Undoubtedly, Lyndon Johnson was an important president. He came to office under melodramatic circumstances, one of only four men to succeed a murdered predecessor. His landmark civil-rights legislation—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—effectively ended the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era. Medicare was the first post-New Deal leap in construction of the American welfare state, and his War on Poverty the most ambitious federal undertaking of the second half of the 20th century. If you set aside his prosecution of the Vietnam War, Johnson was surely the most influential Democratic president since his political hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But in assessing Johnson’s success, setting Vietnam aside is not so easily done; and when his presidency is judged in historical and not strictly political terms, its reputation begins to unravel. It is true that Johnson inherited an American military commitment to the government of South Vietnam from the “best and the brightest” of the Kennedy administration, and that he seems always to have harbored mixed feelings about the enterprise. But he prosecuted the war not out of any sense of strategic conviction but as a political necessity; and his prosecution was so cynical, and ultimately so inept, that he succeeded only in destroying the postwar American consensus in foreign policy and raising a specter of chaos and defeat that still haunts our national discourse.
His domestic monuments are similarly problematic. The civil-rights measures of the Johnson era remain influential and certainly transformed the status of African Americans. But they also illustrate the limitations, in the long term, of legislation: Even as we live in a United States governed by its first black president, the problem of race—with its bitter controversies and statistical anomalies—remains, and American society is still self-segregated in significant ways. For that matter, while Johnson’s Great Society is still the template for the Democratic Party’s approach to domestic policy, it was by any measure a historic catastrophe: a symbol for failure and misjudgment in federal government, which led to a resurgence of the Republican Party that would have been inconceivable when Johnson took office. In 1963, the federal budget was still ritually held below $100 billion; it is now measured in the trillions. Johnson’s War on Poverty was the most expensive domestic initiative in American history, and less than a half-century later, his own party campaigns for the presidency to relieve endemic poverty. To a majority of Americans, the good intentions of the Great Society are recalled for their futility, voluminous waste, and political corruption.
In sum, the importance of Lyndon Johnson is probably more evident to his near-contemporaries than to posterity, which raises a larger question about Robert Caro’s latest installment of a projected multi-volume biography. The Passage of Power1 is the fourth in Caro’s monumental series on “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” and it ends in the first few months of Johnson’s five-year presidency. If a case is to be made for Johnson’s pivotal position in American history, it must presumably require a close examination of his tenure in the White House, which, in turn, suggests an equal number of weighty volumes stretching ahead.
It’s a preposterous notion. Biography is an interesting but not wholly satisfactory approach to history: The lives of individuals are instructive in themselves and sometimes illustrate their times and places. But Caro’s ambition is more profound. He does not so much wish to tell us everything we ought to know about Lyndon Johnson and let readers draw their own conclusions. Rather he aims to “focus on and examine a specific, determinative aspect of [his] era—political power; to explore, through the life of its protagonist, the acquisition and use of various forms of that power during that half-century of American power, and to ascertain also the fundamental realities of that power; to learn what lay, beneath power’s trappings, at power’s core.”
In that sense, Caro’s failure (thus far) is nearly equal to Johnson’s. As a practical matter, biographies of a certain length may possibly be justified by the self-evident importance of their subjects: Moneypenny and Buckle’s Disraeli, Nicolay and Hay’s Lincoln, Malone’s Jefferson, Gilbert’s Churchill. Does LBJ belong in this company? More than a few biographers have been stymied by their apparent inability to come to grips with their subjects—Edmund Morris’s misadventure with Ronald Reagan comes to mind—and Caro seems equally determined to discern Johnson’s essence through incessant detail, and “to learn what lay, beneath power’s trappings, at power’s core.”
But of course, the effort is futile. Lyndon Johnson, like most professional politicians, was not an especially reflective man, and as readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s memoir (or Johnson’s own) can attest, his interior life was correspondingly banal. The exercise of power is an instinctive talent, resistant to inquiry or scientific analysis. It cannot be taught, defined, or fully comprehended. Lyndon Johnson, moreover, like many human beings, was the sum of innumerable parts: Cruel and compassionate, solicitous and vulgar, ambitious and harried by demons, he was at once a poor boy from rural Texas and chief magistrate of the land. A scholar-historian, presumably, would describe Johnson thus and let the incidents speak for themselves. But that is not Caro’s style—or it should be said, the mission of his fellow journalist-biographers, who prefer to tell instructive anecdotes in the service of their understanding of “power’s trappings [and] power’s core.”
The Passage of Power is, ostensibly, an account of the abrupt transitions in Johnson’s career from Senate majority leader, in 1960, to vice president (1961–63) and, by tragic happenstance, to the long-sought presidency. As a chronicler of events, Caro has a recurring tendency to overstate. Johnson was not just an important and powerful congressional figure but the most important and powerful majority leader in the Senate’s long history; the temperamental conflict between Johnson and Robert Kennedy was not just poisonous but yielded repercussions that still reverberate through history.
The reader may wonder about the purpose of these portentous tidbits, and the conclusion is obvious: Caro has not revealed “power’s trappings” or unearthed “power’s core” but settled, instead, on the time-honored rhetorical technique of substituting drama for historical narrative. The Passage of Power is, therefore, a series of theatrical set-pieces designed not so much to elucidate as to entertain, very much in the narrative manner and voice of a PBS documentary. Johnson’s hapless and half-hearted pursuit of the presidency in 1960 gives way to a capacious account of John F. Kennedy’s decision to recruit Johnson as his running mate. This, in turn, sets the stage for Robert Kennedy’s violent animus toward Johnson, which is played out in the younger Kennedy’s clumsy attempts to keep Johnson off the ticket and, subsequently, marginalize his brother’s vice president.
