The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Volume 4)

Things have been busy at my house as we are now showing it and trying to begin packing for our move to Virginia… But the busyness hasn’t kept me from sailing, as I crewed a boat up to Hilton Head on Friday and then on Saturday, we raced back to Skidaway (I’ll have to do a post on the long race with little wind, because we too first place in our class). I finished this book when in Virginia a few weeks ago.

Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012), 712 pages including notes and sources and 32 inserted pages of black and white photos.

 

This is the fourth volume in Caro’s massive study on Lyndon Johnson, and the third I’ve read. In this book, Caro begins with the run up to the 1960 Democrat Convention. It was assumed that 1960 would be the year Johnson would run for the President. With his leadership in the Senate, Johnson was a powerful man. But he kept giving off mixed signals as to his intentions to run and once he stepped into the race, he bet that no candidate could achieve a majority of the votes during the first round at the convention. In that case, many would switch to Johnson and he could capture the nomination.  Johnson was too late for Kennedy had wrapped up a majority of delegates.  As Caro has done in the other volumes, he provides mini-biographies of key players in the story including both John and Robert Kennedy.  After Kennedy was selected as the candidate, he chose Johnson as his Vice President candidate. Even this wasn’t without drama as there was a question whether or not Johnson would accept the position, as he’d be leaving the second most powerful position in the country with his leadership of the Senate. But Johnson, who wanted to be President since his childhood, accepts the position realizing he’s only a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Caro, through extensive work, debunks the theory (that has been popularized by Robert Kennedy and his friends), that Kennedy’s invitation to Johnson was just a nice gesture and one that they assumed Johnson would decline. Robert Kennedy and LBJ would continue to have a running feud the rest of their lives. Caro makes a convincing case that without Johnson, who wasn’t as well liked in more liberal areas in the north, Kennedy would have never been able to win the presidency in 1960.

After the election, Johnson found himself sidelined. His feud with Robert Kennedy continued to grow. His advice on how to handle legislation in the Senate (something he understood) was ignored. As a result, Kennedy wasn’t able to achieve most of his agenda. Johnson, who was more hawkish, was even kept out of key meetings such as with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Compounding Johnson’s problems was the investigation into some of his supporters, especially Bobby Baker. This had the ability to cripple Johnson and perhaps even keep him off the ticket in 1964. Interestingly, Caro tells the story in a suspenseful manner as the hearings on Bobby Baker was running in Washington DC as the motorcade in which Kennedy was shot was driving through Dallas.

Upon the death of Kennedy, Johnson changed. He quickly assumed power. He knew what needed to be done to send the right signals to the rest of the world in to halt any mischief that the Soviets or the Cubans might stir up. Caro, who in previous volumes have been critical of Johnson and points out his flaws, has high praise of how he conducted himself through the end of 1963 and into 1964. Johnson was able to achieve Kennedy’s goal of a tax cut along with Civil Rights legislation. His handling of the segregationist Harry Byrd was masterful, as he presented a lean budget to win Byrd while working to keep him from blocking civil rights legislation. He was able to keep most of Kennedy’s staff and win their loyalty. While Johnson is often remembered for being mired down in Vietnam, Caro praises his ability to guide the country through this difficult time.  He also put his own stamp on the Presidency by showing foreign leaders a good time at his ranch in Texas.  In the spring of 1964, Johnson had the highest Presidential poll rating of any President.

Like Caro’s other books, The Passage of Power is a masterful volume that captures the complexity of the first President that I remember. I hope Caro will soon come out with his 5th volume, that looks at Johnson’s 1964 victory against Barry Goldwater and how his Presidency collapsed with the failures in Vietnam, leading up to his refusal to run for a second term in 1968. If you’re interested in history or in the complexity of powerful leaders, I recommend this book.


Comments

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Volume 4) — 24 Comments

    • I agree, it would not be the book for everyone. But it, along with Taylor Branch’s trilogy biography of Martin Luther King, “American in the King Years,” provides a detailed insight into lead up to the events during my childhood and adolescent years.

    • Johnson was a master politician (the liberals through he was a “New Dealer” while conservatives like the founder of Brown and Root through he was a true conservative (and fiscally, he was). The seeds were laid early in his life for him to be concerned for the poor. His first professional position was to teach in a Mexican-American school, and his students were very poor. While the 1957 Civil Rights Act wasn’t as strong, it was the first such legislation since Reconstruction and LBJ was credited with getting it through the Senate.

    • My academic historical (and philosophical) interest is in the 19th Century, but one day I do plan on an more extensive memoir and this is part of understanding the world I grew up in. (LBJ and Taylor Branch’s trilogy of Martin Luther King) are to insights into the Civil Rights and Vietnam area of my childhood.

    • I didn’t either. I remember the chanting “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many did you kill today.” By ’68, he was having a tough time, but in the Spring of 64, when I was struggling through the first grade, he was highly rated.

  1. I have fond memories of Johnson. He served before I had picked a party and he didn’t do enough to catch my attention. I’m patriotic, law-abiding, respectful, hard-working, god-fearing–I guess he did all that stuff. A little outspoken maybe?

    • Some of his financial dealings, going back to the 30s, for both himself and especially for some of his backers like Brown & Root, were skating close to the edge of what the law requires.

  2. Twas an interesting time, of which I know little about. I’ve learned a bit through this post and the comments. Thanks.

    May the move be smooth sailing and may the sailing be moving. =)

    • Thanks, Robyn. It’s odd, but LBJ always sounds like a President to me, probably because the only thing I remember of JFK was his death and we heard so much of LJB during my elementary years.

  3. Thanks for recommendation. I just watched a movie about the Vietnam War called “The Last Full Measure.” All I know about LBJ are his failures in Vietnam. He was little before my time but I am fascinated by that period of American history. Good luck with the house and the packing.

    • It is a shame that he got so bogged down in Vietnam. In a way, it probably helped by off Southern Senators who were hawkish and allowed more of the Civil Right’s legislation pass. But what a trade-off, if it did.

  4. LBJ is one of the greatest enigmas in American political history: understood the political game much better than his (posthumously) worshiped predecessor, a southerner who signed the Civil Rights Act, arguably the most socially progressive President ever but ruined his career over a senseless war, every bit as crude a man as the current chief executive.

    Four books? 700+ pages each? Daunting, yet intriguing.

    • An enigma, yes! Caro’s book, Master of the Senate is 1200 pages–about a 100 pages for each year LBJ was in the senate (but then, you have to read nearly 200 pages-if I remember correctly-to get to LBJ for Caro spends all this time talking about how the Senate evolved.

  5. Hi, Jeff! I enjoyed your review. I have often thought I’d like to read this series, but I’ll have to figure out how to squeeze more reading time out of the day first. Are you sad to be leaving Skidway Island? You must be sailing and kayaking all your favorite spots. Are you retiring, or do you have a new church? I bet your parishioners will miss you! Good luck with all the busyness. Take care!

    • Louise, if you go back to my post a few weeks ago (Heading to the Mountains) you’ll read more about it. No, I’m not retiring, but I am going for a more laid back lifestyle. I’ll miss sailing and kayaking, but will still do outdoor things there.

  6. Was not aware of this one and I think it would be right up my alley. Like you, I remember Johnson taking office after the Kennedy assassination. Viet Nam was definitely his albatross, a situation in which he was set up to fail. He deserves praise for his part in the Civil Rights movement. Great review and this one goes on my TBR,

    • As we’re about the same age, I think you’d find it interesting. I don’t remember Johnson having such approval ratings, but then as a first grader the President wasn’t something I paid much attention to.

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