This is the story of the rise to national power of a desperately poor young man from the Texas Hill Country. The Path to Power reveals in extraordinary detail the genesis of the almost superhuman drive, energy, and ambition that set LBJ apart. It follows him from the Hill Country to New Deal Washington, from his boyhood through the years of the Depression to his debut as Congressman, his heartbreaking defeat in his first race for the Senate, and his attainment, nonetheless, at age 31, of the national power for which he hungered.
In this book, we are brought as close as we have ever been to a true perception of political genius and the American political process. Means of Ascent, Book Two of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, was a number-one national best seller and, like The Path to Power, received the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was a magnificent, despicable, ingenious, unscrupulous, complicated bastard. In the era of Trump, in which many decry the lack of presidential decorum, the pettiness, the crudeness, and the meanness of the occupant of the Oval Office, I would suggest, without commenting on the political factors or other virtues or lack thereof, that LBJ had Trump beat in every respect. Maybe he never bragged about "grabbing 'em by the pussy" to a reporter, but he verbally abused and humiliated his own wife to the shocked consternation of visiting dignitaries, and berated his own staff to the point of moving reporters to step between him and the secretaries he bullied into tears. He made underlings stand over him taking dictation in the bathroom while he was taking a shit. He would piss in a basin and turn around to greet visitors with his dick in his hand. He walked his current mistress past the house of his former mistress, to show her off on the way to his Senate offices.
This future champion of civil rights also had no compunctions about using the hard "r" when talking about blacks, and spent decades shamelessly playing both sides of the fence on voting rights, a friend to minorities when cadging liberal support, but a gen-u-wine Son of the South when it came time to vote.
To say that Lyndon Johnson was not a sterling character or a model of decorum would be a massive understatement. And yet, he's a hero of the civil rights movement, and a man whose energy transformed everything in his wake.
He's also the man whose presidency ended with protesters chanting "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" outside the White House.
This is one of those reviews I've sat on for a while, both because the story is so long and epic, and because it's so good, that I am not sure how to do it justice and convince you you should read a four-volume not-even-finished-yet biography of the 36th President of the United States. It's the magnum opus of an author and journalist who has spent his entire career understanding and writing about the levers of power. Not in the contemporary, wonkish pundit way we are so familiar with, but by actually doing immense amounts of research, pouring over 50-year-old census data and voting records and property deeds, ancient newspaper clips and corporate filings, report cards and surveys, traveling to tiny towns in the Texas Hill Country to interview old people about events from their childhood, and putting it all together and making connections that do not lend themselves to easy or quick judgments. I never thought, upon starting the first volume, that I'd find LBJ so fascinating and an enormous epic about his entire life so readable. But I was hooked for the long haul. I highly, highly recommend this series, even if you aren't particularly interested in LBJ himself, because it is such a readable and informative account of a major part of American history and how the politics we have today evolved from the politics of previous generations, and how small things can cause big things, and how one man really can rise to power on ambition and force of will.
LBJ was truly an epic character, in every sense of the word, and Robert Caro's immense magnum opus seems as conflicted as I am after reading it.
The history of LBJ is the history of the US Senate, Civil Rights, and American politics in the 20th century
Johnson was president when I was born, so I have no personal memory of him. And I had no particular interest in him until I saw a two-part Tony Award-winning series of plays about him: All the Way and The Great Society.
These two plays covered Johnson's presidency, particularly his interactions with the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. There is little about his early life except what he relates in his own monologues.
As we learn from Caro's book, Johnson could never be considered a reliable narrator, especially about his own life.
The two plays are great - see them if you can. But while they do poke a little fun at Johnson, they mostly cast him in a sympathetic light and portray him as a flawed but ultimately noble champion of the poor and disenfranchised.
I'd still not have been that interested in this book about Johnson but for the author's Audible freebie, On Power. In that short, Robert Caro spoke so compellingly about his lifelong journalistic investigation of the levers of power and how they are pulled, and how the movements of great men can grind and crush ordinary people unseen in their gears, that I was motivated to embark on the epic journey that his life's work.
Volume 1: The Path to Power
The Path to Power only takes us up through the end of World War II, and Johnson's first Senate win. But what a magnificent epic it already is. And Johnson... whatever you feel about the man, whatever your politics, this book paints him as a genius, a scoundrel, a political operator of unlimited ambition and zero scruples, yet a complicated man who was capable of accomplishing the impossible. Often he did the right thing for purely selfish reasons. He could be a best friend and a worst enemy. He demanded absolute, groveling allegiance from his underlings, getting rid of anyone insufficiently subservient. On the other hand, he was very good at looking after the people he valued, so loyalty to Johnson could be worth a great deal. Except that Johnson himself was not loyal at all, and would throw long-time allies under a bus in a heartbeat if it was to his political advantage.
By the end of this first volume, you will be convinced that Johnson was a ruthless, despicable, amoral bastard, and also understand why he was convinced he was going to be President someday, even when he was just a poor boy from Texas without a hope of making such lofty dreams come true. And how he could have become the greatest president ever.
In what we will see is Robert Caro's usual careful, detailed, and extremely thorough method, he begins this first volume by laying out the landscape: a detailed description of the Texas Hill Country, and how its settlement and formation, generations before Johnson was born, shaped the future president.
