The guts of this volume is Caro's determination to show that Johnson came close to defying gravity by achieving a smooth transition of power for a nation nearly mad with shock and anxiety. He certainly makes a convincing case that Johnson's accession was both enormously daunting and remarkably smooth. It is probably a testament to Johnson's mastery of those awful days that Caro had to spend hundreds of pages arguing that a successful vice presidential succession was not just a given. Having lived those days (though quite young), I don't ever remember doubting the legitimacy of the constitutional system at the time. Of course power was passed on; that was just how things worked … for all I knew.
Since Caro does not completely convince me of the premise through which he organized the book, I probably don't appreciate the volume as much as I might have if I shared that premise. And yet I was gripped by this biography as story, as a record of the times, and as a portrait of a very complex central figure. Lyndon Johnson was amazingly complex: insecure, a bully, a con man, a racist, an exponent of civil rights under law, a class-conscious liberal, and a patriot. Maybe all very powerful figures are this complex if it is possible to drill into their souls as Caro seeks to. But I doubt it.
A few items leapt out from this huge work that I want to share:
- Johnson was known as the great persuader -- even his opponents said that if he met with a person, that person would always come away convinced. Caro offers insight into Johnson's persuasive powers.
Must politicians have this power of efficacious self-deception to succeed? Do we want them to? I don't find those easy questions.
- At 49 years removed -- and a couple of Bushes endured -- it has become hard to remember the suspicion much of the nation felt toward the state of Texas in the days after the assassination. The cowboy state had allowed a loved President to be shot and then allowed the alleged assassin to be murdered in custody on national TV. You couldn't trust a lawless, backwards place like that. These concerns led Johnson to establish the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination. Interestingly, Caro implies but does not expand upon the possibility that the Commission did a slipshod investigation that failed to reveal what really happened in Dallas. He seems to credit notions he imputes to the slain President's brother Robert that mobsters or Fidel Castro might have put out a hit on John F. Kennedy.
Meanwhile Texas has more or less escaped its unsavory associations, except perhaps as a place that goes in for executing people by the dozens.
- The war in Vietnam necessarily hangs over all else Lyndon Johnson accomplished early in his Presidency -- voting rights legislation, Medicare, the War on Poverty. We know how it ended: a President shadowed by protesters yelling "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" and finally chased from office in 1968. Caro sets the scene in those early days when a fateful course of trying to "win" against the Vietnamese national revolution was set.
Fear of what "they would say" led to "the credibility gap, the "generation gap," and ultimately a far deeper delegitimization of the United States government than the one Johnson believed he was averting in his first days in office.