What the hell’s the Presidency for? Re-assessing LBJ

With Dr Martin Luther King

This is based on my interview with  author Robert Caro and fellow American writer, Michael Goldfarb for BBC Radio 3 Night Waves on June 6th. You can listen to the programme here. (last 18 minutes)

Which US President won an election with the largest ever popular majority? Lyndon Baines Johnson, who took 61% of the vote in 1964. He went from powerful Senate majority leader to powerless and humiliated Vice President to towering statesman in 6 years. This is the story related in Robert Caro’s new book on LBJ. The Passage of Power, is the 4th volume in his biography, covering the most remarkable period in his life — from 1958 to 1964, through the 1960 presidential election, John F Kennedy’s presidency and assassination through to the passage of landmark Civil Rights legislation. It was warnings against Johnson’s plan to try to push through such bold legislation that prompted his famous riposte, “What the hell’s the Presidency for?”.

When Caro embarked on the biography, in the 1970s, LBJ, who had died in 1973, was a huge figure in American politics. Nearly 40 years on, as the myth around the Kennedys has continued to grow, and fascination with Tricky Dicky (Nixon) endures in popular culture, Caro has observed his subject shrink and disappear from the national memory. The timing of the book is a fascinating reminder of what we forgot to remember and of lessons for modern American politics. Caro says the more he researched LBJ, the less he believed the adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. “Power reveals,” he believes. Johnson, in his view, revealed himself in office to be a man who seized the opportunity to make America a fairer nation.

LBJ spent time in great poverty in Texas. He picked cotton as a child. His education was limited to a Texas teacher training college, which he had to leave early, and he held a job  teaching Mexican American children. He was acutely aware of being the least educated person in  JFK’s government. While he often voted with other Southern Democrats against Civil Rights while in the Senate, when it came to the chance to change his nation, he proved powerfully committed to desegregation.

But only after LBJ found his own presidential ambition apparently destroyed. Brought on board as Vice Presidential candidate to secure JFK’s victory, he was sidelined after the election and humiliated. A national joke. Caro reminds us how the TV show Candid Camera went out voxpopping New Yorkers about who Johnson was — not one knew.

Regarded as a great reader of men,  who was king of the Senate for a decade, Caro says LBJ totally misread John Kennedy. Intimidated by the cultured and brilliant Kennedy brothers (Bobby was Attorney-General) and their East coast privileged circle in cabinet  (LBJ called them the “Harvards”) Caro argues LBJ failed to appreciate the greatness of JFK. So a moving part of the book is Caro’s detailed account of John  Kennedy’s remarkable heroism in World War Two. When the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds, it is the Kennedy brothers who calmly restrain the overwhelming urge to bomb. LBJ was among those — when he wasn’t excluded from discussions — who talked tough.

For Goldfarb, who was 11 when the assassination took place,  there was a new level of horror in reading the detail of how close America came to launching a nuclear war. For those too young to remember the loss of innocence of that time, the book has rather chilling detail about the scale of vote rigging and corruption that Johnson  exploited to secure that narrow 1960 Democrat victory.

Taking the oath of office on Airforce One, with Jacqueline Kennedy to his right

Caro will say of the assassination conspiracies only that “I am convinced LBJ had nothing to do with the assassination” and that the Warren Commission was set up in good faith.  But in the book he explores the idea that Bobby Kennedy was crippled with guilt, believing the murder was “blowback” for either CIA attempts on Castro’s life, or Robert Kennedy’s own campaign as Attorney-General against the mafia and organised crime.

What dominates this volume though, is LBJ’s mutual hatred of Bobby Kennedy which is explored in fascinating detail. There is a Shakespearean power in the telling of the drama that unfolds; their personal battles and the assassination in Dallas which is movingly chronicled. Caro reveals how isolated LBJ was in those first few hours and days, setting up his own government from scratch. But, in an account that cannot help but force a comparison with Shakespeare’s Richard III, he successfully woos each of President Kennedy’s heartbroken Cabinet within hours of the killing, telling each one — many who hated him — “I need you more than he did.”

Although his political voting record would mostly suggest otherwise, Johnson, as Senate Majority leader  had pushed through the first modern  Civil Rights bill in 1957. After JFK’s assassination he prioritised a major Civil Rights bill, to abolish segregation and enable Black Americans to vote, with the declaration “What the hell’s the Presidency for?”

Caro points out all JFK’s core “dream” bills — civil rights, federal education funding and tax cuts — looked doomed to failure, until LBJ used his masterful knowledge of the Senate’s workings to get them through. It looks now like a rare window of opportunity in a gridlocked system which has continued to kill legislation. Witness the mauling of Obama’s healthcare reforms.  Johnson’s State of the Union address (see link above), in which he promised a War on Poverty is a remarkable piece of oratory. His own background meant, argues Caro, that he instinctively identified with the poor and the dispossessed.

Caro describes the period as “a time of violent hope”. In our age of the e-petition and the small scale of the Occupy Wall St protests, the book is worth reading for a reminder of the scale and bravery of the protests that made the headlines, to create the national mood that shamed America into pushing through the laws. Rabbis, priests, preachers, students and local African Americans of all ages who volunteered, getting training on how to deal with a police beating.

Johnson followed up the Civil Rights bill with the essential Voting Rights Bill 1965. There was a federal boost for educating the poorest, Medicare, Medicaid, setting up PBS and NPR — despite threatening and blackmailing Texan media owners in Houston and Dallas to sack reporters or drop investigations into his own financially corrupt dealings around media ownership and advertising. Interestingly it worked then.  LBJ was to be the only Democratic presidential candidate  The Houston Chronicle  backed till Barack Obama. One feels the Press has become rather more free since 1963.

It was Kennedy and then Johnson who initiated taping of conversations and phone calls; Johnson on a significant scale, helping provide records for Caro’s detailed reconstruction of key meetings. Caro relates how, on moving into the White House one of Johnson’s daughters was relieved to find the White House phone system means her father couldn’t listen in on all her calls, as he used to at home.

It was Johnson who pioneered the relaxed and deliberately lowbrow “authentic’” American presidential style that has dominated the office ever since. Harvard-educated, Connecticut blue blood, George W Bush’s re-invention as a real cowboy owes everything to LBJ’s Texan barbecue hoe down for West Germany’s Chancellor Erhard over Christmas 1963. Johnson was the real deal and made a virtue of his difference from the elegant French cuisine and European-style of the Kennedys.

Reading the book from our perspective, long after the novel power of television defined Kennedy’s election, presidency and assassination, the corrosive effect of the media soundbite on political culture, in Britain as much as in the United States is freshly apparent. Perhaps the greatest puzzle about Johnson for our age is that he comes across as mostly a deeply unlikeable man, who perhaps only because of his intimate knowledge of the Senate’s dark arts, was able to push through into law the now cherished liberation of civil rights.

The shadow of Vietnam hangs over the book from the start and will occupy Caro’s next volume. It’s a developing problem in the early 60s.  Caro says President Johnson was the man whose time in office was bookmarked by two famous protest slogans; the first that marked his zenith — “We Shall Overcome” and the second “Hey, hey, LBJ,how many kids did you kill today?” — that destroyed his hoped-for legacy in the War on Poverty and marked his doom.

Further reading

JFK, sentimentality and TV satire from 1963 to now

The LBJ Library/Museum – for the official version

Robert Caro’s website

About Samira Ahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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