Today, Austin, Texas is a wealthy dot of blue in a red sea, largely due to immigrant Californians. But the original settlers of the Texas Hill Country would not recognize this high-tech hipster town of artsy coffee shops and concert venues proclaiming "Keep Austin Weird!" They were dirt farmers and cattle ranchers who spent decades living in fear of Comanches. By the time Lyndon Johnson came around, the frontier was gone but dirt farming was still a way of life. A combination of poor environmental management, bad economic bets, and inhospitable terrain had turned the once-lush hill country into eroded land that would never again support the production it had for its first farmers, and this part of Texas would, as Caro describes it, be supporting an agrarian population that lived and farmed under conditions that were literally medieval well after the major cities of America had been transformed by electricity and motor cars.
Lyndon Johnson was born here, the son of Samuel Johnson, who was a remarkable politician in his own right. But Samuel Ealy Johnson, despite having a successful political career, failed economically in his farming and cattle business, and by the time Johnson came of age, his old man was a broke and broken old alcoholic.
A more loyal son might show some respect for what his father had done, but though Johnson was referred to throughout his career as a "professional son" — he would attach himself sycophantically to a powerful older man who viewed himself as a father figure — his actual father was a failure in his eyes. When Samuel Johnson died in 1937, LBJ's friends and associates were surprised at what a large and prestigious gathering turned out to give their respects to the one-time Texas state senator; from what Lyndon had told them about his father, they thought he was just a washed up old drunk, and had no idea that he had once been a highly respected and accomplished man, who had brought highways and construction projects to Texas, secured pensions for veterans and their widows, and been a guiding force in post-Reconstruction Texas.
Johnson turned on just about all of his mentors at one time or another, up to and including Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ingratiating himself early with FDR, who gave unprecedented support to a young freshman Congressman from Texas, LBJ ran in Texas as an "FDR man." His entire platform was wholehearted, unquestioning support for Roosevelt's New Deal.
This did not stop him, running as Senator a few years later, when Texas was turning more conservative, from claiming he'd never been a Roosevelt supporter and that he had always been against the New Deal!
This lack of scruples shows up over and over again in Caro's biography. Johnson was, as described in many, many incidents going all the way back to his childhood, a liar, a fabricator, a coward, an opportunistic cheater, and as a politician, the quintessential cynical opportunist. "Johnson will be found on no barricades," said one of his former supporters, realizing that Johnson never committed himself on any issue until he saw which way the wind was blowing. Over and over, Johnson proved very good at convincing liberals he was a liberal and conservatives he was a conservative, and even decades later, many of his victims still hadn't noticed the knife he'd stuck in their ribs.
You might be getting the impression that Caro has written an anti-Johnson polemic, but that's far from the case. Certainly he does not paint a flattering picture of the man, speaking frankly about how Johnson stole elections, shamelessly participated in voter fraud, lied right and left, made up stories, and incidentally, cheated on Ladybird and bragged about it, over and over. And yet there is still something magnificent about this unscrupulous bastard. He's a genius who somehow knew he was destined for power, even as he languished for years in seemingly dead-end positions. He had a knack for taking over moribund organizations and turning them into powerful political machines. He had a knack for ingratiating himself with powerful men who'd help him up the ladder of power. He had a knack for using people who'd help him up, and then stepping on their heads to boost himself even higher.
And if all this makes Johnson sound like an unsympathetic bastard, Caro also describes in excruciating detail just how politics, especially in Texas, worked back then. Everyone stole votes. The word for a principled politician who stood on his convictions was "loser." Elections simply did not work the way they work today. Today, we have concerns about voter fraud, but we're talking about the manipulation of a few critical percentage points, when back in Johnson's day, elections were a kabuki play of money and vote-counting in which the actual voters were often notional.
Caro also describes the political environment as it was then. Johnson was a Democrat, but as everyone should know, a Democrat or a Republican in the 1920s-1940s (the time period covered by this volume) was not the same as a Democrat or a Republican today. The very loose mapping of "Democrat -> liberal" and "Republican -> conservative" was already present, but even those terms didn't mean the same thing. Texas was Democrat because the Democrats were the party of farmers and poor people, while Republicans represented urban areas, and business and industry. Texas was also Democrat because the memory of the Civil War and Reconstruction was still alive. Johnson's Hill Country had been a stronghold of the populist Progressive Party. It was not yet Oil Country (though oil would soon shape its economy and politics), and it was generations from being the culturally-driven Red State it is today.
All of this, Caro brings together to make sure we are evaluating Johnson in the full context of his life and times. And yes, he's still an unscrupulous son-of-a-bitch, the sort of anti-hero whose wins you celebrate while still thinking he deserves to get knocked into the dirt.
Caro interviewed everyone, from Johnson himself and his wife to all the politicians and aides he could find. He collected a vast amount of material to make sure every quote was documented. Perhaps most compelling among his interviews are those with old Hill Country wives. He spoke to some of the last survivors of those old pre-electricity Hill Country families, who described to him just what it meant to have electricity. This was one of Johnson's signature accomplishments: at a time when the power companies were dead set against rural electrification (not even because it wouldn't be profitable, but because it wouldn't be profitable enough) and used every dirty trick they could to avoid having to provide it, Johnson brought electricity to the Hill Country. And this shows his genius, his cunning, and his occasional flashes of humanity, because he really did care about those Hill Country folks, and he really was proud of what he did for them, and he really did keep his promise.
