By Garry Wills
The New York Times Review of Books
May 24, 2012
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro
Knopf, 712 pp., $35.00
Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson—this is the fourth volume of a planned five—was originally conceived and has been largely executed as a study of power. But this volume has been overtaken by a more pressing theme. It is a study in hate. The book’s impressive architectonics come from the way everything is structured around two poles or pillars—Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy (pictured above), radiating reciprocal hostilities at every step of the story. Caro calls it “perhaps the greatest blood feud of American politics in the twentieth century.” With some reservations about the word “blood,” one has to concede that Caro makes good his claim for this dynamic in the tale he has to tell.
There are many dramatic events, throughout the volume, that illustrate Caro’s theme. I begin with one that could seem insignificant to those not knowing the background on both sides, because it shows that even the slightest brush between these two triggered rancorous inner explosions. Johnson, newly sworn in as president, had just come back to Washington on Air Force One from the terrible death of John Kennedy in Dallas. Robert Kennedy sped up the steps to the plane and rushed fiercely down the length of the cabin through everyone standing in his way (including the new president) to reach Jacqueline Kennedy. Understandable that he would first of all want to comfort the widow? Yes, but. This was the first of many ways Bobby (called that throughout) tried in the first days to ignore the man who had ignominiously, in his eyes, supplanted his brother by a murder in the man’s own Texas.
Caro understands that Bobby was determined not to see Johnson, even if he saw him—so he did not see him. But Johnson saw him not seeing, and hated him the more. That is how hate narrows one—narrows what one wants to see, or is able to see, in order to keep one’s hatred tended and hard.
Both men had good reason to treat each other with some empathy at that moment. Johnson had just inherited a crushing office, in a time of national crisis, and had to legitimize himself in every way he could. Bobby should have recognized the need of the nation, and gulped down the unwelcome fact that Johnson was, in fact, the president now. He should have set a pattern for stricken Kennedy loyalists on the plane. Johnson, on the other hand, should have sympathized with a brother still reeling from an incalculable loss, a man moving in a blur of emotions, and he should have swallowed his resentment at the snub. But they were blocked from the generosities needed in such a moment of tragedy by their previous clashes, well laid out by Caro.
Bobby had a long history of trying not to see Johnson, of resenting it when forced to acknowledge his presence; and he loathed shaking his hand. It began with their very first recorded meeting, in 1953. Lyndon Johnson came into the Senate cafeteria for his customary breakfast there. He was trailing his entourage, radiating his power as minority leader. He passed the table of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was sitting near the entrance with three or four staffers, including a newcomer to his team, twenty-seven-year-old Robert Kennedy, who had just got this job through the influence of his father, a McCarthy supporter. Johnson knew about that arrangement, as he did all the things that went on in “his” Senate. Johnson had mocked Joe Kennedy all over town and despised Joe McCarthy as a loose cannon in the Senate. He also did not think much of the newly elected senator John Kennedy, whom he would soon be calling a sickly absentee from the Senate and “not a man’s man.”
Yet McCarthy, with his coarse affability, leaped to his feet when Johnson approached, greeted him as “Leader,” and shook his hand. His aides followed suit, all but one, who remained seated, with an expression of distaste. Bobby knew what Johnson had been saying about his father and his boss, and he always bristled at slights directed at his own revered family. He refused to get up, or even to look at Johnson. Johnson, whose own history of humiliations Caro has traced in earlier volumes, was just as quick to sense contempt, and determined to crush it if he could. He was a bully and a sadist, and he took the earliest opportunity to force Kennedy to submit to the dreaded handshake. He went right up to him, towering over him (he always put his height to use) and crowded at him with a half-extended hand. Finally, in the embarrassment of a growing silence, Kennedy rose and, with averted eyes, shook Johnson’s hand. Johnson felt he had made this lowly staffer crawl. It would prove to be a costly victory.
