The Sunday review: The years of Lyndon Johnson: the passage of power by Robert A Caro

by Anthony Painter

The latest volume of Robert A Caro’s genre re-defining biography of Lyndon Johnson is structured around the mortal battle of two political foes. This conflict comprises both dependence and an antipathy that will define their historical legacy. They can never rid themselves of one another. For all their qualities, their weaknesses are plain and revealed in their fraught interaction. Each would love to be free but their fates have become entwined. It consumes the final decades of both men’s lives. The men to which I refer are, of course, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Robert A Caro.

Whilst the real story lies beneath, the narrative of the book itself is centred on two main characters whose destinies swing around the pivot of John F Kennedy’s assassination. That is Johnson and Robert F Kennedy. Their mutual loathing is seemingly without bound. From the humiliation of the vice-presidency, Johnson emerges, in this volume at least, as a dominant President with a legislative agenda the like of which hadn’t been seen since the New Deal nor since. JFK’s domestic programme was log-jammed and going nowhere. Johnson, the re-emerging master that we saw in volume three, reprises his capacity for institutional transformation and turns the presidency in an active direction. He palpably fails to do the same whilst in vice-presidential office.

John Adams once referred to his position as Vice-President thus, “I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” This is the basic premise of the new Armando Iannucci created HBO drama, Veep. Moments of Johnson’s vice-presidency such as when he collapses in a heap while dancing with one of JFK’s mistresses at a socialite-laden Georgetown party might be comedic if they weren’t so painfully tragic. A dominant theme of Caro’s four volumes is the capacity for Johnson to find power in any situation – yet he fails to do this as Vice-President. He physically and emotionally crumbles as a result as he had a tendency to do from time to time.

Johnson’s plight is made all the worse on account of the social clash of cultures as the entitled Kennedys condescend and belittle the man from the Hill Country; JFK refers to him as a bumpkin-esque “Rufus Corpone”. In this, Johnson is frighteningly similar to Richard Nixon – forever burdened by a harsh upbringing, their fathers’ failures, with ferocious energy and drive filling the vacuum where status stood for the New England Harvard crowd. When Johnson and Bobby Kennedy have the opportunity deploy power against the other that is what they do without hesitation while all the time consumed by hate, contempt and fear. At the end of this volume, it is RFK who lies emotionally, physically and politically defeated, drenched in grief. We know he is to rise again – but not yet.

Caro seems clear where his allegiances lie – he’s a JFK man. While wanting to settle the odd historical score with President Kennedy’s biographer, Arthur Schlesinger, he basically appears to be bought into the Kennedy as lost great President narrative. It is the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis later this year and we are likely to hear a great deal about Kennedy’s diplomatic genius. We certainly get a flood of it in the passage of power. Actually, it was Krushchev who achieved far more in strategic terms through the crisis – the protection of Cuba and the removal of Jupiter air missiles from Turkey.

James Reston of the New York Times wrote: “President Kennedy’s eloquence was designed to make men think; President Johnson’s hammer blows are designed to make men act.” And when it comes to passing civil rights legislation, healthcare, tax cuts, anti-poverty programmes, new housing and jobs provision, it is the hammer blow that is required. The Kennedy White House is a place of eloquence; Johnson’s is a place of transformative executive authority.

Kennedy’s legacy has been fiercely protected for a half century with the common claim from his acolytes and historical fan club that Johnson was just completing Kennedy’s mission. Counter-factuals are always tricky but there is little to suggest in Kennedy’s first three years that any of the “Great Society” and civil rights programme would ever have been achieved – or to any extent at least -had he never journeyed to Dallas on that fateful November day. He had de-commissioned the one weapon that could pierce the defensive armory of congress – his Vice President.

All of this is well-trodden territory which makes Caro’s achievement in this volume all the more remarkable. We know the dramatis personae. We know the events. There is no period of American history that is more dissected, filmed, dramatised and theorised about (very often conspiratorially and Caro sensibly side-steps most of this dross). Like a Shakespeare play, we know the words, the story and characters but is there a new angle or emotional connection that the director and actors can capture and unleash? The answer is definitively yes. Caro’s book is a masterpiece of dramatic technique deployed in a non-fictional environment with literary pivots and arcs giving the work the feel of a novel rather than biography or history. He sensibly discards most footnotes in this regard.

Most dramatically, The passage of power is accompanied by the constant interplay of two soundtracks that define the Johnson presidency. The loudest in this volume is the civil rights anthem, “We shall overcome.” But perceptibly, we begin to hear the drumbeat of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” It works towards a crescendo on the final couple of pages. Caro doesn’t leave us waiting:

“The story of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson [the next volume] will be different in tone from the story of the transition in part because the elements of his personality absent during the transition were shortly to reappear.”

So we get the distinct sense that LBJ is being set up for a sucker punch in the forthcoming final volume of this work. Already, we can see a trigger happy, unprincipled and erratic approach to Vietnam emerging from Johnson. His preference for an aggressive approach to the Cuban missile crisis sounds a portentous warning. Initially, he approaches Vietnam driven by domestic political concerns and the fear of appearing weak rather than calm policy analysis. We can see his “character” issues – action as a cover for diffidence – emerge as he says:

“I don’t want people around the world worrying about us, and they are…they’re worried about whether you’ve got a weak President or a strong President.”

Millions of lost lives later with no discernibly positive outcome and the price of a ‘strong’ President is evident. We’ve been there again since.

The years of Lyndon Johnson is popular in political circles partly as it seems to justify the means through the ends. It is not at all clear that this is Caro’s intention. You sense a degree of ambivalence from Caro about this. He ultimately leans on the side of rejecting that notion – means and ends are ultimately in unison. There is an irony here. – much of the readership finds something entirely different. The message of these works is that the ends aren’t enough in and of themselves to justify the means: corruption, bullying, arrogance, illegality, genocide, mutilation, power, and destruction of the founding fathers’ visions and ideals.

When the final volume of this series is published, Robert Caro and Lyndon Johnson will have spent almost four decades in each other’s company. As if taking on Robert F Kennedy was not exhausting enough, Johnson’s historical reputation has somehow defied defeat in its encounter with Caro. The story of their rivalry is an enthralling tale all of its own. Let’s hope that someone tells us Caro’s full story one day. For now, let’s just enjoy the latest 600 pages of this glorious endeavour. Mr Caro, we salute you – you have overcome.

Anthony Painter is an author and a critic

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2 Responses to “The Sunday review: The years of Lyndon Johnson: the passage of power by Robert A Caro”

  1. swatantra says:

    There is no doubt that Kennedy came to power ably assisted by the Mafia and organised crime. So the Republicans weren’t the only ones to resort to dirty tricks and negative campaigning. Corruption runs through the USA and is almost written into the Consitution, rather like the right to carry arms and kill people.
    The fact is JFK was a dillitente in politics, a dabbler and a warmonger and a snob. It was LBJ that got you your Civil Rights and almost out of Vietnam and Nixon/Kissinger back in the White House.. And when Carter came in America went completely to pieces from then on and has never recovered.

  2. I share your scepticism of JFK- a poet and physically courageous in WWII but corrupt and, in many ways, clueless. A completely underwhelming President. RFK would have been interesting but my guess is that he would have been ultimately swallowed by the fissures opening in US society- if indeed he wasn’t.

    Obama is the best since LBJ. But he’s hamstrung by a dysfunctional Senate. Ironically, it was LBJ who set it on a new partisan course which the Republicans now pursue with no inclination to compromise. The US system can’t function on that basis.

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