Robert Caro: The Passage of Power, a Book Review

I just finished Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, volume four of his magisterial series of books about President Johnson and his times.  I loved the first three volumes of this series; this book is the best of the lot.  Above all, I love Caro’s sense of judgment and proportion.  LBJ has to be one of the most fascinating figures in American history, and one of the most tragic.  I remember reading a review of one of the earlier volumes in this series, in which the reviewer wondered why Caro would spend so much of his life writing about a man he clearly despised.  But this is nonsense; Caro doesn’t despise LBJ. But only by acknowledging Johnson’s many flaws can we take his full measure, including, of course, his considerable positive achievements.

This is the book about the Kennedy assassination, and the extraordinary seven weeks following the assassination when Johnson had to calm a nation, assume power, and begin the almost superhuman task of cementing his predecessor’s legacy.  As part of that, Caro addresses this (frankly rather silly) issue; was LBJ in any sense complicit in Kennedy’s death?  Was there a conspiracy to assassinate the President, and if there was, did Johnson participate in that conspiracy.  Here’s Caro’s conclusion:

“Nothing I have found in my research leads me to believe that, whatever the full story of the assassination may be, Lyndon Johnson had anything to do with it.”

That’s the short version; in another passage, Caro describes just how intensive his research has been.  Quite literally, Caro has studied every document relating to the career of Lyndon Johnson he has been able to get his hands on.

In a 2004 Gallup poll, 18% of the American people said they believed that Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy involving Lyndon Johnson.  Caro took that issue seriously.  He researched it with his usual thoroughness.  He’s found nothing to support that conclusion.  But if had discovered something, anything, that would suggest Johnson’s involvement, he would publish it.  Caro doesn’t shy away from even the most unsavory suggestions about the subject of his books.

Lyndon Johnson’s finances, for example, were always a matter for scrutiny during his life.  He was on the public payroll most of his adult life, and he died a multi-millionaire.  Caro describes the deeply rooted corruption in Texas and national politics that allowed Johnson to become wealthy.  Johnson was rumored to have had numerous extra-marital affairs; Caro tells you with whom, and under what circumstances.  Johnson was a bully, a vulgarian, a profane and crude man.  Caro provides every detail.  This is no hagiography; Caro wants to paint the clearest picture he can.  And does, in prose as exact and precise as I’ve ever encountered.

But, my goodness, those seven weeks, the seven weeks from Kennedy’s assassination to Johnson’s State of the Union in ’64, what Johnson accomplished in those seven weeks deserves recognition, deserves the amazing attention Caro gives them.  And until I read this book, I had no idea.

When Johnson took office, the Kennedy legislative program was in very serious jeopardy.  Johnson was unaware of just how much trouble it was in, because Johnson was not in the loop.  Kennedy always treated Johnson courteously, but Johnson was almost never able to meet with the President, and decisions took place in meetings to which he was not welcome.  And the Kennedy staff treated LBJ with barely concealed contempt.  He was Rufus T. Cornpone, a joke, a figure of fun.  I have read other sources that have suggested that Kennedy fully intended LBJ to stay on the 1964 ticket; Caro doesn’t think so, and makes his case convincingly.  Worst of all, of course, was the relationship between Johnson and Jack Kennedy’s closest advisor, best friend, and brother.  Bobby Kennedy loathed Lyndon Johnson, and Johnson returned the compliment.  It was the greatest political rivalry of the ’60s, and it had a nasty edge.

When JFK was killed, Johnson had to reassure the nation, and he had to do it immediately.  And one way to accomplish it was to keep the Kennedy team intact.  The American people needed to believe that Kennedy’s death did not mean the end of the Kennedy vision for the future of the country.  So LBJ worked quickly, to keep staffers (who days before had been mocking him in private) from leaving, to keep the cabinet intact, including that cabinet’s Attorney General.  And then to work with Congress and get some bills passed.  And first, to get a bill defeated.

For one thing, the Kennedy administration had presented a budget, and that budget needed to be passed.  And it was locked up in committee, held hostage by the courtly Virginian, Harry Byrd, chairman of the Senate Finance committee.  There was also a tax cut bill, likewise locked up by Byrd’s committee.  There was, of course, Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill, which had almost no chance of passage in a House and Senate where the key committees were all chaired by Southerners.