Johnson didn't keep a lot of his promises. But every once in a while, he kept the ones that really mattered.
Volume 2: Means of Ascent
How is a book about the 1948 Texas Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat so epic?
Robert Caro makes it epic, by doing deep, laborious research, the kind he's spent his entire life doing for this multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Just reading his summaries of all the details, which he personally gathered, in interviews with people still alive 30 years later, and by actually scouring county by country vote tallies, you realize what a Herculean work he undertook.
But why do we care about the 1948 Texas Democratic Senatorial primary? Because that was the make-or-break moment for Lyndon Johnson's political career. Had he lost — and he almost did, and as it was described by Caro, he should have — Johnson would never have become a U.S. Senator, would never have then become the most powerful man on Capitol Hill, and would never have become President. This, then, was a pivotal episode in Johnson's rise to power. But it wasn't just that. It was a signature event in American politics. It was the battle of old politics vs. new politics. It was also all the corruption and ugliness of Texas politics made manifest in one epic, historical contest. And it was all the ugliness and grandeur of Lyndon Johnson's character laid bare.
In The Path to Power, Johnson is revealed as someone driven to achieve power like few men in history. But in Means of Ascent, Caro continues to give us an unflinching, almost admiring but highly critical look at the man, and good gods, was that man an SOB.
The first part of this volume covers Johnson's war years, in which, in typical fashion, he did exactly as much as he needed to to secure his political future, and then spent the rest of his life spinning one (admittedly harrowing) flight under Japanese fire into months "fighting in the jungles of the Pacific," stories which he told and elaborated on so much that he apparently came to believe them himself.
But the bulk of this book is about a 1948 Texas political contest, in which Congressman Lyndon Johnson made his do-or-die bid for the U.S. Senate. Succeed, and his path to power would continue. Fail, and his political career would be over.
We know, of course, what happened, because it's history, but the tale is still a suspenseful nail-biting epic.
In order to set the stage, Caro first spends several chapters describing Johnson's opponent, Coke Stevens.
Just as in the first volume, Caro gave us a brief history of Texas, spanning entire generations before Lyndon Johnson was born, in this volume he gives us a mini-biography of Johnson's opponent in that long-ago Democratic primary. Coke Stevens was a man of the old school, a highly principled, self-taught, hard-working and thoroughly admirable Texan's Texan.
Caro has been accused of burnishing Stevens' halo a bit. It's clear in this volume that Caro admired Stevens and disliked Johnson. There was much to admire about Stevens, but there were also a few details that Caro mentioned, but did not really delve into too deeply, and I think those things illustrate the deeply complicated legacy of Lyndon Johnson.
Firstly, as I mentioned before, Texas politics was dirty. Caro spends a lot of time describing for us just how dirty it was — there were entire counties where blocks of votes were literally bought wholesale. Political bosses, who still ruled some East Texas counties like warlords of old, would tell everyone in their domains how to vote, and in some cases, had lieutenants actually checking their votes to make sure they voted "correctly." It was an actual widespread practice to bring Mexicans from south of the border to vote illegally. This point is of particular interest because as you may know, in American politics today, the question of "illegal voting" has become a frequent talking point. And while there seems to be little evidence that it's actually commonplace today, with modern voter rolls and more rigorous ballot monitoring, it helps to understand those who believe it's a legitimate concern if you realize that at least at one time, it really was something that happened. A lot.
But for some ballots, the bosses didn't even bother with the formality of herding people into the polls to vote. They just wrote the totals the politician who'd bought them wanted, and delivered them.
As Caro describes it, Johnson took this to unprecedented levels in the 1948 Democratic primary, but this was normal practice, and while Coke Stevens may have been too principled to directly encourage such actions, even Caro can't pretend that Stevens' supporters weren't doing it too, or that Stevens could possibly have been unaware of this. It was just how things were done in Texas.
The Democratic primary was a nail-biter from start to finish. Johnson started out behind, and even after pulling every dirty trick in the book, he was still trailing the revered Governor of Texas. Caro talks about how Johnson was the first to engage in what are now usual political methods: he bought unprecedented amounts of air time and newspaper columns. He had in-state and out-of-state contributors pouring money into his campaign. He was the first candidate to fly around in a helicopter, something that became a talking point and major attraction in his campaign. He was also a master of the political attack, and here is where he hurt Coke Stevens the most. As he manufactured outright lies about his opponent, accusing him of holding positions he clearly did not, slandering his character in ways that would have been unthinkable to anyone else, he did so having already realized Stevens' greatest weakness: his pride. One of the most frustrating elements of this story as you listen and (if you're buying Caro's narrative) become sympathetic to Coke Stevens, is that all the way up until the 11th hour, Stevens could have cut Johnson off at the knees just by responding to his attacks and calling them out for the lies they were. But Stevens refused to do so until it was too late, because he considered it beneath him. He was convinced that the people of Texas would know what he stood for. He had always been right before, but he'd never faced Lyndon Johnson.
The primary was fought down to the wire, and in the end, Johnson "won" by a crucial 87 votes. This wasn't the end, though, as Caro takes us through the committees, the court battles, as Stevens tried to prove what he knew to be true, that Johnson had stolen the election. Each time, it seems like Johnson's number will finally be up, that truth and justice will prevail... and yet, in the end, things always fall Johnson's way.
