Writing in the mid-1980’s, Forrest McDonald observed that America’s founders would have recognized their handiwork as late as the early 1960’s, but not after. Despite technological changes, the Civil War, the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and two world wars, the governments most Americans dealt with were state and local. Except for the draft board and the efficient Post Office, Americans had little contact with the federal government. Federal income and Social Security taxes still were fairly low for the middle class. That’s one reason why the early 1960’s remain the last pleasant time in the imaginations of conservatives and many liberals. For conservatives, it was the time I wrote of above; and of the promise of the Goldwater movement. For liberals, it was the days of the civil-rights marches, President John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, and, after Kennedy was shot, the hope of racial equality and the end of poverty. Even our popular culture celebrates these years as an irenic time, as American Graffiti and Mad Men suggest. This is the era in which the drama of The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s detailed biography of America’s 36th president, unfolds. The book begins in 1958, as Johnson still reigns over the Senate while planning for a presidential run in 1960. The projected fifth volume, which Caro says will be published if he lives long enough to complete it, will cover the 1964 election, Johnson’s last five years in power, the Great Society programs, and the Vietnam War.
Caro’s stated purpose in these volumes, aside from telling Johnson’s story, is to examine the operation of power. He believes that “power reveals.” In previous volumes, Caro revealed Johnson’s worst traits. But to Caro, Johnson still is “heroic” because, when LBJ assumed absolute power as president, he remembered the poor Mexicans he had taught as a young schoolteacher in South Texas near the international border. He remembered the slights that had been suffered by the Negroes he had known. And always before him was the poverty Johnson himself suffered after his father went bankrupt.
Despite Johnson’s “100 percent southern voting record on civil rights” and his grasping for power and money, Caro writes that, throughout Johnson’s life, “there had been hints that he possessed a true, deep compassion for the downtrodden, and particularly for poor people of color, along with a true, deep desire to raise them up.”
After a hesitant run for president in 1956, LBJ began lusting again two years later for the Oval Office. His potential opponents were Kennedy; Adlai Stevenson, twice defeated by Eisenhower; the liberal Minnesota blabbermouth Sen. Hubert Humphrey; and Estes Kefauver, the Tennessee senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1956. None seemed formidable. In a meeting at the LBJ ranch, Johnson told his Texas cronies, “I was meant to be president.”
But two things stood in his way. One was that Johnson again was skittish about running for president. Caro attributes this weakness to the scars LBJ carried from his father’s failure, after which his family had become “the laughingstock of Johnson City.”
“Johnson feared losing,” his henchman Bobby Baker told Caro, and had a “fear of being defeated. He always was petrified by that notion.” Better to remain master of the Senate. So Johnson didn’t declare his candidacy until just before the nominating convention, hoping deadlocked delegates would turn to him.
His second obstacle was John Kennedy. Johnson saw him as a playboy who skipped crucial Senate votes. In fact, Kennedy missed votes because of the constant pain he lived in and the operations that nearly killed him; and because, when healthy, he was away campaigning for president. Kennedy was telegenic, a major advantage in the new TV age. And he was the first candidate to realize that the 16 primaries that were held in those days could give him an edge in the race. (LBJ skipped the primaries.) Kennedy’s father, Joe, spread money around like Scotch at a fundraiser, fueling an efficient national campaign headed by Bobby Kennedy that corralled support from rural politicians and big-city bosses.
Despite Johnson’s burning feud going back years with Bobby Kennedy, JFK picked the Texan as his running mate. Johnson did what Kennedy wanted: He campaigned energetically throughout the South on the “LBJ Special” train, assuaging voters’ doubts regarding Kennedy’s Catholicism. Johnson reminded his audiences that Kennedy was a war hero and that his brother, Joe, Jr., had died in World War II. JFK-LBJ won six Southern states, and 5 of 11 electoral votes in Mississippi.
