Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro

When I was 9 or 10 years old and my mom was attending graduate school at UT during the summer, we rode the bus from our rooming house one block off campus to hear Lyndon Baines Johnson speak at the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin. At the end of his speech, mom and I waited until the rush of people had cleared, and then we went up on the stage, and mom made a grand point of introducing me to Mr. Johnson. I remember with such clarity that this giant of a man, bent in half to gently hold and kiss my small, white-gloved hand. Indeed, that single moment in time triggered my life-long infatuation with LBJ.

You don’t have to have a memory of Lyndon Johnson kissing your hand to have an interest in him however. He inherited the Presidency in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, was elected to the Presidency in 1964, and is credited for legislation that upheld civil rights, created public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, and strengthened environmental protection, education and the “war on poverty.” He is also credited for escalating the horrific war in Vietnam, bringing about the “antiwar movement” that is so vivid in the memories of my young adulthood.
Robert Caro’s (pictured) most recent of three book about Johnson, The Passage of Power, is not just about Johnson, it is about Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, and how their lives so tragically and historically intertwined during the 1960’s.   The Passage of Power begins with Johnson’s disastrous hesitation in 1960 to mount his presidential campaign, resulting in his losing the nomination to John Kennedy. This was a catastrophe to Johnson who had wielded unharnessed power as the Senate Majority Leader for seven years, and whose life-long ambition was to be President of the United States. After a fascinating and intricate political dance between the Kennedy’s, LBJ, Sam Rayburn, John Connally and other formidable characters, Johnson was offered and accepted to run as Kennedy’s Vice Presidential teammate.

When asked why he would accept the no-power position as Kennedy’s VP, Johnson said, “Power is where power goes,” which is a powerful statement. But in fact, Johnson went from power magnate in the Senate, to being called “Rufus Cornpone” by the Kennedy staff.  Caro gives us a glimpse into the painful emasculation of Johnson, the quiet cunning of John Kennedy, and the viciousness of Bobby Kennedy. 

In Evan Smith’s interview with Robert Caro on KLRU-TV Austin PBS’s Overheard With Evan Smith, Caro said that Johnson, the consummate “reader of men,” misread John Kennedy. In the book we clearly see that JFK simultaneously held LBJ close to his heart and head, but at arms length from his power. We read of LBJ pitifully begging to ride in Air Force One and being ignored by JFK, and of LBJ being repeatedly, publically humiliated by Bobby Kennedy.

And then it happened. The shots rang out in Dallas, and everything changed. Almost as if a spell had been lifted, Johnson sprang back to his all-powerful self and accomplished so much so quickly that his leadership during the first 100 days following the assassination is still heralded.

Consumed by the grief of losing his adored brother, Robert Kennedy’s hate for LBJ grew, and the feelings were mutual, but now, Johnson had the power. Bobby Kennedy eventually recovered from the horrible depths of grief and entered the race for the democratic nomination for President against Johnson. Then fate strangely interceded again when a Palestinian/Jordanian immigrant, angry at Robert Kennedy about something, shot him to death in Los Angeles.

In the end, it wasn’t a Kennedy that brought Lyndon Johnson down however. Just as Johnson predicted, it was the Vietnam War. I will never forget the war protestors’ cries of “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”

Well, I didn’t intend to give you a blow-by-blow description of Passage of Power, but my enthusiasm got the better of me. I loved the story, I loved the writing, and I loved the book.

I also recommend that you watch the below KLRU-TV Austin PBS Overheard With Evan Smith interview with Robert Caro.

1 comment:

  1. Great minds and all that! I also loved this book and think Caro is one of the few writers that could make me (us) plow through such lengthy tomes. I wrote a book review last year that I'll send, just because we're on the same track here. Also love the family remarks. My dad used to say, "If you need help, family is all you have. Your friends wouldn't pull you out of a mudhole!" Charlena