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Robert Caro’s well-received volume on LBJ’s vice-presidency and early presidency opens up an unexpected can of worms.
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon
By Robert A. Caro
(Knopf, 736 pages, $35)
THIS IS THE FOURTH FAT VOLUME in Robert Caro’s series on a failed president who inherited a failed presidency, made it worse, then quit and dumped the whole mess into his successor’s lap. This one, which took Caro 10 years to write, covers the end of the 1950s to 1964, with special focus on Lyndon Johnson’s tenure as John F. Kennedy’s vice president, most of which he spent trying unsuccessfully to expand the powers of his office (something all vice presidents try to do), and learning to eat dirt at the hands of Robert Kennedy and assorted New Frontiersmen.
“During the administration of John F. Kennedy,” writes Caro, “Washington was Camelot [not really, as Bob Tyrrell reminds us, until Mrs. Kennedy dubbed it that post-assassination], and in Camelot, the political world included parties.” LBJ wasn’t on the A-list and often had to finagle an invitation. Caro describes a dinner dance, with music by Lester Lanin, the debutantes’ delight, who introduced “a new, hip-swiveling dance called the twist. Johnson asked the scintillating Helen Chavchavadze (who, as it happened, was one of the president’s mistresses) to dance—and slipped and fell on her, knocking her to the floor.”
“‘He lay on her like a lox,’” said one attendee. “By noon the next day,” writes Caro, “word of Johnson’s fall…had reached Camelot’s most distant frontiers—as Johnson was well aware.”
He was treated with extraordinary cruelty by the New Frontiersmen, “in love with their own sophistication… a witty bunch, and wit does better when it has a target to aim at, and the huge, lumbering figure of Lyndon Johnson, with his carefully buttoned-up suits and slicked-down hair…made an inviting target.” (Caro is big on hair, especially Kennedy hair—“an unruly forelock,” “unruly hair,” “shining hair”—so much so, that instead of “Camelot,” it might be called “Hair-a-Lot,” or with all that Aquarian behavior at the Kennedy court, just “Hair.”) The Kennedy courtiers made fun of his clothes—“for one white-tie dinner dance, he wore, to the Kennedy people’s endless amusement, not the customary black tailcoat but a slate gray model especially sent up by Dallas’ Neiman- Marcus department store.” And of course, there was the Texas accent. “When he mispronounced ‘hors d’oeuvres’ as ‘whore doves,’ the mistake was all over Georgetown in what seemed an instant.” And, as Caro points out, LBJ knew it.
Caro accomplishes something here that few others would dare to try. He actually makes us feel sorry for LBJ—like JFK a serial womanizer, and a bullying, venal politician who, as Tyrrell put it, “turned the purchase of a $17,500 radio station into a vast media fortune through the manipulation of such federal agencies as the Federal Communications Commission.” Nevertheless, the treatment of him by that effete corps of impudent snobs, as someone once put it in a different context, was unconscionable.
Pre-assassination, the question was why such a man, one of history’s most powerful and influential senators, would have sought the vice presidential nomination. He didn’t respect JFK, a “little scrawny fellow with rickets,” and the Kennedys reciprocated the feeling— especially Bobby, who loathed him. Caro quotes Joseph Kennedy on his son: “When Bobby hates you, you stay hated.” LBJ, for his part, held Bobby in contempt, calling him “Sonny Boy,” and the antagonism between the two runs through the book as a subplot, with no resolution until Bobby is assassinated in Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, despite the mutual hostility, the Kennedyites believed that LBJ could deliver Texas in 1960, which he did, just as Mayor Daley delivered Illinois. And for his part, LBJ, having tried and failed to beat Kennedy out for the presidential nomination, and convinced that “no southerner would be elected President in the foreseeable future,” had come to believe his best and only path to the presidency ran through two terms as vice president.
AND THE PATH could well be shorter. LBJ had his staff research the figures, writes Caro. Seven presidents had died in office. “Since thirty-three men had been President, that was seven out of thirty-three: The chances of a Vice President succeeding to the presidency due to a president’s death were about one out of five.” And if you handicapped it over the past 100 years before 1960, five out of eighteen presidents had died in office, “and five out of eighteen were odds of less than one out of four.”
According to Caro, Clare Boothe Luce asked LBJ why he had accepted the vice presidential nomination. His reply: “Clare, I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin,’ and this is the only chance I got.”
In short, he decided to roll the dice, he hit it, and the odds paid off, big time. And in a way, this poses a unique problem for Caro and his work.
In great part, it’s the extraordinary research into the most mundane matters that gives Caro’s work its verisimilitude. True, his sources often lie buried in an inscrutable bibliographic apparatus that would seem to require a magic decoder ring to decipher. Nevertheless, what he gives us is impressive in its thoroughness. He describes what people were wearing, their stances, gestures, and the minor asides to and from the most obscure actors in the drama, whom he’s taken care to track down over the years, often just to verify a sentence.
He fleshes out his descriptions with a wealth of detail—he provides the exact measurements of the Oval Office, for instance, and he describes the fatal motorcade in Dallas in precise detail—the route, the makes and sizes of the vehicles, the seating arrangements (neither Senator Ralph Yarborough nor Governor John Connally wanted to ride with LBJ, who it was increasingly rumored would be dumped from the ticket. And Connally, just as he would do as a Republican in 1972, was lobbying to replace a sitting vice president).
Combined with this attention to detail is Caro’s use of the techniques of fiction to move his narrative and generate suspense while telling a tale told many times before. His use of such devices can be highly effective, as when he delivers a dramatic rendering of the events leading to the assassination in Dallas. During the long ride in the motorcade, he takes us on an extended interior exploration of what LBJ must have been thinking in that lonely limousine—his treatment by the Kennedys, his exclusion from policy decisions, the likelihood that he wouldn’t be on the ticket in 1964.
And LBJ could have well been thinking those thoughts. But for all we—and Caro—know, he could have been thinking about huevos rancheros, Ellie the barmaid, or a good glass of Rebel Yell bourbon.
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H/T to National Review Online