The ticket actually lost the vote in Texas, but the LBJ magic had done its work. Caro provides all the details. LBJ’s longtime ally was “George Berham Parr of Duval County in the Rio Grande Valley, the legendary ‘Duke of Duval,’ the most powerful of the despotic patrones or jefes, who controlled the Valley and its votes.” The most blatant swindle occurred in Precinct 13 of Jim Wells County,
already legendary in Texas political history . . . in 1948 [it] had provided the decisive margin for Lyndon Johnson by giving him two hundred new votes. . . . In 1960, that box gave Lyndon Johnson’s ticket a margin of 1,144 to 45, or twenty-five to one.
It was a Soviet-style landslide.
JFK-LBJ “beat” Richard Nixon by just 46,257 votes in Texas. Along with the rigged vote in Illinois, which Caro mentions but doesn’t detail (that was the work not of LBJ but of the Kennedy-Daley machine), the Texas election was a fraud. Republicans briefly contested the Texas flimflam, but then, being Republicans, gave up.
Even though Johnson won the election for Kennedy, he was shunned from the beginning by the President and his Ivy League brain trust, whom LBJ branded “The Harvards.” They sneered back by calling him Rufus Cornpone. The hatred between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy boiled over when Bobby quickly became Jack’s gatekeeper. Johnson envied The Harvards’ glossy educations. He didn’t realize that his own simple education provided him with a clearer view of the world than The Harvards had.
The book provides the first detailed view of the Kennedy assassination from Johnson’s perspective. Caro doesn’t directly take on Johnson conspiracy theories, saying only that the documentary record shows no evidence of the vice president’s involvement in any plot.
As president, Johnson quickly snapped out of his vice-presidential funk. In those dark days, he manned the phones almost continuously and used his charm to persuade Chief Justice Earl Warren to head the Warren Commission. And as the drama of the Kennedy funeral unfolded, Johnson was a whirl of activity, pulling all the levers of power brilliantly. He soon realized he needed a signature issue to distinguish himself from Kennedy, especially for the coming re-election campaign. He settled on the War on Poverty, part of what he called his Great Society, the next spring. It would be paid for by revenues garnered after goosing the economy with JFK’s proposed tax cuts.
Caro demonstrates how, while the ideas for the tax cut and civil-rights bill burbled up under JFK, it was LBJ alone who could have pushed them through Congress. As vice president, Johnson had told The Harvards that the old segregationist Southern committee chairmen in the Senate always held up consideration of major bills until the last weeks of a session, forcing rush jobs on them. The delay allowed time for a filibuster to kill the civil-rights bills before the recess.
The key, the master of the Senate instructed them, was to get the tax cut and other bills out of the way early, by spring, opening up enough time to stall a filibuster through back-room maneuvering. The Harvards didn’t listen. But when he became president, Johnson did exactly that, using every parliamentary trick he had learned (or invented) as leader of the Senate. Had Kennedy remained president, contrary to what his partisans later wrote, little would have been accomplished except another watered-down civil-rights bill, and perhaps minor tax cuts. The truth is that Johnson, as president, reassumed his old role as Senate majority leader. No president, including in wartime, has ever had such a hold over two branches of government.
Harry Byrd, whom Caro maligns as an old skinflint Democratic segregationist, in fact was the last of the old-school penny-pinchers. Without “Old Harry” watching over the Senate Finance Committee as chairman from 1955 to 1965, the country would have gone broke long before the Great Society and the Vietnam War did the trick. Byrd’s greatest achievement was to retire the World War II debt (at its peak in 1945, the size of the entire U.S. economy, like the national debt in 2012) by the early 1960’s. The sole equivalent achievement was Andrew Jackson’s retirement of the entire federal debt in 1835.
