The one trait shared by everyone who seeks the modern U.S. presidency is a sociopathic indifference to normal human behaviors and values. The demands, the ordeals, the strictures of the office; the expenses in terms of time, relationships, and health; the media scrutiny, the media stupidity; the unremitting company of Washington’s political metronome, ticking from hysteria to tedium and back again—theirs is a life that no stable, well-adjusted person would ever choose or desire. The only plausible explanation is that this species is afflicted by ambitions and grandiosities unfathomable to the rest of us.
Ponder, say, Newt Gingrich, who in 1992 wrote a memo announcing himself the “definer of civilization” and the “leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces.” Or the current President, who published a memoir at thirty-two years old, gave Queen Elizabeth II an iPod loaded with recordings of his own speeches as a gift of state, and claimed dominion over the sea levels in his inaugural address. Or his predecessor, who, in one of his, declared that for now on, the ultimate goal of the United States would be “ending tyranny in the world.” Or his predecessor’s predecessor, who used the Oval Office as a sexual concourse. To adapt Groucho Marx, anyone who wants to belong to this club shouldn’t be allowed to be a member.
The man who first wanted the presidency more than anything and bears the most responsibility for its current condition is Lyndon Baines Johnson. “He’s never had another thought, another waking thought, except to lust after the office,” observed John Connally, the Texas Governor and Johnson admirer. This “great aim of his life”—“this desperation, really,” as Robert Caro puts it—shaped every decision Johnson made and changed the institution, along with the country, for the worse.
The Passage of Power shows how Johnson pulled it off, how he finally obtained the presidency and began to avail himself of its perquisites.1 It is the fourth installment in Caro’s riveting The Years of Lyndon Johnson series, among the all-time finest American biographies, and the fullest account we will ever have of the most destructive President since James Buchanan. It also stands as one of the best reconstructions of the psychology and motivations of the political high-achiever. Caro’s greatness lies in his talent for clarifying tangible choices, laying out the options, and then revealing states of mind through the accretion of detail. He makes the unfathomable somewhat more . . . fathomable.
Bob Caro is a destroyer too, though his targets are the superstitions of the age. As an investigative journalist, he has spent more than thirty years working through the files in the LBJ archives and interviewing hundreds of people in Johnson’s ambit, however peripherally. His work is a rebuke to the twenty-four-minute news cycle and the 140-character treatise. It is a rebuke, too, to the new political scientists and historians. There are entire university departments busy devising impersonal models that reduce elections, legislation, and even wars to social forces, economic trends, variables. Caro always credits—and exhaustively documents—the messy contingency of events and personalities.
Though more or less conventionally liberal, Caro is also willing to defy those liberal conventions at loggerheads with the historical record. The Path to Power appeared in 1982, when Democrats were starting to grant absolution: Johnson the prosecutor of the war in Indochina paled next to Johnson the architect of the entitlement state. Caro restored a Johnson of no particular or deeply held ideological conviction. He lies, schemes, and cheats all the time, each sometimes for its own sake, but far more often to generate the marginal political advantage. Most importantly, Caro proved “Landslide Lyndon” stole a Texas Senate seat in 1948, by all of eighty-seven votes, with his patrons packing the ballot boxes in the Rio Grande border counties they controlled. “Knowing Lyndon Baines Johnson—understanding the character of the thirty-sixth President of the United States—is essential to understanding the history of the United States in the twentieth century,” he wrote in that first volume.
In The Passage of Power, Caro dwells on the six years spanning Johnson’s shotgun marriage to John F. Kennedy, the assassination, and the transfer of power in a period of maximum crisis. The first mystery he resolves is why Johnson joined the 1960 Democratic ticket in the first place. The Vice Presidency, then, wasn’t worth “a bucket of warm piss,” in the Texan argot of John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s first VP. By contrast, in the late 1950s, Johnson was the second most powerful man in Washington, after Eisenhower, as Senate Majority Leader. The upper chamber was designed by the Framers to moderate and slow political change, but Johnson mastered its rules, traditions, and internecine politics, and he ran the Senate as no one had in history. He was a tactical maestro, a vote-counter, favor-trader, opportunity-seer and -taker without peer; bills simply could not pass without Johnson’s hand.