All of that being said, it's worth asking if we're being led to cheer for the right guy?
There can be little question that Coke Stevens was a better man than Lyndon Johnson. And yet, Johnson was perhaps the bastard we needed, not the bastard we deserved.
Stevens was not just an old school statesman, he was also an old school conservative (back when Democrats could be conservative). That extended, for example, to his racial views. Johnson, for all his many, many faults, including his ability to claim to be a liberal or a conservative depending on what his audience wanted to hear, actually believed in civil rights. (To a point: more on this in later volumes.) While Johnson could never have been accused of putting principles ahead of his own ambitions, he was the guy who brought us the 1964 Civil Rights Act, something that Coke Stevens would certainly never have done.
Is that enough to outweigh Johnson's sins? Is it enough to outweigh Viet Nam? Will the conclusion of Caro's epic answer those questions?
Volume 3: Master of the Senate
Caro began the first volume telling us the entire history of the Texas Hill Country where LBJ grew up. He spends much of the second volume giving us a biography of Johnson's opponent, a man who is now a footnote in American political history.
For volume three, he sets the stage for Johnson's Senate years by giving a brief, thorough history of the U.S. Senate, starting all the way back in the 18th century.
Caro writes long. He does not stint on details. He almost reminds me of a non-fiction version of Stephen King. (If you've ever read a big, bloated Stephen King novel where King suddenly goes off on a chapter-long tangent to give us the life history of some minor character who's about to die in the next scene, you know what I mean.) Except Caro's tangents are not bloat. They're meaningful. Because the heart of this book is all about the Senate battle over the 1957 Civil Rights Act. A bill that most people hardly remember today because it was relatively inconsequential compared to the ones that followed. And yet, it was also enormously consequential, because it made the ones that followed possible. But to understand that, you have to understand why it was so significant, and to understand that, you have to understand esoteric details both about the functioning of the Senate, and the political situation that existed in the U.S. at the time. You have to understand Senate parliamentary procedures, and how Johnson completely transformed the Senate, and all the maneuvering he had to do to get there. You have to understand the multi-factional divisions between liberal Republicans (there was such a thing, back then), pro-civil rights Democrats, and the block of Southern Democrats that effectively ruled the Senate, despite their numerical minority, because of their mastery of Senate proceedings. And you have to understand LBJ — that complicated, magnificent bastard, who never let principles get in the way of ambition, who could be as amoral a politician as any who ever set foot in Washington, who was a bullying, blustering, crooked, double-dealing scoundrel, as cruel as he was ruthless, and yet who deep down, actually possessed a genuine streak of compassion for the poor and the disenfranchised, and whose long-buried convictions every so often, when it was politically convenient, would manifest in feats of political genius that allowed him to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.
The previous volume told the story of Johnson's 1948 campaign for the U.S. Senate. That book, like this one, focused on a relatively obscure (today) political battle and turned it into an epic contest with all its implications detailed. Johnson won that extraordinarily dirty battle with Coke Stevenson (it would probably not be an exaggeration to say he literally stole the election), and came to the Senate as a freshman Senator from Texas. Where he ran headfirst into the Senate's seniority system, and all the ways in which the Senate was dysfunctional. By the end of his time there, Johnson will have changed everything — and as is characteristic of him, he will have done so using ruthless, unscrupulous means, elevating his own interests at the expense of the American people and his own constituents, and yet, by doing so he will also have made it possible to actually get things done that could never have been done before... like passing a civil rights act.
The U.S. Senate
As every American schoolchild knows, the United States Congress is divided into two halves: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Congressmen are apportioned according to population, and (re)elected every two years, while every state gets two Senators, elected for six years. While most people know the primary reason for this compromise (larger states wanted proportional representation, smaller states feared being made irrelevant and powerless), there was another reason the Founding Fathers felt a need for a smaller and more stable legislative body. The Senate was to be a firewall against popular sentiment; the Founders feared demagogues and populism. Congressmen might push for whatever was inflaming their constituents at the moment, but the Senate was supposed to be a place for lengthy deliberation, where passions could be damped.
And it served this purpose, for better and for worse. Caro traces the history of the Senate from its early days, through the glory years of the "Immortal Trio": John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay, and then through the Civil War.
Having given all this history, Caro is able to explain in detail how Southern Democrats came to dominate the Senate in the post-Reconstruction era. Today, few people pay much attention to the esoteric rules of Senate procedure. I'm not sure if Senators do. But in the early 20th century, these parliamentary procedures were crucial to controlling the flow of Senate legislation. Caro's detailed explanations are far more interesting than you might think, when he actually puts technical terms like "pairing" and "cloture" into context. The rules of Senate proceedings are far more complex and crafty than anyone who hasn't learned them can possibly imagine. And the Southern Democrats, representing the eleven states of the Confederate South, were masters of Senate parliamentary procedure. Over and over again, they balked their Northern rivals, who rarely studied parliamentary procedure in such depth and often had no idea how badly they were being outmaneuvered. Sometimes liberals were shocked and dismayed to find out that they'd accidentally nerfed their own bills; other times they'd learn they'd given up a vote on a bill by misunderstanding the technical difference between the Senate President "opening" or "resuming" a session. Despite their numerical disadvantage, the Southerners were able to ensure that the one thing they absolutely didn't want could never happen: civil rights legislation.