Byrd was an experienced Virginia businessman who had quit school at 15 to save his family’s newspaper, which was deeply in debt. He insisted that the Kennedy-Johnson tax cuts be paid for by cutting spending. Johnson knew Byrd, and knew he couldn’t be budged on the budget. In particular, Byrd didn’t want the budget to surpass $100 billion. So Johnson cut his budget proposal by five billion dollars by slashing waste in everything from the Post Office to the Pentagon, which shuttered 38 military bases—a surprising exercise in economizing, given his later budget blowouts. Byrd then approved the tax cuts, which sailed through Congress. These cuts dropped the top tax rate from 91 percent to 70 percent, with equivalent cuts for lower tax rates. They fired the economy in one of the country’s fastest periods of growth and provided money to fund some of LBJ’s Great Society. They could not, however, support its escalating costs, nor those of the Vietnam War. The way was thus cleared for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with its sweeping bans on discrimination and the implementation of voting rights. To pass it, Johnson employed all his parliamentary powers and played on sympathy for his martyred predecessor. Thousands of Christian ministers, black and white, descended on congressional offices to push for passage, when they would have done better staying home preaching fire-and-brimstone sermons against fornication and divorce.
Northern liberals in Congress were on his side. So were Republicans, whom Johnson placated by coining the phrase “Party of Lincoln” while playing to the vanity of Everett Dirksen, the minority leader. Although Southern Democrats refused to vote in favor of the act, the President persuaded them at least to stand aside. Caro finds heroism in his accomplishment:
Lyndon Baines Johnson was the greatest champion that black Americans and Mexican-Americans and indeed all Americans of color had in the White House, the greatest champion they had in all the halls of government.
He fails to cite conservative critics, like National Review and journalist James Jackson Kilpatrick, of the president’s civil-rights legislation, though perhaps Barry Goldwater’s objections to the Civil Rights Act, on constitutional grounds, will be dealt with in Volume Five.
Johnson presented the details of his grand social vision in his State of the Union Address of January 8, 1964, which concludes the present volume. “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional War on Poverty in America.” He followed it with a laundry list of expensive new programs,
better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training . . . Appalachia . . . redevelopment . . . youth employment legislation . . . a broader food stamp program . . . a National Service Corps to help the economically handicapped.
Caro cannot recognize the ways in which the War on Poverty went wrong. Yet his text cites an early study by Walter Heller, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, who warned that “Government welfare unwittingly contributes to broken homes and illegitimacy.” Heller thus anticipated the well-known Moynihan Report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which in 1965 cautioned that welfare expansion would destroy black families. And that is exactly what happened. Black illegitimacy soared from 25 percent then to 70 percent today. Whites haven’t done so well, either, with their illegitimacy rate having risen from 5 to 25 percent. For Hispanics (not a census category in 1960) the rate today is 50 percent. Perhaps half of American families now suffer from what Lionel Tiger calls “bureaugamy”: a family structure consisting of a mother, her children, and a bureaucrat in place of a father. Vietnam was just starting to heat up as Caro concludes this volume, noting that Johnson insisted he wouldn’t lose the war. For LBJ, further engagement wasn’t a strategic decision but one related to domestic politics—which, for Johnson, meant it was a “personal” decision. As tapes he made of his official phone calls reveal, from the beginning Johnson had no idea how the war could be won. He canceled JFK’s planned cut of troops in Vietnam from 16,000 to 15,000, then lied about it—the beginning of his infamous “credibility gap” on the war.
Caro also details how, from the moment he got into the White House, Johnson installed alternative phone systems that got around the White House switchboard, where records were kept of his calls. The alternative systems hooked up to his cronies in Texas who were managing the “blind trust” of his investments, allowing him to make massive profits on his foreknowledge of government contracts. This man was corrupt to the core.
Worse than the corruption, though, were Johnson’s supposedly high-minded policies—what Caro calls, in a preposterous phrase that perfectly sums up five decades of liberalism, “the institutionalization of compassion.” Instead of healing America, the Great Society was a major force in turning a country that still enjoyed a modicum of republican liberty into the centralized, bureaucratized, degenerate, and bankrupt state we endure today.
[The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 736 pp., $35.00]