The President as Pugilist
Robert Caro’s latest volume depicts Lyndon Johnson on the attack—and shows why his methods aren’t replicable today.
Lyndon B. Johnson is uncharacteristically, even unnaturally, hemmed in for much of the latest volume of Robert Caro’s epic biography. In Caro’s monumental previous book, Master of the Senate, Johnson had been a cresting river, propulsive, indefatigable, irresistible, the aptly named Master of the Senate.
But for long stretches in The Passage of Power, Johnson is stagnant and stalled, a dry creek. For months, Johnson agonizes over whether to enter the 1960 presidential race, finally throwing in with full force only after John F. Kennedy had all but secured the prize. Johnson revives to help Kennedy win the general election by energetically campaigning throughout the South as his vice presidential nominee. But after the victory, when both Kennedy and Senate Democrats reject Johnson’s bids for unprecedented institutional powers, LBJ sulks in self-pitying exile, excluded and derided as an irrelevant cracker, “Rufus Cornpone,” by the smooth, smart Camelot set.
Johnson is so stripped of his dignity, Caro reports, that he would take to ostentatiously stopping by the Oval Office on his way to his own office in the (comparatively) distant Executive Office Building, arriving long before Kennedy himself but hoping to maintain the illusion of access among those who watched him emerge. Johnson in these months is a portrait in defeat: “gaunt, haggard… with the corners of his mouth pulled down and the jowls hanging down” and his shoulders “slumped.” Only after Kennedy’s assassination does Johnson stir from his tent, instantly assuming command in a transformation that Caro presents as both abrupt and encompassing (“the hangdog look was gone, replaced with an expression… of determination and fierce concentration”).
Caro recounts the story of Johnson’s paralysis, exile, and abasement with all of the vigor and style that he has displayed in the first three volumes of his majestic biography. The reporting is copious, the writing elegant and energetic, the sentences frequently rushing forward themselves like mighty rivers. Four books, and nearly four decades into this vast project, Caro’s commitment to excellence has not wavered or even slackened; the reader can feel the sheer force of his effort on every page. He is like an explorer determined to map every inch of a continent.
Yet the story of Johnson becalmed, which consumes fully the first half of this book, inevitably constricts Caro too. Throughout those sections, I was reminded, oddly, of the third Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi, in which Luke Skywalker, the ostensible protagonist, spends much of the film brooding on the bridge of the Death Star while battles blaze on elsewhere. Compared to his earlier volumes, Caro is also hemmed in by the greater availability of other memorable works covering similar ground, including Jeff Shesol’s Mutual Contempt (on the LBJ-Robert F. Kennedy feud that so mesmerizes Caro as well), Robert Mann’s The Walls of Jericho (on the 1964 Civil Rights Act), and the classic (if starstruck) accounts of the Kennedy era like Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President, 1960 or Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s biography of RFK (portions of which Caro energetically debunks). More of this book feels familiar compared to the earlier volumes.
But even in his account of Johnson in exile, Caro offers his share of new details and nuances. He makes a strong circumstantial case, for instance, that Kennedy at least considered dropping LBJ from his 1964 ticket. He masterfully recounts how Johnson’s emasculation in Washington loosened his grip on power in Texas. And he adds new depth and details to the well-known story of the poisonous LBJ-RFK rivalry. Still, it’s only in the volume’s second half, when Johnson succeeds the martyred president, that the hero, and the story itself, fully comes to life. Fortunately, Johnson’s assumption of power after Kennedy’s death, and the ways in which he used his superior understanding of Congress to revive his predecessor’s stalled legislative program—the story that most engages Caro—is also the portion of the saga most relevant to our own political era.
Caro’s JFK bears a striking resemblance to Barack Obama: cerebral, elegant, self-contained, unflappable, and always somewhat veiled. Like many other authors, Caro finds Kennedy inspiring but unapproachable, like a planet in the night sky. With his compulsive philandering, Kennedy was less disciplined than Obama; but as reckless as Kennedy could be in his personal life, and as bold as he was in seeking the nomination against more experienced rivals in 1960, he proved cautious in his use of power as president, rationing the risks he assumed as if dispensing them from an eye dropper. These were qualities that served Kennedy well in foreign affairs, above all during the Cuban missile crisis, but they were less of an asset in domestic policy, particularly in dealing with Congress. On that front, Kennedy’s instincts produced an excessive deference, a crippling reluctance to challenge the alliance of conservative Southern Democrats and Old Guard Republicans—the so-called conservative coalition—that had tilted Congress’s default position toward inaction on almost all domestic questions since the aftermath of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme in 1937.
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