The Senate had also evolved a seniority system which, by Lyndon Johnson's time, had become as rigid and seemingly immutable as the Vatican. Senators were put on committees strictly according to their seniority, not interest or ability or even political leverage, so the only way to become head of a powerful and influential committee was to have been there the longest, and be the party in power. Freshmen Senators were literally expected to barely speak at all during their first term; a newly-elected firebrand who showed up and immediately started giving speeches and introducing bills on the Senate floor would soon find himself shunned and marginalized, politically and socially, by his colleagues.
The result of this, by the middle of the 20th century, was a moribund, static body in which very little was actually accomplished, and there were politicians and pundits seriously proposing that the Senate be abolished as a relic of an earlier age.
Then LBJ came along.
Slowly, gradually, bit by bit, he did what he had always done, even back in his college days. He figured out ways to change the rules. He recognized where real power lay, and positioned himself to grab hold of it. He used the rules, abused them, broke them and twisted them, brokered deals and broke promises, made allies, betrayed them, and over a period of years, remade the Senate in his image.
One of the early victims of Johnson's scheming was Leland Olds, and Caro takes yet another obscure figure out of American history and gives us his entire biography just to fit him into the LBJ story.
Leland Olds had been appointed by FDR to the Federal Power Commission in 1939. He was a highly principled and religious man who actually believed he had a duty to the American public. He used the FPC to enforce the Natural Gas Act of 1938, which did not go over well with Texas oilmen, who were now investing heavily in natural gas. Johnson was beholden to the Texas oil industry, so when Olds's reconfirmation hearing occurred in 1949, it was supposed to be routine, almost a formality.
It wasn't. Johnson put all his craft on display. Playing both sides of the fence, presenting himself to Olds as his friend and ally, presenting himself to the media as an impartial, fair-minded subcommittee chairman, he set Olds up, arranging to have old writings from his younger, more radical days dug up, writings which had already been discussed in previous confirmation hearings. But this time Olds was presented as a communist, a dangerous, business-hating, anti-American radical. Johnson cleverly managed to derail or blunt every opportunity Olds and his allies would have had to defend him. Olds lost his position and was barely able to stay employed. Leland Olds would not be the first or last person Johnson smilingly stabbed in the back, but it would long be remembered by Senate liberals, who grew to despise him.
Eye on the Presidency
By the time Johnson became Senate Majority Leader, he owned the Senate. He literally took over offices and gave himself a palatial executive suite to rival the President's. He controlled which bills would or wouldn't get introduced, and literally told other Senators how to vote. He was feared, hated, and admired, and by 1957, he was one of the most powerful men in the country. (And not incidentally, he'd also become extremely wealthy, despite never having held anything other than civil service positions.)
But that wasn't enough for him, because he had always had his eye on the Presidency.
Johnson had long been a professional "favorite son." He would attach himself to a powerful older man and become his loyal toady. A manipulative master of brown-nosing, Johnson came to the Senate and went along to get along, quietly doing very little while becoming the favored protege of Senator Richard Russell.
Dick Russell, former Governor of Georgia, was the most powerful man in the Senate. He was key to Johnson's ambitions, and Caro spends an entire chapter giving us a biography of Russell. Russell was a gentleman of the Old South, a statesmanlike figure revered by his fellow Southerners and respected by everyone else.
Russel was also adamantly opposed to Civil Rights. He was a "genteel" Southerner, not a race-baiting hatemonger like some of his contemporaries. Russell didn't use the n-word. Russell spoke of states rights and heritage. He spoke eloquently about the "harmonious" relationship of races in the South, denying any animosity, claiming that Northern depictions of Southerners as lynching, cross-burning thugs was just Reconstruction-era slander. Even while lynching and cross-burning was very much happening.
Dick Russell wasn't about to let Negroes vote, or attend schools with white children, or swim in white swimming pools.
Lyndon Johnson was Russell's devoted "favorite son," and he spoke as a Southerner. His entire political career had been a masterful job of convincing liberals he was a liberal, and conservatives he was a conservative. To his fellow Southerners, Johnson spoke of "We of the South." He convinced the Southerners he was one of them. He was against civil rights. And his voting record certainly reflected that.
There was just one problem: Johnson wanted to be President. And the rest of the country was becoming increasingly fed up with the South. No Southerner, especially a Southerner with an anti-civil rights record, had a hope of being elected to the White House.
Russell saw in Johnson someone who could be elected President, and Russell very much wanted to see a Southerner elected President.
Thus began some of the most masterful, underhanded, ignoble, and glorious political maneuverings in Johnson's entire career.
The Civil Rights Act of 1957
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… "We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
— Lee Atwater, 1981
Johnson sold it to his fellow Senators from the South this way: "We've got to give the niggers something!" Yes, he did use that word. And then he would cross the room to where the Northern liberals gathered, and tell them he was a pro-civil rights liberal, like them. He was shamelessly two-faced, and it worked! For the most part: many liberals despised him anyway, remembering his entire history of voting against civil rights, his treatment of Leland Olds, and many other grand and petty cruelties. Not everyone bought his act. Yet Johnson knew that two contradictory things were true: he had to support civil rights if he were to be President, and he would lose his Southern allies and patrons if he supported civil rights.
