Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Half Way with LBJ

(reflections on THE PASSAGE TO POWER by Robert A. Caro, fifth in his multi-volume work THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON, Knopf 2012.)

Half way through this volume, I feel oddly reassured to know that the leaders who loomed large in my early childhood were no more grown up, thoughtful, talented or courageous than anyone I meet or read about today.   Sensitive to criticism, paralyzed by the fear of failure, prone to miscommunication, careless of facts that don't go with our preconceptions: that's all of us, even Presidents, Vice-Presidents, and Cabinet officials.   This is good to remember when we're tempted to apply superlatives to the current crop of leaders, whether best, worst, most or least.

Caro starts when Lyndon Johnson was close to 50 years old, Senate leader, second most powerful man in America, and, for once, indecisive.  As Caro tells it, Johnson's life was governed by his determination to rise above the locally famous story of his father's precipitous fall from prosperous leader to pauper and town joke.  We read how Johnson begged, wormed, and bullied his way into ever more influential positions.  As Senate leader, he belittled staffers and physically intimidated legislators, kicking future speaker Jim Wright in the shin, for example, and pulling other men's faces close to his.   With all that background, we appreciate the frustration of his supporters and hangers-on when Johnson inexplicably turns down their help to start organizing for the presidential race coming up in 1960. while the Kennedy clan was promoting JFK throughout the country.   When he finally made up his mind to run, it was too late.  His campaign staffers had to redesign buttons "All the Way with LBJ" because democrats in the western states didn't know what LBJ meant.

Caro reminds us how vice-presidents have been the butts of jokes from Adams on, but it's still hard to believe how pathetic LBJ appears in the office.   The offer to be Vice-President is a matter of debate, and Caro devotes a dozen pages to answering the questions, "Did JFK offer the VP job only as a pro-forma courtesy?" When Bobby Kennedy ran down to LBJ's suite from the Kennedy suite two, three, or four times to talk LBJ out of accepting the position, was he representing Jack, or conniving against a man whom he had hated viscerally for years, or was he misreading his brother through the filter of his hatred?

LBJ serves his one purpose by getting JFK the electoral votes of three southern states.   LBJ's home state of Texas went nearly 50% Republican, and at one event, Republicans jostled LBJ and Lady Bird, carrying signs that accused him of selling out to the "communists."  The vote was close in Texas, and Caro goes into great detail about the ways that Democrats (probably) cheated.  They used elaborate specifications for "proper" paper ballots to disqualify paper ballots in largely Republican districts outside of the big cities, and custom allowed ranchers to herd their Spanish-speaking workers into polling places to vote as a bloc.

Approaching the Vice-Presidency, LBJ boasts how "power is where power goes," how he'll turn this office into one of influence.  Then he is politely but decisively rebuffed on all sides: Mike Mansfield and LBJ's former flock in the Senate do not allow him to chair their caucus meetings (LBJ quips that a cactus differs from a caucus because "the pricks are on the outside"), and JFK ignores a letter (compared to Seward's co-presidency memo to Lincoln) except to write that he expects Johnson to "review" policies.   Used to 56 staffers and an office dubbed "the Taj Mahal" in the Senate, LBJ was allowed 18 in a corner of the Executive Office Building, and a visitor remarked that, during his hour there, the phone didn't ring once.   No one needed LBJ for anything.  By 1963, even the staffer charged with "keeping Lyndon happy" had forgotten about him.  LBJ and Lady Bird were left off party lists.  Yet LBJ went through a pathetic routine to appear relevant, having his limo park beside the White House, entering a side door through secretary Evelyn Lincoln's office past the Oval Office and out through the Rose Garden, so that it would appear to anyone watching that he was "checking up" on things in the White House before he resumed his lonely perch in the building across the street.

Caro's book has focused so far on personal politics, saying next to nothing about the principles and policies of the national kind.   It's more about personalities and "manners," along the lines of who sits near the President at the conference table, and who gets to barge into the President's office (Bobby, not LBJ, in both cases).   LBJ appears manipulative, extremely insecure, self-deluded and crude.  So far, Bobby comes across as morose, rude, "ruthless," unprincipled, and petulant. 

JFK seems to sit above the rest.  Caro gives us the background for LBJ's disdain for Senator Kennedy, whom he addressed as "Sonny Boy" or "Johnny" when patronizing him in the Senate.  JFK's lifelong struggles with undiagnosed abdominal pains and back trouble are detailed.  His physical courage to save men when a Japanese ship splintered his PT boat are detailed.  His playboy image is supported, not least by a couple of parenthetical tidbits that this or that woman was a mistress.  His lack of interest in Senate work and absenteeism are detailed.  But he was charming because he was confident in his ability to win anybody over to his side, with persuasion and a smile.  We see it happen when he sways a pro-LBJ delegation of Texans with a combination of gracious praise for their favorite son and a little twist on LBJ's rhetoric.   We see how he seems to be clear and calm about choosing LBJ while Bobby and two suites full of aides are hand-wringing, sobbing, and threatening to come to blows.   We see it when he quickly and definitively takes full responsibility for the mistake of approving the poorly-planned Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.  He takes the hit and moves on.

I've reached the part of the story where the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 has just ended.  Here, LBJ at least gets to sit at the table, though transcripts show that he contributed little while military and civilian councilors advised JFK to strike Cuba's missile silos and Cuba, too.  Bobby shifts the discussion by comparing the event to Pearl Harbor, with the USA as the bad guy bombing another country out of the blue.   When JFK and Bobby are absent from the room, LBJ speaks up on the tape recording of the council, objecting that the US looked "weak" because of the President's approach of "quarantine" and waiting to strike back at challenges to the quarantine (and the shooting down of a U2 spy plane).   JFK finds his own way, disregarding the pressure from the rest of the room, and it works in both the short and long term.

Now Caro has to rehabilitate Bobby, who has looked so bad through the rest of the book.   Now, at least, we find that he has a tearful, fearless, life-long identification with the underdogs in society, and a warm regard for children.

(I completed the book.  Read my reflection, "Power Perfected in Weakness: LBJ's Finest Hours")

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