His Finest Years


John R MacArthur traces Lyndon Johnson's progress frim bullying liar to world statesman

The Years of Lyndon Johnson:

Volume 4, The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro Bodley Head, £35, pp. 712, ISBN 9781847922175 Just after 8.50 on Tuesday morning, 26 November 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson sat down behind the desk in the Oval Office for the first time as President, four days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. According to Robert Caro, the new chief executive of the United States, now the most powerful person in the world, did not then make a call to his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev;

nor did he confer with aides, or have his secretary place calls to the leaders of Congress, or issue an executive order. Instead, Johnson's initial action was to phone, himself, the offices of the US Senate and order the desk he used as Senate Majority Leader to be delivered to the White House to replace the government-issue model installed the night before.

This was not merely an obsessive, selfabsorbed act by a neurotic and insecure man, although LBJ was deeply neurotic and insecure. Commandeering his old desk signified two things: first, that Johnson would no longer live in the shadow of the hated and envied royal family called Kennedy - that he would not settle for the role of constitutionally dictated placeholder for the fallen king - and second, that he would henceforth run the government in the direct, hands-on manner that he ran the Senate from 1954 to 1960, 'as if it were an obedient orchestra'. According to Caro, legislation that had languished while Kennedy tended to his own image, or because he too easily conceded defeat, would pass because Lyndon Johnson willed it to pass. The onetime 'Master of the Senate' would now master all of Washington and the country, if not the world.

Such details are what make The PasThe Years of Lyndon Johnson, such a great and occasionally astonishing biography. His accumulation of original material - through interviews, and his voracious reading of already published work, oral histories and presidential papers - leaves all competitors in the dust. It's as if Caro has taken his subject's political mantra directly to heart: 'If we do everything, we will win.'

For Caro, if you interview everybody, and read everything, you will write great history.

(There is one notable exception, Johnson's longtime aide, Bill Moyers, who refused Caro an interview).

The comparison goes only so far, however, since LBJ often cheated to win. Stealing elections was a habit of his going back to college, and we owe Caro for the great historical scoop in his second volume, Means of Ascent: that Johnson won his first US Senate race in 1948 through fraud. The evidence gathered by Caro points to another stolen election in 1960, when LBJ was Kennedy's Vice Presidential running mate:

voter theft in Texas evidently contributed to Kennedy's narrow win over Richard Nixon, though Caro is careful not to claim definitive proof. But it's important to know that if LBJ's 24 home-state electoral votes were added to the 27 electoral votes in Illinois likely stolen by the Chicago Democratic machine, Nixon would have won with 270 electoral votes to 252 for Kennedy.

There are other important corrections of the historical record in this volume. For example, Caro demolishes the party line advanced by Kennedy's acolytes that their hero never intended to drop Johnson from the ticket in 1964. More likely, as Caro persuasively argues, LBJ had served Kennedy's purpose by recovering the formerly 'solid South' for the Democrats in 1960 (with votes obtained honestly and courageously), but that with black civil rights emerging as the great issue of the day, the President from liberal Massachusetts needed a liberal southerner like North Carolina's Terry Sanford to keep up with the times.

As useful and important as Caro's journalistic accomplishments are, none of them will distract readers from the more compelling story of Johnson's bitter rivalry with the Kennedy brothers, especially Robert Kennedy, who despised Johnson. …

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