Johnson, in Johnson fashion, managed to play both sides, and the story of the 1957 Civil Rights Act is where all the history Caro has given us comes together.
The U.S. Senate was where civil rights legislation died. Not a single civil rights act had passed since Reconstruction, because of the "extended debate" rule — i.e., filibusters. If they couldn't kill it before it reached the floor, the Southerners would always filibuster a civil rights bill, and no attempt by liberals to break the filibuster ever had or would succeed. So for 80 years, liberals had tried and failed, against the masters of the Senate in the South.
Johnson needed a civil rights bill to pass, and for it to pass, he needed the Southerners not to kill it, and for them not to kill it, the bill had to not actually extend civil rights to Negroes in any meaningful way.
The story of how he played off Southern Democrats against Northern liberals is brilliant. He convinced the Southerners they had to let something pass, or the rising tide of pro-civil rights sentiment might lead eventually to the North being able to at last override their filibusters. He convinced Dick Russell, who controlled the Southern Democrats, that as President, he'd make sure there was no real advancement of civil rights. And then he convinced the pro-civil rights liberals that even a weak bill was better than no bill.
Not all the liberals were convinced, and the battle went back and forth with Johnson on the verge of losing, over and over. Not all the Southerners were convinced: the legendary Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond did filibuster the bill.
The Civil Rights Act of 1957 established a commission on civil rights that was to enforce voting rights. That's it — the federal government was empowered to enforce the right to vote, for Negro voters in particular. Johnson's genius was seeing that this was the one weakness in the Southerners' opposition to civil rights. Even ardently racist Senators were still generally strict Constitutionalists, and felt qualms about denying any citizen, even Negroes, the right to vote. So Johnson was able to push for this, and only this. Yet even that was too much for many, and the bill was almost killed over the jury trial provision. Southerners wanted a guarantee that any judge prosecuted by the newly-formed civil rights commission for denying Negroes the right to vote would have a right to be tried by jury — which in the South, was essentially a guarantee that they would never be convicted. Johnson couldn't sell this to the pro-civil rights side, until he got another provision into the bill, that anyone eligible to vote would be eligible to serve on a jury. In other words, in theory it made it possible for Negroes to sit on Southern juries.
What was eventually passed was a weak bill that did almost nothing that civil rights advocates wanted. Johnson was a cynical, two-faced snake using every trick in the book to get a bad bill passed for utterly self-serving reasons.
And yet, it was a landmark. He got a civil rights bill past the South, for the first time since 1875. It made the much more sweeping civil rights bills that would happen under his administration possible. And Johnson would prove that he'd also double-crossed the South, because down deep, despite his ruthlessness and ambition, despite his sleazy, amoral tactics, despite his willingness to use that hard-r when talking to his fellow Southerners, he really did believe in civil rights.
He was a bastard who did the right things for the wrong reasons, and the wrong things whenever it was convenient. Caro is mercilessly critical of Johnson, giving credit where credit is due to his genius and to his accomplishments, and yet pointing out over and over what a greedy, sleazy, dirty-dealing liar he was. In later years, Johnson would brag about his civil rights record and his associates would claim he had never harbored any prejudice against other races; Caro points out all the times Johnson showed otherwise, in word and deed.
LBJ is such a bastard, but he's a compelling, brilliant bastard you hate to see win and yet hope he does.
Volume 4: The Passage of Power
When last we saw our "hero," Lyndon Baines Johnson, he'd ascended to the heights of power, made the Senate his bitch, and was now probably the second most powerful man in the United States.
The fourth volume in Robert Caro's epic (and unfinished!) biography of LBJ, The Passage of Power, tells how the man once feared, hated, and kowtowed to on Capitol Hill, on top of the world with his eyes on the prize, fell from supremacy to become a weak and powerless figure of ridicule... before an assassin's bullet, ironically, would bounce him back into power.
As with the previous volumes, this book is not just about Johnson. To tell the story of LBJ, Robert Caro tells the story of everything and everyone around him, and as Johnson moved into the next stage of his political career, it would be defined largely by his relationships with the Kennedys.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a young Senator who, like most Senate newbies, had to spend years eating shit from Johnson. Johnson did not have a high regard for the kid, this "rich man's son" with a thoroughly undistinguished political career. Caro takes time to give us a brief biography of JFK before we even get to the 1960 Democratic primary, followed by the Presidential election.
JFK's war record is well known, but what's less well-known is that JFK suffered for most of his life from excruciating, almost debilitating pain. When he served as a PT boat captain in World War II (and had a moment of heroism that was quite real, in contrast to LBJ's grossly inflated accounts of wartime heroics because he rode on one air mission), he was in agony as the waves bounced his little boat around. He eventually underwent surgeries that almost cost him his life.
All this was unknown to Johnson, who wrote him off as a pampered lightweight. But the fact that Kennedy had been hiding pain his entire life behind a cheerful, stoic mask explains why LBJ's theatrics and coercive tricks never worked on him.