The 1960 CampaignJohnson had ached toward the presidency from his youth, an urge whose progress Caro has long tracked in his earlier volumes. Johnson recognized the obstacles in his way, mainly his association with the South and its racism. He had tried to ease this problem by getting the Senate to pass toothless civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960. He knew he could never win the liberal Northeast, but his many allies assured him that he had a passing chance in the Midwest and a good one in the West, and he could win by adding, here and there, enough votes to bulk out the still-solid South. He also felt that he would face a weak lineup of rivals for the Democratic nomination. John Kennedy was shaping up as the main threat, but he did not think much of him. It became a mantra with him that “the boy can’t win.” What had he done? He was an absentee senator with no major legislation to his name.
Johnson, who always set great store by physical strength, dismissed Kennedy as a scrawny lightweight. He was on to something that it would take journalists, and then historians, years to get to the bottom of. Kennedy was often absent from the Senate and other places because he was either in the hospital or was trying to regain an appearance of health and activity. Caro revisits the findings of biographers who finally documented how constant was Kennedy’s pain, from a formidable array of physical impairments. His back all but immobilized him, even with a brace wrapped around with mummifying tapes. His handsome features fluctuated in color and fullness according to his intake of cortisone and other drugs. He had many ailments to hide in order to keep on projecting his prized image of “vigor.”
Johnson knew something was wrong and later, during the 1960 campaign, he acted on his instinct, sending a former Senate investigator to find out the truth. A doctor who had treated Kennedy confirmed that he suffered from Addison’s disease and needed continual cortisone treatments. Johnson had members of his campaign team, including future Texas governor John Connally, hold a press conference to reveal those facts. Bobby answered that his brother never had classical tubercular-related Addison’s disease (he had a different kind), and Ted Sorensen said he had not been treated with cortisone (he used a cortisone derivative). These were lies hidden in technicalities, but nothing could have sharpened more Bobby’s determination never to let anywhere near his family the man who had revealed his brother’s affliction. We can only imagine the shock when that brother asked Johnson to become his running mate.
But before that traumatic episode, Caro addresses a major puzzle in his story. Why did Johnson assemble a campaign team for the 1960 election and then, month after month, refuse to use it? At first he said that he would make his campaign believable by staying and working in the Senate. But when his allies asked to organize stealthily for him, he forbade it. Caro, with his knowledge of Johnson’s lifelong experience of humiliations, says the real reason was a fear of being defeated. I suspect that this gun-shy trait is a premonition of the withdrawal from the 1968 race that Caro will be treating in the next volume.
The reason Johnson hesitated was that reports were reaching him that the Kennedy machine had a reach far outside of New England. And one of those racing around to recruit Catholic city bosses was Bobby, the lowly aide he had despised. After years of greeting Bobby as “Sonny Boy” when they passed each other in Senate corridors, he had seen him prove a tough investigator of organized crime on the McClellan Committee. When Johnson did lunge for the nomination, too late, he knew the man he had to fear. He said he needed John Connally on his campaign team because only he was “tough enough to handle Bobby Kennedy.” (Connally, as we have seen, showed that toughness in the press conference on Kennedy’s Addison’s disease.)
But even while he began to fear Bobby, he had to take every possible opportunity to humiliate him. When Jack sent Bobby to Johnson’s ranch to sound him out on the race, Johnson forced him to go deer hunting, and gave him a powerful shotgun whose recoil knocked him down. Johnson helped him up with the condescending words, “Son, you’ve got to learn to handle a gun like a man.”
When it became clear to Johnson that he could not reach the top of the ticket, he began to consider the second spot. He had his staff look up how many presidents in the previous hundred years had died in office—five out of eighteen, giving him a better than 20 percent chance of reaching the presidency that way. When Clare Boothe Luce later asked him why he would accept the nomination to be number two, he answered: “Clare, I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.” He said much the same thing to trusted journalists. So it was clear why Johnson would run with the “sickly” John Kennedy. He knew about the ailments that could threaten his life. But why would Kennedy want him?
