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All the Way with LBJ, Almost: Rolling the Dice

Robert Caro's well-received volume on LBJ's vice-presidency and early presidency opens up an unexpected can of worms.

By From the September 2012 issue

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The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
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.

Literary techniques can be effective. But they can also raise questions when used in writing history. In a novel or drama, they help maintain a measure of suspense, setting up a series of expectations that lead to a satisfactory conclusion. Viewed in that way by a reader who has no special knowledge of the events of the period (it all happened, after all, half a century ago) The Passage of Power might well seem to have accomplished just that—a vivid narrative that, by dramatizing Johnson’s lust for the presidency, seems structured to lead us to one inescapable conclusion: LBJ had something to do with bringing on the act that brought him the presidency.

BUT THAT, OF COURSE, is not what Caro wants at all. He intends to write history, not drama, and the deus ex machina, the assassination that allowed LBJ to get on with his career and Caro his chronicle, having served its purpose, is wheeled quickly offstage. There’s a dutiful bow to the work and composition of the Warren Commission and its conclusion that the assassination was the work of a lone gunman, a washed-out Marine who had worked and married in the Soviet Union and had ties to organizations like the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a mediocre marksman who just managed to qualify on the rifle range, but who apparently decided to take a difficult shot with an unfamiliar rifle at a moving target.

But these are not details that Caro, uncharacteristically, is interested in exploring, although he does seem to feel, perhaps belatedly, that he’s opened a box that needs to be closed. In one extraordinarily long paragraph running for two pages, and tacked on to his chapter on the Warren Commission, he briefly summarizes alternative theories and acknowledges a lack of public confidence in the commission’s findings. A report of a House Select Committee to restudy the assassination, he tells us, released in 1979, “concluded that John Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy, but…said it was unable to identify who had been involved in it.”

He reviews the polls taken on the subject, in which the percentage of Americans who don’t accept the lone gunman theory has remained steady, at about 75 percent. “In no poll was there consensus about the conspiracy’s origins or members: in a 2003 Gallup Poll 18 percent of Americans felt Lyndon Johnson was indeed involved.”

However, having unintentionally but in dramatic fashion provided the grounds for a potential reairing of the whole assassination debate, and in the process giving LBJ a powerful motive, Caro assures us that “nothing that I have found in my research leads me to believe that whatever the full story of the assassination may be, Lyndon Johnson had anything to do with it.”

He leaves it at that, and it’s perfectly understandable that he does so. If there were any sort of LBJ involvement, the four volumes he’s devoted his life to producing would have no historical credibility.

He concludes this volume with LBJ’s elevation to the presidency; success in persuading the Kennedy advisers to stay on, arguably his first major mistake; and adoption of the Kennedy agenda as his own, his second mistake. By so doing, he set the government off on a disastrous spending spree (the War on Poverty has now morphed into the War on Obesity, and the bills are still rolling in) and an adventure in southeastern Asia that got totally out of hand, and which would require a tough new realistic president with a grasp of geopolitics, Richard Nixon, to put it right.

The observation by Theodore Draper on the Kennedy Bay of Pigs fiasco, quoted by Caro, might well also be applied to Vietnam: “one of those rare events in history—a perfect failure.”

Caro’s final volume, advertised as the last in the series, will cover Vietnam in depth; the 1964 campaign and the defeat of Barry Goldwater, who ran against a ghost; the indiscriminate wash of legislation LBJ pushed through Congress; and the last dismal days of the Johnson presidency—a failed one, fast fading from public political consciousness.

Will he get it done? And will there still be people sufficiently interested to plow through it? It took 10 years to finish this one, there’s a great deal more to write about, and Caro will turn 77 this year.

In the end, as with LBJ, it may all hang on a roll of the dice.

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).