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Caro’s Johnson Sheds Cornpone Jibes in White House

'The Passage of Power'
"The Passage of Power," by Robert A. Caro, who won the National Book Critics Circle's 2012 award for biography. Source: Random House via Bloomberg

President John F. Kennedy knew many things -- literature, history, the arts. His vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, knew one thing: power.

Johnson understood power, worshiped power, cultivated power and wielded power. First to build himself up, but later to build a new conception of the role of government: as a tool to battle ignorance, injustice, poverty, hunger and the fear that accompanies aging.

In “The Passage of Power,” the fourth volume of his magisterial biography of Johnson and his time, Robert A. Caro recounts the most searing and successful transfer of power ever. On a Friday in Dallas in 1963, Johnson, a man who craved but had been denied the presidency, ascended to the White House on the most tragic afternoon in American history.

This volume begins in 1958 and runs through Johnson’s first State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964. Even to the Johnson cognoscenti, there are surprises here:

Though he knew Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, John Nance Garner, found the job a one-way ticket to a pecan farm in Uvalde, Texas, Johnson’s eagerness for the position grew out of his (now eerie) calculation that so many vice presidents ascended to the White House after a presidential death.

Robert F. Kennedy very likely acted on his own when he tried to nudge Johnson off the ticket at the 1960 convention.

Johnson was motivated as much by a fear of failure as by a drive for success.

Vice President Johnson

Johnson chafed in the vice presidency, and in some ways Caro’s portrait of those years are the most vivid of this volume. A man who had been at the center of things as Senate majority leader could not bear being at the periphery -- and couldn’t come to peace with how he was marginalized, criticized and ridiculed by the Harvards, as he called Kennedy’s men.

They in turn called him “Rufus Cornpone” and saw him as a Texas Hill Country alien in the new, sophisticated, glib and glamorous Washington.

As vice president, Johnson was mortified by Robert Kennedy, his views ignored or treated with contempt. He was a man with no duties and no dignity -- no meetings to attend, no advice to give.

Kennedy Assassination

Then Nov. 22 changed everything. The path to power led down an isolated Parkland Hospital corridor to an unmarked car that sped to Love Field. Within minutes, one president rested in a coffin in the back of Air Force One while another paced restlessly in the front. Grown men and strong women wept.

This is a scene unforgettable to anyone who was alive then, unfathomable to anyone who was not. But Caro adds to our knowledge and understanding, showing how, in those fraught minutes, both LBJ’s decisiveness and his insecurity were revealed.

“He seems to have felt even in this first hour that the best way to legitimize his ascent to the throne, to make himself seem less like a usurper, would be to demonstrate that his ascent had the support of the predecessor’s family,” Caro writes.

Because Caro is a student of power and his subject an accumulator of power, the way power flowed to the White House in the first days of Johnson’s presidency is described in meticulous, almost loving, detail.

Johnson in Action

Here are the private meetings LBJ held, the cajoling he conducted, the maneuvering he undertook, not just to redeem his promise to continue the Kennedy legacy but also to set forth his own bold vision of a war against poverty, an offensive against segregation, an effort to strengthen education and the arts and to provide federal coverage of health care for the elderly. All were set in motion in those first few weeks.

While idealism had flowed from Kennedy’s lips, it took form in Johnson’s legislation.

But this is also a story of greed and connivance. Big thoughts and big dreams mixed with small indignities and small-mindedness, foreshadowing Johnson’s entire presidency.

Johnson’s administration would sow violence domestic and foreign, foster a credibility gap and youth rebellion, create a tragedy in Vietnam and in the presidency that would tarnish the president’s triumphs and, within four years, bring the fall of a man whose rise from Texas road gang to president constituted one of the greatest dramas of American history. This book shows the mastery of Johnson in politics, and also the mastery of Caro in biography.

“The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson” will be published on May 1 by Knopf (712 pages, $35). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Today’s Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and John Mariani on wine.

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