It is hard to ferret out truth in the sentimental mists wreathing Camelot, but Caro destroys the authorized version with some simple facts. Johnson, too, had loyalists who did not understand why he would give up his power in the Senate—principally his beloved mentor, the legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. When Kennedy asked him to be his running mate, Johnson said he had one condition—Kennedy would have to persuade Rayburn to accept the deal, and Kennedy went straight to Rayburn’s hotel suite and used all his charm to get that agreement. Does that look like the action of man trapped with an unwanted partner?
Bobby tried repeatedly to save his brother from a situation he thought he did not desire, going repeatedly to Johnson’s suite to beg him to withdraw. He said there would be an awful floor fight if Johnson accepted, and said he was authorized to make a counteroffer—Lyndon could be head of the Democratic National Committee instead of vice-president. For three hours he played out this farce, not knowing it was a farce. He even tried to persuade Rayburn to make Johnson withdraw. A puzzled Rayburn telephoned Jack and asked if he had actually changed his mind after begging him to support a Kennedy-Johnson ticket. Jack answered, “Oh, that’s all right; Bobby’s been out of touch and doesn’t know what’s been happening.” When an infuriated Bobby had at last to submit to an arrangement he would never understand, he told a friend, “Yesterday [when Jack won the nomination] was the best day of my life, and today [when Johnson joined him] is the worst day of my life.”
Why did Jack Kennedy let his liberal followers swallow Bobby’s anguished version of what had happened? Why did these otherwise sophisticated thinkers accept such an implausible tale of his defeat by a scheming Lyndon? It is because the emotions of Bobby had percolated through the campaign, and hate is a great magnifier of its object. During the cold war, for instance, Americans hated communism so much that they thought every Russian was a threat. In the same way, Camelotians saw Johnson as a fearsome menace who could dominate even their beloved Jack.
This set a terrible tone for the coming administration. Kennedy’s closest followers felt they had a monster in their midst, and they must do everything in their power to contain him before he sneaked up toward another paralyzing handshake with their leader. Johnson, knowing their attitude and where it came from, responded in kind, since hatred creates a mirroring image in the hated. Referring to Bobby in a conversation with a friend, Johnson said, “I’ll cut his throat if it’s the last thing I do.”
DallasKnowing that he would have many disadvantages in a Kennedy administration, Johnson attempted two preemptive moves at the very outset. But these power lunges just confirmed the Kennedyites’ view of him as a crude intruder. First, he tried to retain some of his Senate power. Since the vice-president presides (when he wishes) over the Senate, he asked to preside over his old power base as well, the Democratic caucus in that chamber—but he was rebuffed by his old buddies, who knew this would unconscionably blur the separation of powers. He also tried to work the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, requesting an office in the White House with a bulked-up staff for military and security issues. He was trying, we now see, to have the parallel presidency that Dick Cheney secured for himself under a compliant George Bush. Instead, he was consigned to an office in the Executive Office Building, without the extended staff he had requested.
After his failure to adjust the game to his own rules, Johnson made a bid for pity by presenting himself as the powerless butt of Camelot jokes (which he was). He moaned that he was “a cut dog.” He rarely challenged those around him, and when he did (as when he considered Bobby’s response to the Cuban missiles too weak), he was excluded from the secret decisions made on the crisis. He feared, rightly, that the Kennedy team was determined to push him off the ticket in 1964. Their detestation for Johnson, with their constant mocking of him, was so obvious that the president tried to damp down the fires, telling his appointments secretary, Ken O’Donnell, “You are dealing with a very insecure, sensitive man with a huge ego. I want you literally to kiss his fanny from one end of Washington to the other.”
But that availed little, and Caro says the president himself was beginning to see he would not need Johnson in 1964. Johnson could not even contain a disruptive party battle in his home state of Texas, between liberal Ralph Yarborough and Johnson’s old ally, now the state’s governor, John Connally. On the fatal Texas trip with Kennedy in November, Yarborough even refused to ride in the assigned convertible car with Johnson, prompting a Dallas News headline, YARBOROUGH SNUBS LBJ.
