Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Caro's latest LBJ installment: "Passage of Power"

Business remains brisk and posting has been light for weeks now, so here's a review at the WaPo from the recently published Lyndon biography by Robert Caro.

The book opens in the rump years of the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, with our hero — or should that be antihero? — contemplating a presidential run. It chugs through the grand detour of John F. Kennedy’s reign, with LBJ sulking on the sidelines. And it ends in the first weeks of Johnson’s presidency, which has been thrust upon him by JFK’s assassination.

Although these are, for Johnson, years of relative inaction, Caro infuses his pages with suspense, pathos, bitter rivalry and historic import — with Robert F. Kennedy in particular emerging as a nearly co-equal, second lead in the psychodrama, always looming offstage and threatening frequently to steal the spotlight from his arch rival.

In Caro’s account, LBJ comes across by turns as insecure, canny, bighearted, self-defeating, petty, brilliant, cruel and, of course, domineering. In the opening pages, he longingly eyes the presidency but, psychologically paralyzed, can’t bring himself to declare his candidacy or enter even a few primaries. Instead, he rages at the upstart Kennedy, who shows unforeseen proficiency in the old game of locking down governors and state Democratic Party leaders for the convention and in the new game of winning over the masses via television.

When Kennedy claims the party’s mantle in Los Angeles and searches for a running mate, a different Johnson suddenly appears: calculating, cagey, capable of subsuming his contempt for Kennedy to a steely desire to place himself next in line for the presidency. LBJ has staff members look up how many presidents had died in office and then does the cruel math, admitting in many conversations — and Caro recounts several of them — that such a route is his best hope of becoming president himself.

About a decade or longer ago I went with some online friends -- we were meeting offline -- to the LBJ library, which I always have considered a tour de force of the man's life. I was not an admirer of Johnson so much as I was in awe of him, much like Caro (and everybody else for that matter).  In our group of about ten was a guy who had fought in Vietnam, come home and protested the war, been gassed, arrested, etc. I did not know this prior to our tour; in fact I found out about a year or so later. As we left the library I asked him how he liked it and he said he didn't. I apologized (I had organized the trip) and he shrugged and said, 'no problem", so I forgot about the incident.
Sometimes my superhuman ability to empathize with others fails me. Anyway...

When Kennedy is shot in the Dallas motorcade, Johnson is transformed again — in an instant, according to Caro. Facedown on the floor of his car, a Secret Service member’s foot planted in his back, Johnson is magically possessed by self-assured calm. Rising to the immense challenges before him, he guides the country with a strong hand through the dark days of November using Kennedy’s martyrdom to realize his slain predecessor’s unfulfilled agenda, although not without exacerbating already-miserable relations with Robert Kennedy.

Like Popeye after a can of spinach, the once-impotent Johnson finds his legislative powers revived. The previous summer, as Kennedy was preparing to introduce at long last a civil rights bill, Johnson had advised Ted Sorensen, JFK’s close aide, to wait until he passed other key legislation first, because Southern senators would hold it hostage. “I’d move my children [the other bills] on through the line and get them down in the storm cellar and get it locked and key[ed],” he urged, but to no avail.

In December, however, Johnson, now president, undertakes a series of brilliant legislative maneuvers, which Caro deliciously recounts, to pick the locks of the congressional committees that had been caging up Kennedy’s controversial civil rights and tax bills and set them free.

If only Lyndon's ghost had provided some inspiration to Barack Obama with respect to the Affordable Health Care Act. Can't blame LBJ in the grave for someone else's lack of leadership, though.

Read the rest here. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to reading the book itself.

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