POWER FOR POWER’S SAKE
Robert A. Caro is a masterful researcher and writer, who has given most of his professional life to the production of four extraordinary volumes on a single subject, Lyndon Baines Johnson. The fourth volume in the series is entitled The Passage of Power, and takes us from the 1960 Democratic National Convention, where Johnson was tapped to be Kennedy’s Vice Presidential nominee, through the President's assassination and his successor’s transition to power.
Being a native Texan, I have been regaled from my youth by stories of LBJ’s roguish tactics and exploits. He was, of course, closely associated with the infamous political boss of Duval County, George B. Parr, who is widely credited with his senatorial victory in 1948 and with the state lining up in Kennedy’s electoral column in 1960. At Washington dinner parties, Lyndon was fond of entertaining guests with the story of a little Mexican boy in Alice, Texas, (the location of Box 13), sobbing because his deceased father apparently returned to cast a vote for Lyndon, but forgot to stop by to greet the family. The boy was not alone in his sense of abandonment, since a host of other Mexican fathers seemed to have made the same post-mortem odyssey in order to cast a vote for Parr's man, and did so in alphabetical order no less!
Most who remember Lyndon also remember the Bobby Baker scandal. Bobby was one of LBJ’s closest protégés. Like his hero and alter ego, Bobby was always looking for the odd nickel. During Kennedy’s ill-fated trip to Dallas, the Baker affair was hours from exploding into lurid headlines, which would have abruptly and most certainly ended Lyndon’s political career. Baker had an amazing story to tell about how his boss had mastered the fine art of political shakedown and how on a meager government salary had become a multi-millionaire. But with Johnson's transition to the presidency, the filthy matters of graft and corruption were swept under the carpet.
Some of the largest issues of Lyndon’s presidency will I assume be amply covered in the fifth volume of Caro’s monumental undertaking. But there is still a point that the author makes in the present volume that I find particularly captivating. Lyndon was a consummate political operator, who understood politics as "the art of the possible." He knew how to seize upon a person’s vulnerabilities and to get what he wanted. I dare say that there never will be again an American politician as adept as he was in the manipulation of others, especially Congress. During his heyday in power, there was no such thing as a legislative logjam. He knew how to make the system work.
Yet on the shadow side of this herculean strength was a debilitating weakness. Harvard historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., pinpointed the flaw early in Johnson's presidency as follows: “His basic trouble . . . is that he has never in his political career had to concentrate on substance. . . . Policy for Johnson has always been determined by the balance of political pressures. Now [that he has become President] he must begin to examine the merits of policy per se, and he is not intellectually or psychologically prepared to do this.” Schlesinger's point is that Lyndon had been so thoroughly absorbed in political compromise, in looking out for himself, and in climbing to the apex of power that he had few, if any, guiding philosophical or ideological principles. He was a study in form over substance. Once he had scaled Everest, he had to defer to the judgement of others regarding what to do while there. Since those he had met in the Kennedy administration, like Schlesinger, McGeorge Bundy, Walter Heller, Robert McNamara, and Dean Rusk, talked policy at a level that intimidated him and that he was challenged even to comprehend, and since the Kennedy administration had a Harvard aura around it, LBJ tended to defer to its policies and goals. Soon after the assassination he said to George Smathers of Florida, “We’ve got to carry on. We can’t abandon this fella’s program because he’s a national hero and . . . these people [the Kennedy Cabinet and aides] want his program passed, and we’ve got to keep the Kennedy aura around us through this election.”
Caro relates that once, when Horace Busby, a member of Johnson’s Texas team, actively disagreed with two key economic advisers who had been appointed by President Kennedy, Johnson became visibly unsettled, took Busby aside, and angrily reprimanded him: “You just came here to embarrass me. Here you’ve got Rhodes Scholars and you’ve got Ph.D.s and all like that and . . . you’re telling them that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Don’t you understand? These are the people that Kennedy had in there. They’re ipso facto a hell of a lot smarter than you are.” Caro adds: “And the key word that let him understand Johnson’s feelings, Busby says, was ‘embarrass’ – ‘He was embarrassed.’”
Johnson was not an autodidact like Harry Truman, who throughout his life had a love affair with books, especially historical works. Johnson was, purely and simply, a political animal, whose greatest virtue was that he understood power and how to seize and to use it. In short, he knew how to get things done. But he was unsure what to do once he had reached that penultimate goal, so he deferred to “men of intelligence” for the answer. Therein is the tragedy of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Robert F. Kennedy was Lyndon’s greatest nemesis. No two men in American history ever loathed each other more than these two. Caro aptly describes their relationship, which was given to nastiness and invective of the highest order. Yet Kennedy, who had taken a careful measure of the Texan for years and had listened to him during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was singularly unimpressed, and began using a new word to describe his brother’s successor. It’s a word that I think has merit even when spoken from the mouth of a hateful adversary – “dangerous.” A man who is able to manipulate his way to most any result he desires, but who is philosophically vacuous, is “dangerous.”
This country is still paying in a multiplicity of ways for Lyndon’s “Great Society,” for the Vietnam War, for the institutionalization of preferential treatment for minorities, and for the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which in the words of Theordore White was "the most nation-changing act" of the Johnson administration. It is one that may yet destroy the country, with its hodgepodge of conflicting religions and cultures. The Second Boston Massacre is a case in point.
So much for a man who stole his way into office, was steeped in politics exclusively as a pragmatic endeavor, and who never cultivated the necessary skills to analyze policy for himself. What a tragedy, shame, and disgrace!
April 23, 2013