Monday 16 December 2019

Forget about JFK, it's LBJ who was the real deal

But Irish people are happy to live with the saccharine take on the Kennedy era, writes John-Paul McCarthy

TEXAN TITAN: Lyndon B Johnson takes the US presidential oath of office as Jacqueline Kennedy looks on. Photo: Reuters
TEXAN TITAN: Lyndon B Johnson takes the US presidential oath of office as Jacqueline Kennedy looks on. Photo: Reuters
President John F Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy in 1961
John F Kennedy
John F Kennedy in 1962.

John-Paul McCarthy

By now many of you are bored by elections. But if he were alive Lyndon Baines Johnson would have crossed the Atlantic to canvass just to keep his hand in. Because he lived and breathed politics.

Luckily for African Americans he was much better at politics than the Irish-American Kennedy brothers who got all the credit for his work.

But of course that's not a narrative we hear much of in Kennedy-loving Ireland, happy to live with the Ryan Tubridy saccharine take on Camelot in his JFK in Ireland.

The fourth volume of Robert Caro's great biography of Johnson, The Passage of Power, leaves much of the Kennedy mystique in rags.

We meet the astonishing Joseph P Kennedy again, and learn of his private assurance to Johnson that he would pay for everything if the Texan joined his boy Jack as the junior partner on the presidential ticket.

Then there's the thuggish Bobby, who had been warped by his father's favouritism towards his older brothers and who once glassed a fellow student for singing Happy Birthday at the wrong time.

Much has been made in the American press of the way the Kennedys emerge from this portrait much diminished by contrast with the Texan.

On the day President Kennedy was murdered, several major aspects of his legislative agenda lay mired in the congressional shambles into which he had carelessly driven it. As that motorcade swept down Main, and turned right on Houston and then left onto Elm, large parts of the Kennedy programme seemed about as dead as President Diem in south Vietnam.

Caro shows in startling, even stunning, detail how Johnson freed these bills from the mire within days of assuming the presidency, and how he would do even better in 1965 with a major Voting Rights Act.

Irish readers of a certain age will no doubt wince at the thinness of Kennedy's contribution to American national life before 1960.

"Kennedy was pathetic as a congressman and as a senator," Johnson explained later. "He was a young whippersnapper, malaria-ridden and yellow, sickly, sickly. He never said a word of importance in the Senate, and he never did a thing... a nice man, a gentle man, but not a man's man."

Irish readers will also be struck as they make their way through this story by the contrast between the Byzantine American system and our comparatively svelte Westminster set-up where a humble majority is usually enough to unlock every door.

John Adams once explained that America only beat the British redcoats when the 13 squabbling colonies were all made to co-operate, like 13 clocks striking the time simultaneously.

Little has fundamentally changed in the legislative arena in the modern era. Johnson had to make two large grandfather clocks, namely the US Senate and the House of Representatives, chime in exact unison as he threw bill after bill at them.

Oddly enough, one is reminded in some of Caro's chapters of Daniel O'Connell.

Johnson not only shared Dan's profound debts to his childhood surroundings – Iveragh being not unlike the Texas Hill Country in its isolation and poverty – but he had something of O'Connell's emotional exuberance, or what Oliver MacDonagh called his "inherent ardour".

When vexed, Johnson was capable of revolting insensitivity. (He once told an aide whom he knew was a dining companion of Bobby's that it was his considered judgment that Dallas was divine retaliation for the killings President Kennedy had authorised in South East Asia and in Cuba.)

But he proved himself capable as well of moving acts of kindness and human insight. (He had only been president for about six hours when he sat down to compose by hand two letters to his predecessor's children. "Dear John," he wrote to the son. "It will be many years before you fully understand what a great man your father was. His loss is a deep personal tragedy for all of us, but I wanted you particularly to know that I share your grief – You can always be proud of him.")

He was just as calculating a figure as Kennedy, but in certain respects he lacked the cynicism and detached quality – partly because he had to fight for every success that came his way without recourse to a private fortune or to the Mob connections that Joe Kennedy courted.

And it was that manic exuberance that ruined Johnson in the end when he exported it to Vietnam.

Admirers of Errol Morris's powerful documentary on Robert McNamara, the defense secretary from 1961-69, might recall a terrifying phone call between him and Johnson shortly after the Americans bet their all on escalation in 1965.

Reviewing the advice he had been given about the effectiveness of an air war and a huge troop deployment, Johnson said: "My answer is yes. But my judgement is no."

And here as Daniel Corkery once wrote, we see " ... in many a soul/Two worlds at a glance."

Rarely has such a titan fallen so far so fast.

Sunday Independent

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