He renounced such power, Caro exposes grimly, solely to be first in the line of succession, “one heartbeat away.” A “little scrawny fellow with rickets,” Johnson called, with some understatement, the sickest man ever to serve as President. Aside from Kennedy’s multiple illnesses, Johnson calculated that seven of the thirty-three Presidents had been killed or died in office, with the odds better than one-in-four in the post-Lincoln era. “I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got,” he explained to Clare Booth Luce on their way to the inaugural ball.
“I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”
He was probably the reason there was a ball to attend at all. The country and the Democratic Party were riven by sectional differences, and the Northeastern liberals JFK embodied were not saleable in the Southern bloc. For years, Johnson had assiduously protected Jim Crow segregation from his Senate perch, which he played up to bring Louisiana and the Carolinas into the Democratic column, even as the rest of the Old Confederacy broke for Nixon. (Johnson was a double agent in the racial conflict to his advantage. To placate liberals, for instance, he passed in 1957 the first civil rights law since 1875.) Caro also persuasively suggests that LBJ stole Texas again, as he had in 1948. His wire-pullers “could simply produce whatever result they wanted” with crooked polling stations and brown paper bags of cash. Kennedy-Johnson won in the Lone Star state by a margin of just 46,000, and without LBJ’s corruption—whatever else happened in Illinois—Nixon might well have prevailed in the Electoral College.
The irony is that the New Frontiersmen who were therefore indebted to Johnson loathed him and excluded him utterly from the Administration. Johnson spent ten hours and nineteen minutes with JFK in 1961, total. Part of it was a matter of aesthetics—Hyannisport grace abutting Hill Country crude. Amid the Pablo Casals cello recitals, Johnson pronounced “hors d’oeuvres” as “whore doves.” At one West Wing soiree, he knocked over one of Kennedy’s mistresses while attempting to dance the twist. He and Lady Bird were derided in the Georgetown salons as “Uncle Cornpone and his little porkchop.”
Johnson spent ten hours and nineteen minutes with JFK in 1961, total.
Part of it, too, was the great blood feud with Robert F. Kennedy. Both Johnson and Kennedy frère were especially skilled haters and their antipathies ramified over time. Bobby tried to force Johnson off the ticket at the Democratic convention, without Jack’s knowledge. Much later, in 1968, Johnson would gloat over his rival’s death when he was shot in a hotel kitchen. The incubation chamber for this mutual revulsion was Johnson’s turn as an FDR protégé in the 1930s, when he played a role in Joseph P. Kennedy’s diplomatic recall from the Court of Saint James. The ambassador and family patriarch supported appeasement, and Johnson called him “Chamberlain’s umbrella man” who “thought Hitler was right.”
But above all, the Kennedys understood Johnson’s wolfish ruthlessness—“I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me, I know where to look for it and how to use it,” he once said—and they feared what he would do with any running room. The double irony is that their hostility ensured the Kennedy Administration was as mediocre and unrealized as it was.
Given that Kennedy’s chief foreign policy achievement was narrowly avoiding a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets over missiles in Cuba, we are lucky to be alive to be thankful there was no domestic equivalent. In fact, however, Kennedy was really an old postwar consensus liberal, in favor of incremental measures like supply-side tax cuts. Even this ran into the Senate’s fixed bayonets, a bid to kill another civil rights bill, and the Administration did not call on the one man who might have brokered a deal. “All those Bostons and Harvards don’t know any more about Capitol Hill than an old maid does about fucking,” Johnson complained. Strip away the eloquence, all the posthumous ode-to-a-nightingale sentimentalities, and the three years of the Kennedy White House amounted to a bucket of something all right.
The trauma in Dallas was a gift to Johnson, delivering to him in an instant what he had so long craved, and upon assuming power, he repaid some of the humiliations that had been visited on him. Among the first calls he placed was to Bobby Kennedy, ostensibly in his capacity as Attorney General, to verify the wording of the oath of office and otherwise “provide details of the precise procedure by which he could, without delay, assume his brother’s office.”