Still, Yarborough was the least of Johnson’s troubles by this time. Two other events ensured that Kennedy would not, in fact could not, have run again with Johnson. An intrepid investigator, Senator John J. Williams of Delaware, had begun to reveal the financial and sexual scandals of Johnson’s longtime Senate sidekick, Bobby Baker. That investigation would reveal Johnson’s intimate involvement in Baker’s misdeeds.
Moreover, Life magazine was assembling a large investigative team to get to the bottom of Johnson’s mysterious finances—how, receiving just government pay over the years, he had become a multimillionaire with the help of Texas oil buddies. Both those time bombs were furiously ticking as Johnson and Kennedy took off for their five-city tour of Texas. In fact, at the very time when the shots were fired at Kennedy in Dallas, a House committee was hearing testimony on the Baker affair and the Life team was meeting to map its strategy. Johnson’s whole future was rescued by the bullets that killed Kennedy. Unable to attack a new president in a time of crisis, Life abandoned its search into his records and the House contained the Johnson aspects of its Baker probe.
From the minute, at the Dallas hospital, when he received confirmation that Kennedy was dead, Johnson was all decisiveness. Advised to hurry back to Washington, since there might be more conspiratorial action against the government, he overrode that advice, declaring that he would not leave until Kennedy’s body was released, so it and Mrs. Kennedy could ride with him on Air Force One back to Washington. He wanted to be sworn in on the plane before he left Dallas, with his old friend Judge Sarah Hughes administering the oath of office. Legally, he did not need the oath—he succeeded Kennedy as president the moment he died—but he felt it would give visual force to the legitimacy of his succession.
Was Johnson in effect “clearing” his decision to go ahead with the swearing-in, lest Bobby should later claim he had not known of it and would have disapproved of it? If so, that too was a futile effort. Bobby later bitterly attacked Johnson’s impatience to claim the office publicly—and especially his use of Jackie Kennedy by his side to show he was heir to the Kennedy mystique. Johnson could not rationally have expected his call to pacify, or think it would not provoke. Then why did he do it? Hate goes automatically, as to a magnet, toward the hated object. Bobby filled Lyndon’s mind, even at this most terrible hour, and he always thought of himself as caught in a deadly dance partnership with him. For reasons he probably did not understand himself, he could not not call his foe at this most testing moment in his life. It was as unthinking as a tongue’s compulsive return and return to a rotten tooth.
When Air Force One landed in Washington, Bobby not only rushed onto it past the president, but guided the casket and Mrs. Kennedy onto the mobile hydraulic lift that had been rolled up to take the casket at the plane’s back door, where he descended without waiting for Johnson to step onto the lift’s platform. The president of the United States was left stranded in the open door of the airplane, unable for a while to get to the ground in his own capital city.
That began a series of encounters that made Johnson conclude that Bobby “seriously considered whether he would let me be president.” Bobby delayed Johnson’s occupation of the Oval Office, his move into the White House, and his address to Congress (planned for one day after Kennedy’s funeral), all in the name of Mrs. Kennedy’s grief. He came late to the new president’s first cabinet meeting, at which he was making a plea that Kennedy staffers stay on with him in this volatile period.
Bobby was putting off as long as he could any acknowledgment that Johnson was the president—and he would never, in the future, refer to him as such. Johnson’s usurpation of office had begun, in Bobby’s eyes, when he forced his unwanted way onto the ticket in Los Angeles, making all his subsequent acts illegitimate.
Johnson badly needed continuity with the previous administration. Knowing the hostility of most in the former president’s inner circle, he abased himself to them, flattered them as more talented than he was, professed his absolute need of their assistance. This made some of them remain from a sense of patriotic duty. Others despised the weepy fawning used on them. The three S’s (Schlesinger, Sorensen, Salinger) stayed just long enough to keep their departure from looking like an obvious insult. The big question is: What made Bobby stay on as attorney general? Perhaps he wanted to see what he could do to prevent Johnson from trashing the Kennedy heritage. He may have wanted to make Johnson uncomfortable. Jackie Kennedy had refused to take off the dress stained with her husband’s blood for the swearing-in photos. She said, “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.” Perhaps Bobby believed his very presence would brand Johnson for the usurper he was.