But before any of that could be addressed, there was another bill to be considered, first up in the program.  To ease tensions with the Soviet Union, Kennedy had offered to alleviate the chronic Russian difficulties feeding their populace by selling them wheat from American farmers.  It was a good idea; a little more money in the pockets of American farmers, food for Russian children, a way to relax Cold War apprehensions.  But hard-liners on Congress didn’t want to approve it, and one of them, a Republican Senator from South Dakota named Karl Mundt had proposed an amendment that would have blocked funding for the measure, effectively killing it.

The Mundt amendment was scheduled for a vote on Tuesday, November 26, just four days after the Kennedy assassination.  One of the new President’s first phone calls was to Senator George Smathers of Florida, who Johnson had worked with when he was Majority Leader, and who he respected as an expert vote counter.  Smathers told him that the Mundt amendment was going to pass easily; that defeating it was hopeless.  1964 was an election year, and no Senator wanted a vote on his record that could spun as ‘soft on Communism.’

This was not a particularly important bill, in the larger scheme of things.  But this is the point of the story: Lyndon Johnson was really good at passing legislation.  And at defeating it.  And so, with a murdered President lying in state, LBJ hit the phones.  The greatest legislative salesman in US history began threatening and massaging and complimenting and cajoling and wooing US senators. “This was Jack Kennedy’s greatest foreign policy achievement,” he’d say. “Do you really want to repudiate President Kennedy?  Now?”  The day before the Senate vote, an astonished George Smathers called the new President and told him that his count now showed the bill going down to defeat–the vote would be close, but it would lose.  Not good enough, Johnson told him.  He didn’t just want that bill defeated. He wanted it destroyed.  He wanted Mundt humiliated.  He wanted, he told Smathers, that bill to be ‘murdered.’  He wanted to send a message. There’s a new man in the White House.  There’s a new sheriff in town.  And you do not challenge him.

And so, piece by piece, it all fell into place.  Johnson got a budget passed. He got the tax bill passed.  And then it was time for civil rights, and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, one of the greatest legislative achievements in US history.

Those were all Kennedy bills, and Kennedy is often, quite properly, given credit for them.  But I don’t think Kennedy could have gotten them passed. Jack Kennedy was, in most respects, an estimable man and a fine President.  But he wasn’t particularly good at working with Congress.  He had a Vice-President who was exceptionally good at working with Congress, and he kept him on the sideline.  Not many Presidents have been all that good at working with Congress, honestly.  The US Constitution is built on the foundation of separation of powers, checks and balances, which means it’s much easier for Congress to defeat bills than it is to pass them, and which means that really important progressive legislation tends to fail, and usually requires some major national emergency before it can pass.  The New Deal passed when the economy collapsed in the Great Depression; the Great Society passed in the wake of a Presidential assassination, and Obamacare only passed after the financial crisis that diminished the world’s money supply by 40%.  When Kennedy proposed a Civil Rights bill, the South could treat it as ‘business as usual,’ and use their usual tactics to defeat it.  But when Kennedy was killed, the game changed dramatically.  And one politician was savvy enough to use that opportunity to transform America.

And then it all fell apart, and the Johnson Presidency, which started so promisingly, was destroyed by the grinding, hopeless ferocity of Vietnam.  And a man who might otherwise be regarded as one of our greatest Presidents left office reviled as few other Presidents ever have been.  And now his legacy is almost entirely tragic.  I will read Caro’s next book, of course.  But I dread it.  That period in our history was just too painful, the failures of Johnson just too awful to contemplate.

Volume four, this volume, this is the sunny one, comparatively.  (Though I had to put the book down for two days when he got to mid-November of ’63, because I knew what was coming and couldn’t bear to read it.)  It’s worth remembering that time, that brief period, before Vietnam escalation, when the struggles of Selma and Birmingham suddenly seemed justified, when our country’s sad legacy of racial discrimination appeared to be headed for the dustbin of history.  And there are two historians of that period who must be read, first and foremost.  Taylor Branch.  And Robert Caro.  Read them both.  Take the time.


2 thoughts on “Robert Caro: The Passage of Power, a Book Review

  1. alexvoltaire

    Great commentary on one of the most significant works of history of our time. You did so many things right with your review that I hate to harp on a negative, but its Karl Mundt, not George– perhaps you cross-referenced him in your mind with his fellow South Dakotan, and frequent adversary, George McGovern.

  2. admin Post author

    Thanks so much for the correction! It was indeed Karl Mundt, and I’ve gone ahead and fixed it on the post. I’m always grateful to have factual errors pointed out to me, and that was a bad one: thanks!


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