Also unknown to Johnson (or to me, until this book), was what a canny operator Kennedy was. His Senate career was undistinguished; he passed almost no legislation, was attached to no prominent bills, and took no memorable stands. As it turns out, this was his plan all along. Because like LBJ, JFK was always planning to be President. Having been master of the Senate for years, Johnson was now facing the dilemma that resulted from that: he was well known to both his friends and his enemies, and he was a polarizing figure. In particular, being from the South, and without a history of supporting civil rights (his passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 notwithstanding), Johnson faced a serious uphill battle.
Kennedy, on the other hand, was glamorous, had impeccable liberal credentials, and had carefully avoided controversy or antagonizing anyone in his time in the Senate. He'd studied history, read the mood of the country, and basically adopted a policy of being a do-nothing Senator as the best path to the Presidency.
Turns out, he was right.
In 1960, Johnson's allies urged him to run for the Democratic nomination, and Caro describes in his usual thorough detail all the maneuvering, electoral politics, and vote counting involved in securing the party's nomination, a description that might be of interest to those following the Democratic Primary today, in the year 2020 (at the time this review is being written). Showhorse candidates? Spoilers? Late entrists? 1960 had them too. Though not nearly in such numbers. And one of the tragedies of this campaign (for Johnson) is that as Caro tells it, once again his own flaws undid him. Johnson wanted the Democratic Party's nomination. He wanted it badly. But he denied it. He spent months claiming he absolutely was not going to run for President. He waffled and refused to commit, even when it was long past the time for commitment, even when his allies were begging him to get in there, even when he was being told he had a good chance of winning it if he just announced.
Why did he delay? Because Johnson couldn't stand to lose. His entire life, he'd feared one thing more than anything else: being beaten. Being humiliated. This towering flaw of his was that he would rather not try at all, than try and fail. And he wasn't convinced he could win, and feared letting everyone know how much he wanted it.
But eventually, finally, he did announce, and he ran against Kennedy (and Adlai Stevenson) for the Democratic Party nomination.
Possibly he could have gotten it, had he started earlier. But Kennedy's momentum was too great, and what Johnson feared most of all happened: he lost.
Now Caro spends some time giving us a short biography of JFK's younger brother, Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy will be important in the Lyndon Johnson story, because their enmity was one of the great political death-matches of American history.
Bobby, it turns out, was kind of a dick. He was violent and ruthless in his passions. Caro tells us of several incidents from his younger days — a nasty bar fight, a time when he abandoned a friend on a sailing boat out of sheer callowness — and then his time as a federal prosecutor, pursuing organized crime, the Teamsters, and his great nemesis, Jimmy Hoffa.
But Bobby was JFK's wingman, and Bobby hated Lyndon Johnson. He saw right through Johnson, knew him to be a liar and an operator, and also hated Johnson for how he had attacked their father, Joe Kennedy, many years earlier (a fact that Johnson denied, and which Bobby then looked up to verify, and confirmed that Johnson was lying).
So, Bobby was not exactly thrilled when his brother made Johnson his running mate.
Here, Caro has opened up some old wounds and stirred controversy anew, 50 years after the fact. Because there are alternate versions of what happened in a Los Angeles hotel room in 1960, and most of the principals are dead, while those who do remember it have mutually contradictory versions which they all appear to believe wholeheartedly.
The "official" version, the one both JFK and Johnson insisted upon, and never deviated from while they were alive, is that Kennedy offered Johnson the Vice Presidency and he accepted. But other accounts (namely, those of Robert Kennedy and his supporters, including the historian Arthur Schlesinger, a Kennedy partisan and no friend of Johnson) claim that the offer was never meant seriously, that it was extended as a courtesy and they didn't expect Johnson to accept. They needed support from the South; Kennedy couldn't win the Presidency without the South, and this was the calculation that went into putting Johnson on his ticket. But even Johnson later claimed that Bobby had gone behind his back and tried to get JFK to take him off the ticket. There were a lot of phone calls and backroom dealing that night, and we may never know the truth, but Caro seems to lean towards the Kennedy-Johnson version of events, while allowing that there might have been something to JFK's reluctance to make Johnson his running mate.
Kennedy and Johnson went on to handily (or narrowly, depending on whether you look at electoral votes or the popular vote) defeat Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, and Lyndon Johnson spent the next four years eating shit.
You might not think being Vice President of the United States is a shit job, but it turns out, it's actually kind of a shit job.
This has long been a running joke in Washington. The Vice President isn't actually expected to do much except take over if the President dies. (A fact about which Johnson made a joke — "I looked at the numbers, historically, and now I have a one in five chance of becoming President" — that would turn out to be prescient and not so funny...)
First, Caro tells us how Johnson tried to continue his old shenanigans. "Power is where power goes," he always said, and he had a scheme for retaining his power over the Senate even while he moved into the Vice President's office (which, at the time, was not in the White House). He tried to put together a "caucus" over which he would preside, effectively keeping his power as the Senate President even though he was no longer a Senator.
His fellow Senators weren't having that, and they quickly let him know. The Senate was jealous of their prerogatives, mindful of the separation of powers, and sure as hell not going to let Johnson usurp authority in his old style. Even his closest allies let him know that this wasn't happening, and Johnson was forced to backtrack.