The PresidentBut once Johnson had some of the Kennedy team staying with him—e.g., Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy—he knew that the way to keep them there was to keep them busy, busy accomplishing things. Here Caro can go back to his original theme, Johnson as a virtuoso creator and user of power—every form of power, crude or subtle, blatant or disguised, cynical or sentimental. Johnson came into office like a tornado, clearing things out of his way. There were already on his desk three bills offered by Kennedy—a foreign aid bill (blocked by Senator Karl Mundt’s amendment banning sale of surplus wheat to Russia), a tax cut to stimulate the economy, and a civil rights bill. Members of his cabinet told him these had little or no chance of passage, and certainly none before Congress left Washington for the Christmas holidays (Kennedy, remember, was killed in late November). Johnson saw a way to push them all forward at once.
On the Mundt amendment, he told senator after senator on the phone, “Do you want the first act of the United States Senate to be a posthumous repudiation of John F. Kennedy?” He used the jolt of Kennedy’s death to kickstart his own presidency. On the tax cut, he went to its principal foe, Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia, who hated deficits, and got him to pledge that if Johnson could keep his new budget under a hundred billion dollars for the coming year (including the tax cuts), Byrd would support it. Johnson called to his economic aide, “Get in here, and bring your meat cleaver.” Then he browbeat agencies to abandon their demands (five thousand jobs for the Post Office alone) to make room for the tax cuts.
The civil rights bill had been held up, it seemed forever, by Howard Smith, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, who refused to release it from committee. Johnson knew that a revolt of committee members could be ignited by an extensive petition drive to release the bill. Johnson organized that drive by calling in civil rights leaders, labor friends, religious organizations. Many of these people were skeptical of Johnson’s late conversion to the rights of blacks. But he convinced them of his sincerity in emotional meetings. Caro has no doubt of that sincerity. He has demonstrated in earlier volumes Johnson’s identification with the poor and despised. It was common in Washington to speak of the “Good Bobby/Bad Bobby” oscillation. Caro knows there had always been a Good Lyndon/Bad Lyndon dynamic of the same sort in Johnson.
By the Christmas break (whose beginning Johnson had persuaded Congress to delay) all three “unpassable” bills were speeding toward passage, and Johnson had just begun. In his first State of the Union Address, he upped the Good Lyndon ante by calling for a War on Poverty. This was the harbinger of a series of reforms he envisaged for his Great Society. They would eventually include such things as Medicare, Medicaid, the Teaching Corps, VISTA, the Job Corps, Upward Bound, and Model Cities. The Washington press, which used to mock Johnson as Uncle Cornpone, registered increasing awe at what he could accomplish.
Caro gives a good example of this in the way Johnson set up the Warren Commission to investigate the murder in Dallas. At first Johnson wanted to rely on Texas criminal procedure to establish guilt for the act. When people let him know this would not convince people that the truth had been discovered, Johnson set up a bipartisan high-level body to conduct an investigation. He knew he needed certain key individuals for this, including the liberal chief justice of the United States, Earl Warren, and the conservative Senator Richard Russell, men at opposite political poles, each of whom despised the other. Both men turned him down, emphatically. But they were then subjected to “the Johnson treatment.”
He told each he was essential to reaching the truth, and only the truth would calm the fears of a jittery nation. He told each the fate of the world depended on him, since only he could allay suspicion that Moscow was behind the killing, which would push America into a dangerous (possibly nuclear) war. He called on each man’s previous military service, saying this was a new way the nation was drafting him. When even this did not bring Russell around, he simply released the official list of commissioners with Russell’s name on it. Then Johnson said that if Russell withdrew his name, he would irremediably wound the whole effort, and jeopardize national security.