It also explains an 80-page detour, in the middle of Caro’s account, to describe the assassination of John F. Kennedy and its immediate consequences. Readers may wonder, at the outset, if there is anything new to be learned about the president’s journey to Dallas, the shooting by Lee Harvey Oswald and its ghastly aftermath, the solemn transfer of power and funeral ceremonies, in a biography of Lyndon Johnson. The answer is no. But it does give Caro opportunities to commemorate successive scenes in decorative prose and to punctuate each incidental detail with a suitable flourish: “Never in American history—never in the history of any republic since, perhaps, the great pageants of Rome—had the passage of power been marked by such pageantry, pageantry which made the three days of funeral ceremonies for John F. Kennedy three of the most memorable days in American history.”
The Kennedy funeral was unquestionably a memorable spectacle, but it speaks to Caro’s manifold weaknesses as a scholar that he seems incapable of penetrating the stage-managed pathos of the Kennedy pageant, or distinguishing the important from the superficial in such transitory events. Indeed, at a tender moment when it might be helpful to describe the significance of Johnson’s assumption of office and the circumstances that informed his behavior, Caro is hypnotized by the televised pageantry: the riderless horse, the paralyzing grief of the Kennedy entourage, the play-by-play account of “TV newscaster David Brinkley.”
Caro is similarly intent on describing in strictly personal terms Johnson’s swift political adaptation from the butt of standard vice-presidential jokes, and conviction that “my future is behind me,” to formidable commander-in-chief. Johnson is determined to exercise the levers of the presidency but hampered by a chronic sense of inadequacy and by Robert Kennedy’s baleful presence in his cabinet. He harbors a furious resentment about his serial humiliations at the hands of the Kennedy White House, but he clasps the reins of power with a confidence and sense of command surprising to all. Johnson is equally determined to push the late president’s stalled legislative program through the Senate, but he faces implacable resistance from old patrons and colleagues, notably Richard Russell of Georgia and Harry Byrd of Virginia.
This is nonsense. It is hardly surprising that the American people, shocked by the first presidential assassination in 62 years, would rally behind the awkward, earnest man who succeeded Kennedy and came to office after three decades at elevated levels of public service. And, no doubt, Robert Kennedy was a virtual thorn in Johnson’s thin skin. But the Kennedy acolytes and hangers-on knew immediately that they were redundant. One by one, they made their graceful (and not-so-graceful) exits in short order. As for those immovable objects in the Senate, it is certainly a tribute to Johnson’s political instincts that he gave priority to the Civil Rights Act, knowing that his fellow Southern Democrats would oppose his efforts. And he surely deserves praise for its comparatively swift enactment. But it is naive to suppose that Johnson’s challenge was especially formidable. By 1963-64 public opinion was decisively behind the basic objectives of the civil-rights movement, especially after Kennedy’s violent death. Segregationists such as Byrd and Russell could fight only a rear-guard action, and they knew it.
Does Robert A. Caro know this? It is hard to say. After 736 pages of text, we are still left with the Civil Rights Act unpassed, and Vietnam and the Great Society have just emerged on the horizon. But the ultimate purpose of this volume seems not to have been a prelude to the Johnson presidency, or even that elucidation of power, but a diagnosis of the principal player as he arrives onstage. “By overcoming forces within him that were very difficult to overcome,” Caro writes, “he not only had held the country steady during a difficult time but had set it on a new course, a course toward social justice.”
This suggests, but does not reveal, how this project may play out. For whatever reason, Caro has devoted himself, in the course of his career, to a close examination of two public figures (Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson) whom he seems personally to despise. In the case of Moses, sufficient time has elapsed since Caro’s monumental indictment (The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York) that revisionist views have since taken root. Similarly, when Caro published the first installment of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” some 30 years ago, he seems to have harbored the customary left-liberal contempt for Johnson as a nominal Democrat with an insatiable appetite for money and power, depicting him in terms nearly as grotesque as his portrait of Moses.
But time seems not to have softened Caro’s view so much as revealed an uncomfortable fact: Lyndon Johnson’s addiction to power and money was genuine, but so was his devotion to the left-liberal ideology of Caro and his admirers. To contend with Johnson’s failure as president is to recognize, in some manner, the failure of modern American liberalism—and what better way could there be to rationalize this unspeakable truth than to blame it on Lyndon Johnson’s flawed character?
Accordingly, there is an interesting vignette in the “Note on Sources” at the end of this volume. Caro acknowledges a considerable debt to the late Theodore Sorensen, and relates that “I live on Central Park West, and Ted lived on Central Park West”—a trivial but revealing irrelevancy—“and on my walk to and from my office I walked by his apartment.” When Caro had trouble understanding some episode, or was mystified by this or that detail, he would consult Sorensen on his journey home: “We would sit there and Ted would talk….The living room overlooked Central Park. It would be late afternoon. The light would start to fade. I would still have questions. Ted would answer them.” Sometimes Sorensen would ask for time to reflect before responding, and “sometimes he…would call, unsolicited, because he wasn’t satisfied with what he said.” Here is where, for Caro the would-be historian, it becomes poignant: “I realized that he was taking a remarkable amount of time and trouble for me. I felt he was doing it because he believed…it was important that history got it right.”
I’ll bet he did.
1 The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert A. Caro; Knopf, 736 pages.