By Robert Caro, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, N.Y., 712 pages, $35.00
In the fourth volume of his biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson, historian Robert Caro tells a compelling story of miscalculation, humiliation, desperation, and redemption. Like all of Caro’s books, this one focuses on “power.” Through assiduous research, Caro paints the portrait of a flawed man who was at once both supremely confident and deeply insecure about himself.
The book covers the years between 1958 and mid-1964. Unlike the three earlier volumes, which cover Johnson’s Texas roots to his election as majority leader of the U.S. Senate, this latest volume covers four principal events that have already been widely written about: the 1960 national election, the presidency of John F. Kennedy, JFK’s assassination, and Johnson’s ascendency to the presidency. Despite this crowded field, Caro’s new book masterfully weaves passages from earlier works with his own original research. What emerges is a fresh narrative of a controversial man and his times.
The first part of the book deals with miscalculation. In 1958, as President Dwight Eisenhower was finishing up the last of his two terms, candidates in both parties were positioning themselves for the 1960 campaign. As a visible and effective Senate majority leader, Johnson was a presumed contender with a thick record of legislative accomplishments, an enviable list of willing donors, and a long list of friends who owed him favors. In short, it was his time.
As expertly told by the author, however, Johnson at this crucial moment inexplicably hesitated to campaign, court Democratic party bosses, give speeches outside Washington, or personally woo convention delegates. Meanwhile, JFK, a junior senator with few legislative achievements, was busy traveling the country lining up support. Johnson, who considered JFK a neophyte, refused to take him seriously until it was too late. According to Caro, Johnson, through his own hesitation and miscalculation, became the principal source of his own defeat.
The second part of the book tells a story of “humiliation.” As JFK’s vice president, Johnson was disdained by JFK’s closest advisors and given little to do, except for chairing two presidential committees, the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and the National Space Council.
But even in these committees, Johnson was marginalized. As recounted by the author, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy belittled Johnson by openly complaining that he was being too long-winded at a June 22, 1963 White House meeting of the CEEO. The attendees, who included 29 civil rights leaders, witnessed the debacle. Then, one month later, RFK humiliated Johnson again at a July 18, 1963 meeting of the space council by berating Johnson’s appointees to the council as incompetent.
One of the main sub-plots of the book is the “blood feud” which existed between Johnson and RFK. Johnson resented the president’s brother for trying to convince JFK to renege on his offer to Johnson to be his running mate in 1960. In turn, RFK detested Johnson for criticizing his father and brother. Caro richly details the intense hate that fueled this legendary rivalry.
The third part of the book explains the desperation Johnson felt in the months just before JFK’s assassination. According to Caro, by the fall of 1963, Johnson had convinced himself that he was a finished man. As vice president, he was an afterthought, devoid of power. As a Texan, he had been replaced as the state’s most influential politician by John Connelly, his former protégé and the newly elected governor. Moreover, many signs pointed toward Johnson’s replacement on the 1964 presidential ticket and the positioning of RFK to succeed his brother as the Democratic standard bearer in 1968. Furthermore, the fall of 1963 brought corruption probes by media and congressional investigators into the scandalous personal finances of both Johnson and Bobby Baker, his former Senate staffer. Johnson was in trouble, and he knew it.
But then came Nov. 22, 1963. The story of the assassination has been told countless times. Caro’s version is new and different, however, because it consists of a minute-by-minute account of what happened to Johnson on that tragic day. Particularly poignant is Caro’s description of the moment when Johnson was informed in a cramped little hospital cubicle at Parkland Hospital that JFK “was gone.”
From that fateful moment, Johnson immediately changed from the forgotten man to the most powerful man. As told by the author, Johnson’s post-assassination rise is a story of political “redemption” like no other. In perhaps the best writing of his career, Caro recounts the tour de force that Johnson delivered during his first seven weeks in office: steadying the ship of the state, establishing the Warren Commission, cajoling legislators, convincing most of the JFK advisors to stay on in their posts, and navigating Congress to obtain passage of JFK’s tax-cut proposal and civil rights bill.
As in the earlier volumes of this biography, Caro in this installment focuses on Johnson’s tremendous skill at convincing older men with power to trust him. In this book, the most pertinent example of this skill involved Johnson’s relationship with Senator Harry Byrd, the conservative Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
During JFK’s final months in office, Byrd had stalled the president’s tax cut proposal because he believed that it would create a federal budget deficit. Nothing JFK could do could convince him otherwise. After Johnson assumed power, however, Byrd’s committee reported out the bill, which was passed in 1964. As explained by the author, Johnson’s success in this endeavor was due to his keen ability to convince the older man that he was a careful and trusted steward of the public purse.
The book ends in mid-1964, just before the 1964 presidential election in which Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater. At the time, the author tells us, storm clouds were appearing on the horizon from Vietnam, a subject which will no doubt dominate the upcoming last installment of Caro’s biography. It is already much anticipated
Jeffrey Winn is a partner at Sedgwick LLP.