Though conspiratorialists have subsequently nibbled endlessly at the Warren Commission’s report, it was at first received with great relief and popular acceptance. It succeeded in doing what Johnson needed, assuaging national nervousness over the assassination. Johnson soared in the national polls, reaching a record 77 percent approval rate in April, then the highest any president had reached at that point in his administration. James Reston, the most recognizable voice 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.”
All this was gall and wormwood to Bobby, who felt that Johnson was killing his brother over again by stealing his thunder. In an oral history interview given in the spring of 1964, he vented his bitter resentment at the press “in their buildup of Lyndon Johnson, comparing him to the President” (the President). He said, “An awful lot of things were going on that President Kennedy did that Johnson was getting the credit for—and [he] wasn’t saying enough that President Kennedy was responsible.”
And, of course, there was nothing like Bad Bobby to bring out the worst in Bad Lyndon. Johnson told Pierre Salinger, a Bobby loyalist who would get word back to him, that John Kennedy’s death was “divine retribution” for his role in the assassinations of Raphael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. God, he said, puts his mark on those who do evil. So the killing in Dallas “might very well be God’s retribution to President Kennedy for his participation in the assassination of these two people.” Needleess to say, these words did get to Bobby, who told Schlesinger they were “the worst thing Johnson has said.” His own sainted brother was evil, was destroyed by God for his vices? What could more inflame the younger brother?
There has not been a great deal in Volume Four about the Good Bobby, but that is bound to emerge in Volume Five, which will treat the 1968 campaign, in which Kennedy championed the poor and opposed the Vietnam War. There has already been a hint of the Bad Lyndon to come as he thrashes deeper into Vietnam. In his very first days in office, he not only escalated troop movements to the war, but did it in secret, deceiving both Congress and the American public. Caro will no doubt trace the way Johnson’s dark war undermined his bright Great Society, “guns” draining money from “butter.” So we have some idea of what lies ahead in Caro’s great literary endeavor. Johnson always expected that Bobby would run against him in 1968, and Caro makes it seem likely that his withdrawal from that race was done in fear of being humiliated at Bobby’s hands. Then we have all the drama of 1968, the killing of Dr. King (which caused an anguish in Bobby related to his brother’s death) and the murder of Bobby himself.
Caro gives us one clear indication of where he is taking the story. He telegraphs ahead of time Johnson’s reaction to the news that Bobby had been shot in Los Angeles (where the two once battled over the 1960 ticket). The president kept asking Joseph Califano, “Is he dead? Is he dead yet?” Califano made so many calls to his assistant. Larry Levinson, to check with the Secret Service that Levinson had to ask: “Joe, is this something that he’s wishing to have happen?” Bobby had tried to keep Johnson out of the White House. Johnson, returning the favor, will try to keep Bobby out of burial beside his brother in Arlington. The hatred had reached depths where it amounted to kicking a corpse. It is disheartening to see such large men reduced to such petty furies.
To understand the sheer wastefulness of this conflict, try to imagine the impossible. What if the two men, instead of bringing out the worst, had played to the best in each other? Suppose Bobby had recognized his brother’s need of Johnson in 1960, had helped capitalize on his resources in the South, and had made him an effective partner in Jack’s administration, instead of a sullen man isolated in his discontent. Would some of the effective legislation of Johnson’s turn in office have been accomplished earlier? Or suppose that Johnson, open to the alternative insights of Bobby, had seen the force of objections to the Vietnam War before he floundered so deep into that Big Muddy. What if he had won over the young people who ended up chanting outside the White House, “Hey, hey, LBJ/How many kids did you kill today?”
But we see that what happened was the opposite of such reasonable alternatives. That is why we read this long book with a growing and almost guilty fascination, and anticipate horrors still to come. It is like watching two very powerful railroad trains racing at top speed toward each other along a single set of tracks.