So he spent the next four years becoming a shadow of his former self. He was morose, he felt his career was over. The Vice President does not, under the Constitution, actually have any responsibilities or authority except what the President chooses to give him, and while Kennedy was always gracious and polite to his Vice President, he rebuffed many of Johnson's attempts to take a larger role in decision-making. Johnson was shut out of most of the major meetings of his Presidency. Caro describes the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the psychological effects of the Bay of Pigs Invasion on Kennedy, but also, crucially, how Johnson played almost no part in any of these events because Kennedy didn't care to invite him into the room.
Johnson was ridiculed, sometimes openly disrespected, by Kennedy's men, though never by Kennedy himself. Robert Kennedy, in particular, went out of his way to marginalize and humiliate Johnson on multiple occasions. Magazines ran mocking articles: "Whatever happened to Lyndon Johnson?" He became a figure of fun, "Rufus Cornpone," a folksy Texan with corny stories and no sense of style. He could be forgiven for believing that this was the nadir of his career.
And it got worse. Because the Washington Post had begun investigating Johnson's long-time personal assistant, Bobby Baker, who was a "fixer" on Capitol Hill and becoming embroiled in a sex and favors scandal that threatened to drag Johnson into it. Time Magazine was investigating the source of Johnson's money. Johnson had covertly and craftily become a very rich man while never holding anything other than relatively low-paying government jobs. All of this was getting ready to boil out into the open, there was talk that Kennedy might actually drop Johnson from the 1964 ticket (speculation that has persisted to this day, though like the speculation that Kennedy never wanted Johnson as his running mate in the first place, Kennedy always denied it), and it seemed like Johnson's career might truly go down in flames.
And then one of the worst things that ever happened to the country probably was the best thing that ever happened for Johnson's career.
Caro goes through the events leading up to that famous car ride in Dallas, including the multiple humiliations Johnson had suffered on the trip. He also takes us through the aftermath: its effects on Johnson, on Jackie Kennedy, on Robert Kennedy. The process of Johnson being sworn in, Jackie insisting that the world see her in her bloodstained dress. RFK and LBJ's conflicting accounts afterwards about Johnson's phone calls to ask about when and how his swearing in as President should occur.
Caro doesn't dwell long on conspiracy theories or any of the other history behind the Kennedy assassination, except to dismiss one of the many theories that have occasionally been suggested: he found no evidence, in all his extensive research, in all the letters and documents he studied, in all the interviews and recorded footage he reviewed, to suggest that Johnson had anything whatsoever to do with Kennedy's assassination. And everything we know now suggests that Johnson was genuinely distraught and horrified. He might have been unhappy with his status as VP, he might have felt marginalized, but in public and in private, he had never expressed anything but admiration and loyalty to JFK, and he also seemed to suffer a personal sense of aggrievement that the President had been assassinated in his state of Texas.
"Well, what's the Presidency for?"
Johnson seized the reins of power, and now, as Caro tells it, he rose to the occasion. It would be an exaggeration to say he suddenly became a different and better man. He was still Lyndon Johnson. And yet, maybe he did become a different and better man. Suddenly POTUS, Johnson charged forward with Kennedy's program, determined to get done the things Kennedy had meant to get done. And one of those things was civil rights.
The Kennedys had ignored Johnson's sage advice on how to get a bill through the Senate. Johnson knew all the tricks, and how the Southerners could stall legislation they didn't want to reach the floor, but JFK didn't listen, and the Senate was in a state of dysfunction. The tax bill, the budget bill, and everything else was all stalled because Harry Byrd of Virginia wasn't about to let a civil rights bill move forward.
Johnson's advisors told him to let it go, that the President had limited political capital, and he shouldn't expend it on a losing battle days into his presidency.
To which Johnson said, "Well, what's the Presidency for?"
And suddenly this magnificent bastard, who'd been against civil rights until he was for them, who'd convinced his fellow Southern Democrats for years that he was with them in his heart, whose other favorite phrases included things like "It's not a politician's job to go around talking about principals!" stood up before the country, gave a State of the Union speech, and before Congress and all his Southern allies, gave such a ringing endorsement of civil rights that even Martin Luther King, Jr. had tears in his eyes.
It's a testament to LBJ and his lifetime of political maneuvering that he slipped a knife into the back of his fellow Southerners right then and there, he did it openly, before their very eyes, and yet they still didn't realize it. They still believed Johnson didn't really mean it.
But he did.
Hurry up and finish this before you die, Mr. Caro.
I cannot imagine how dedicated and fascinated Caro must be by his subject, whom it is clear he finds both enormously compelling and loathsome. Caro is no apologist for Johnson. His judgment is harsh, he is merciless in describing Johnson's every flaw and all his dark shenanigans, he's particularly critical of Johnson's two-faced nature on the subject of civil rights, and yet there's clearly an admiring quality to the lifetime's work he has put into documenting and revealing the man in all his shady, mendacious, unstoppable, relentless, shameless glory.
(Caro himself has said, "I don't either like or dislike him. I try to understand him. If you have a feeling towards Lyndon Johnson, it's awe.")
Robert Caro is 85 years old. He's been writing his biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson for almost forty years now. He's gotten us up to 1963.
His fifth volume will, presumably, cover the 1964 election, Johnson's passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and his second term as President. His tumultuous relationship with MLK, and the looming specter of Vietnam. It's going to be grand, and now I know how all you George R. R. Martin fans feel...
Read this series, folks. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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