morality in the whole 20th century. And so it is that Robert Caro has given us not only one of the landmark works of American history, but delivered it in a style and structure that reads like one of the most exciting novels you’ll ever pick up.