The danger for LBJ is that he would be viewed as illegitimate, a usurper, a Texan promoted by the bullets of a Texan murderer, with fewer than ten months before he would have to stand for election in his own right. The threat was genuine. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Camelot’s legend-maker, convened a meeting of the Administration’s intellectuals to discuss the possibility of dumping Johnson for RFK in 1964—when Kennedy’s body was still in state. Johnson’s genius was to understand that he could only consolidate his position if he engineered a sense of “continuity” and posed as Kennedy’s legatee. The day after the funeral, he addressed Congress and a grieving nation: “All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today,” Johnson lied.
The danger for LBJ is that he would be viewed as illegitimate, a usurper.
In private, he explained that “Everything I ever learned in the history books taught me that martyrs have to die for causes.” With the Kennedy agenda stalled out, Johnson fixed on a concept that Kennedy had endorsed in theory but done practically nothing to develop or advance. He would declare an “unconditional war on poverty in America” in a speech in January 1964, proposing new programs in health care, housing, elementary and higher education, “jobs,” and income transfer programs—basically opening the run of the private economy to government intervention and individual liberty to government impingement. Johnson envisioned “a vast, revolutionary, transformation of America,” Caro says. Thus the Great Society had its origins in a fleeting moment of political improvisation, epic overreach, and deliberate if reckless calculation.
Some of the most catastrophic failures of the central planners, such as urban redevelopment and welfare, would take decades to unwind. Others, such as Medicare insurance for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor, continue to operate today in a time warp, expanded but essentially unchanged. Sometime between 2020 and 2030, entitlements will consume all federal tax revenue—in other words, Johnson’s legacy is gradually crowding out everything else the government is supposed to do, like build roads and defend the country. At some point before then, it will become literally impossible to raise taxes to pay for these obligations, because spending is growing so much faster than the overall economy. Blame can be apportioned to both political parties for denying fiscal and economic reality and refusing to modernize Johnson’s programs. But LBJ was the twitch upon the thread.
One of Caro’s minor narratives turns on a Virginia Senator named Harry Byrd, and the tale of the way Johnson rolled Byrd is unintentionally affecting. Byrd was quite monstrously racist but otherwise an exemplary fiscal steward, and he was stonewalling Johnson over the $102 billion—about $118 billion in current dollars—that the White House wanted to spend in 1964. For Byrd, a $100 billion budget was “a psychological barrier that should not be breached.” A descendent of a settler of colonial Jamestown, he had been forced to drop out of school at fifteen when his father became a bankrupt. According to a friend, the experience impressed on Byrd “an extreme obsessive hatred of debt” because “debt had robbed him of his youth and education.”
How quaint. Federal outlays in 2012 will hit $3.796 trillion—about four 1964 budgets in constant dollars—or about 24.5 percent as a share of the gross national product, six percentage points higher than in LBJ’s day. Byrd was no match for Johnson, who secretly moved billions of dollars off the federal fisc to win the old man’s assent. He planned to spend the money all along anyway, using an add-on “supplemental” traditionally reserved for emergencies. “You can tell your grandchildren you were the Senator who finally got a President to cut his budget,” Johnson claimed. The punch line is that the entitlement bill is so large that most of the people who will pay haven’t been born.
The Passage of Power touches on Vietnam briefly but intensely. Caro reviews Johnson’s preliminary decisions as a war President, and concludes that the same carelessness that governed domestic affairs extended to a campaign that converted 58,272 American soldiers to smithereens. More than anything, his choices were not conducted to advance national interest but to maintain the status quo and prevent Vietnam from becoming an election issue. The “steps he took,” Caro writes, “had, as their unifying principle, an objective dictated largely by domestic—indeed, personal—political concerns.”
Vietnam is the subject of Caro’s next (and allegedly last) book, and one of the themes he foreshadows is the way Johnson’s habits of secretiveness and deceit obliterated the trust in which the presidency was once held. As Caro writes, “It is difficult for most Americans today—more than forty years, two generations, after that Presidency ended—to remember, or to understand, such reverence for a President, or for the institution of the Presidency, so lasting has been the damage inflicted on it.” This was the result of Vietnam, yes, but also of the larger model Johnson’s cynicism established: The President as miracle worker and moral redeemer, who really believes he can, should, and must bring off “a vast, revolutionary, transformation of America,” every four or eight years or so. These days, the true revolutionary’s legacy would be merely to repair the old ones.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 10, on page 75
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