Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Lyndon Johnson tease

Probably only historian Robert A. Caro could publish a 736 page book -- and leave this reader feeling interested, occasionally absorbed, but largely left hanging by a volume that is just a prelude to the story that I truly hope to read. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson is volume four of his monumental biography, covering 1958 through 1964. In these years Lyndon Johnson left a position of nearly unchallengeable power as Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate to slip into frustrated impotence as John F. Kennedy's neglected Vice President, only to be lifted to the White House by Kennedy's assassination in December, 1963.

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.

    When Lyndon Johnson was fighting hard for something … an aspect of the determination he always displayed during such efforts was conviction, a seemingly total belief in what he was fighting for. He felt that victory required belief. As a boy, friends recall, "he was always repeating" the salesman's credo that "You've got to believe in what you're selling"; decades later, in his retirement, he would say: "What convinces is conviction. You simply have to believe in the argument you are advancing; if you don't, you're as good as dead. The other person will sense that something isn't there." And Lyndon Johnson could make himself believe in an argument even if that argument did not accord with the facts, even if it was clearly in conflict with reality. … "It was not an act," [his close aide] George Reedy would say. "He had a fantastic capacity to persuade himself that the 'truth' which was convenient for the present was the truth and anything that conflicted with it was the prevarication of enemies. He literally willed what was in his mind to become reality."

    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.

    Half a century after John F. Kennedy's death there is still speculation among his brother's intimates about whether he [Bobby] was aware of any hard fact that might indicate that his crusades against the Cuban dictator or the underworld (or the Teamsters' boss) had backfired against his brother …

    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.

    "There's one of three things you can do" about Vietnam, the President would soon be saying in a telephone call from the ranch to John Knight of Knight Ridder newspapers, a supporter who nonetheless felt the United States might be "over-committed" in Vietnam. "One is run and let the dominoes start falling over. And God almighty, what they said about us leaving China would just be warming up compared to what they'd say now. . . . You can run, or you can fight, as we are doing, or you can sit down and agree to neutralize all of it. But nobody is going to neutralize North Vietnam, so that's totally impractical. And so it really boils down to one of two decisions -- getting out or getting in. . . . But we can't abandon it to them, as I see it."

    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.
I found Caro's previous volume in the Johnson biography, Master of the Senate simply -- well I'll say it -- masterful. Reading it was a great preparation for watching Republicans stymie the Obama administration. The current volume didn't grip me in the same way, but it did leave me wishing avidly to read the next and final installment. Let us hope that Caro can finish the Lyndon Johnson story; he worked ten years between volumes three and four. He claims there will only be two or three years to wait before the final installment is published.


Darlene said...

Cato is not a young man. Lets hope he lives long enough to complete his last volume.

Ronni Bennett said...

This is next on my reading list - after the 12 other books stacked up. Caro's extended biography is been a thread throughout my adult life and I'm eagerly looking forward to this new one.

Last evening, I watched Charlie Rose's interview with Caro. Because it's television which doesn't lend itself to subtlety, the conversation mostly skimmed through the book's most dramatic moments that have already been excerpted in magazines and newspapers.

So what most fascinated me was Caro's New York accent of the kind you don't hear much anymore in that city. Not quite "boids" and "cawfee" but damned close and it was amusing to hear as he discussed high-level, serious political matters.

I'm surprised that I was surprised. I guess I've never heard Caro speak before and I expected such an accomplished historian and compelling writer to sound less like a street punk.