Saturday 21 April 2018

Review: Biography: The Passage of Power by Robert A Caro

Bodley Head, €50, hbk, 736 pages
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

The fourth volume of Robert Caro's monumental work The Years of Lyndon Johnson, is above all the story of the relationship between Johnson and the Kennedys.

The book covers the years from 1958 to the end of 1963 and includes Johnson's 1960 presidential bid, his acceptance of an unhappy tenure in the vice presidency under JFK and his sudden elevation to the position he lusted after, courtesy of an assassin's bullets. There is also an extended coda on the first, astonishing, seven weeks of his presidency.

Lyndon Johnson will be remembered chiefly for the disastrous war in Vietnam and for succeeding the assassinated President Kennedy.

The photo of him being sworn in on Air Force One with Jackie Kennedy beside him wearing the suit stained with her husband's blood, is one of the images of the 20th Century.

Yet there was much more to Johnson. Arguably, without the monumental civil rights legislation which Johnson, a southerner, forced through Congress in 1964, Barack Obama would not now be president.

He set up Medicare, a social landmark, and set out to create what he termed the "Great Society", involving the eradication of poverty in the USA.

This idea foundered on the failure and the cost of Vietnam, and he left office a broken man. Though personally flawed, he remains a significant figure in US politics.

The destinies of Johnson and the Kennedys became inextricably mixed from 1960 on, though Johnson and Bobby had actually clashed as early as 1953, and loathed each other.

This dislike morphed into lifelong enmity after Bobby's strenuous attempts to prevent Johnson accepting JFK's surprise offer of running mate at the 1960 Democratic convention.

For Johnson, defeated by Kennedy for the nomination, the decision to accept seemed a win-win one. While he knew that the vice presidency would be minor compared to his role as Senate Majority Leader, considered by many to be the second most powerful in the USA after the president, he entertained the illusion, wrongly, that he would be able to carve out a meaningful role as vice president.

Cynically, he also knew that no southerner had been elected president since 1848 and was well aware of the odds of a vice-president succeeding, given that one-in-four US presidents since Lincoln had died in office or been assassinated.

For the Kennedys also, the marriage of convenience offered much. Caro suggests that JFK never wavered in wanting Johnson, knowing Texas' 24 electoral votes would be crucial.

Bobby's attempts to keep Johnson off the ticket remain puzzling -- the northern Democratic party bosses could live with him -- and Caro cites this as the origin of one of the great political blood feuds of the century.

Johnson endured years of frustration and powerlessness as vice president. Derided by the Kennedys and their White House team (who mockingly dubbed him 'Rufus Cornpone'), he was effectively excluded from any decision making and was reduced to attempting to ingratiate himself by sending gifts to the president, including cattle from his farm and a pony for Caroline. Such, of course, had traditionally been the lot of the vice president, but Johnson bore the slights badly.

In the defining moment of the Kennedy presidency before Dallas -- the Cuban Missile Crisis -- Johnson, as a member of the National Security Council, was party to much of the deliberations but initially contributed little.

As the crisis developed, with Bobby insisting on restraint and seeking a diplomatic solution, Johnson's hawkish views, and his ability to persuade and cajole others, particularly when the Kennedys were not present, became more pronounced.

The crisis was resolved peacefully and Johnson's views ignored.

Then came Dallas, which, with its aftermath, comprises half the book. By then Johnson was almost an irrelevance; rumours circulated that he would be dropped from the ticket in 1964.

The book has little new to add beyond detailing how rapidly, ruthlessly and comprehensively Johnson took over. There was the immediate, brutal, phone call to Bobby, the insistence on taking the oath of office before leaving Dallas and that Jackie be beside him when he was sworn in.

The domineering master of the Senate, absent for three years, was back suddenly in a new role. Bobby Kennedy was marginalised malevolently. Caro spares no detail.

Over the next seven weeks there followed the elaboration of a strategy to unblock congressional opposition to Kennedy's reform legislation, stalled and buried deep in committees.

Johnson cleverly used the tactic of JFK's martyrdom to push matters, side-lining and silencing Bobby as he did so. Cautioned about moving too quickly on Civil Rights and other reforms, described to him by his southern advisers as lost causes, Johnson snarled "What the hell's the Presidency for?"

Caro describes this as his finest hour. Bobby's assessment of him was "formidable but flawed, powerful but dangerous". The years to come bore that out. The outcome of his Vietnam policy, with no one to rein him in, was disaster.

A superb, standalone study.

Sean Farrell is a retired Irish Ambassador and a former Irish Consul in Chicago.

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