Monday, July 09, 2012

Power Perfected in Weakness: LBJ's Finest Hours

(reflections on THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON: THE PASSAGE OF POWER by Robert A. Caro, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.)

LBJ takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One, on the runway, in Dallas.  He could have waited until the plane had flown to D.C.; he could have done it earlier; but he waited until Jackie arrived from the hospital -- with the body -- to stand beside him;
"Power is perfected in weakness," writes the apostle Paul in II Corinthians, because goodness -- God, Spirit, self-control, magnanimity -- can shine through at times when we feel vulnerable.  How LBJ handled himself and the institutions of federal government in the aftermath of JFK's assassination takes up the second half of Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson: The Passage to Power.   (My reflections on the first half of the book are here.)   Reading Caro's book during a week of patriotic celebrations, I wondered if true patriotism has more to do with Paul's kind of "weakness" than with competition of nations.  Caro shows how the crisis turned LBJ's personal demons to good for the country.

Caro gives us the events at Dallas from the unfamiliar angle of Johnson's experience.  He and Ladybird heard the shots and saw Jackie's reaction.  Johnson was then dragged to the floor of his open-air limo; his secret service bodyguard lay on top of him as the car accelerated to follow the President's car.   LBJ leans silently against a wall in the hospital until a Kennedy aide enters and sobs, "He's gone!"  We read again and again how LBJ's calm and resolve impressed eyewitnesses who'd always seen him as "Colonel Cornpone." 

In those hours, and in the days that followed, it seemed that the world might be poised to relive mistakes that had turned an assassination at Sarajevo in 1914 into the "Guns of August."   Was Russia or Cuba involved?   Had LBJ's cronies in Texas somehow conspired to make him President?   Ladybird remarked that it would have been better if she, too, had taken a bullet to allay that suspicion, but "thank goodness" [Texas governor] Connaly was shot.  Would Kennedy's ferociously loyal aides balk at accepting the Constitutional accession of LBJ?  Attorney General Robert Kennedy's animosity towards LBJ makes that scenario credible.

I remember those first days, as our home was shrouded in darkness, curtains closed, TV on constantly.  At four years, I knew who Kennedy was, and I understood that he'd been killed.  I don't recall any feeling beyond the solemnity of it all, but reading about it brought tears to my eyes.   Why?    And why did I also read with such pleasure about LBJ's successes?

In those first days, LBJ wooed Kennedy aides to stay on, tip-toed decorously around the Kennedy family during days of public mourning, masterfully dealt with numerous heads of state who arrived for the funeral, and impressed states' governors, even skeptical Pat Brown of California.  LBJ talks Chief Justice Earl Warren into heading a commission to investigate the assassination.  His speech to the nation, written reluctantly by JFK's wordsmith Ted Sorenson, began, "All I have, I would give, not to be standing here tonight."  Caro tells us that, for the first time, LBJ spoke slowly, with dignity and proper emphasis.  Johnson calmed fears and re-directed feeling for JFK towards passing the agenda that JFK had been unable to push through Congress:  cuts to both spending and taxation (to increase wealth and tax revenue -- it's Reaganomics!) and a civil rights bill to open up employment, schools, and public accommodations to Blacks.

So where do these emotions come from, fifty years later, the tears for the assassination and the pleasure at LBJ's behind-the-scenes working of the system?   Is this "patriotism?"  Is patriotism directed at a geograhical area, or at an ethnic group (white English speakers)?   Is it directed at the army and expressed only in terms of US strength?  Is it akin to being a sports fan, and does it hinge on defending our position as "number one?"

Speaking for my own patriotism, it's an admiration verging on affection for the good old Constitution and for the men and women -- voters included -- who go along with the rules of the game of living in a federal republic of conflicting interests that we call "politics."

Echoing an idea expounded by George Will in his 1980 book Statecraft as Soul Craft, I love to see how the form of our government actually shaped the behavior of the man at its helm in those critical days when America was down, doubtful, and vulnerable.

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