The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Volume IV: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro - review

Lyndon Johnson's dream of the Great Society.

Lyndon Johnson with his new Cabinet in 1967. Photo: Getty Images

The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Volume IV: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro, Bodley Head, 736pp, £35

What ultimately matters in politics is what you leave behind. Lyndon Johnson left behind the second most substantial legacy of any US president of the 20th century, after Franklin Roosevelt: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, Model Cities. More than four decades on, LBJ’s “Great Society” continues to bind the United States as surely as the NHS and the BBC bind the United Kingdom. Yet equally enduring, psychologically as much as physically, is the legacy of Vietnam: 360,000 American dead and wounded, an estimated two million Vietnamese dead and wounded, the monstrous lies and duplicity, the imperial arrogance and overreach. “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”

This fourth volume of Robert A Caro’s brilliant biography of Johnson runs to over 700 pages covering just four years: the 1960 election, LBJ’s vice-presidency and the initial three months of his presidency. There is one central insight: that Johnson’s legacy, good and bad, was determined by bold moves and decisions made within a matter of days of John F Ken­nedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963.

Caro explains how LBJ’s entire life before those gunshots in Dallas prepared him to act so quickly and dramatically, to make a stand on civil rights and to sweep all before him in the way that he did. It reinforces my observation that most political leaders determine their legacy within days of acquiring office and their successes and failures turn largely on their formation and accomplishments before, not after, their ascent to power.

“To watch Lyndon Johnson during the transition is to see political genius in action,” writes Caro, no uncritical admirer of the man and his methods. No sooner had LBJ returned from Dallas to Washington on Air Force One – sworn in on the plane, photographed with Jacqueline Kennedy by his side in her bloodstained dress – than, amid the solemn obsequies and national mourning, he set to work on an emergency address to Congress. Delivered five days later, this set the course for the whole of the Johnson administration.

On 22 November 1963, every major legislative proposal of the Kennedy administration was stalled in Congress, including its Civil Rights Bill. Racial conflict was boiling over, yet the Senate coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans that had blocked virtually all major social legislation for a quarter of a century since FDR, including during LBJ’s leadership of the Senate in the 1950s, remained implacable. Kennedy’s “softly, softly” strategy was going nowhere and JFK’s only hope was that re-election would provide new momentum.

LBJ was urged by all his advisers, as well as Kennedy’s, to avoid controversy in his emergency address to Congress on 27 November and not to highlight civil rights. He did the opposite. Seizing on the national crisis, he put civil rights at the core of the speech. “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill for which he fought so long,” he told the solemn assembly, rewriting history in those last six words. “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is now time to write the next chapter and to write it in the books of law.”

What followed was a masterclass in political management. Using every ounce of his tactical prowess, his powers of persuasion and his
personal knowledge of individual senators and congressmen, Johnson created an unstoppable momentum for civil rights. The prelude was a tactical victory secured in the Senate the day before even his emergency address to Congress (four days after the assassination and a day after JFK’s funeral). Legislation to ban the sale of US wheat to Russia was about to be passed in the Senate. This seemingly second-order measure, which JFK had sought (but failed) to stop, because of its curtailment of presidential powers in foreign affairs, was turned by Johnson into an immediate trial of strength for precisely this reason. Making it an issue of confidence in him personally, and in the forces of constitutional order during a national crisis, he cajoled, bullied and wheedled senators, telling them he wanted the legislation “murdered”. And it was, by 57 votes to 36. All this is described by Caro in characteristic pointillist detail.

Congress now knew who was in charge. With Martin Luther King working hand in glove with Johnson, the Civil Rights Bill was soon on its way and would be enacted in little over six months. But Johnson did not stop there. His next move was to broaden dramatically his social programme, which he did in his State of the Union address on 8 January 1964.

This is the speech, delivered only 47 days after he took office, which launched LBJ’s “war on poverty” and set in train all the legislative measures of the “Great Society”. Again, there was deliberately Kennedy-esque rhetoric, drafted by Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s speech-writer: “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” LBJ inserted the four key words of urgency and action – “today, here and now” – into Sorensen’s draft. Also, Caro notes, “in sharp contrast to John Kennedy’s State of the Union addresses, only about a quarter of Johnson’s speech was devoted to foreign policy, and it was the last quarter. None of that portion was newsworthy or even particularly significant.”  Which, again, was by design, as was LBJ’s pledge to cut the budget, alongside his “unconditional war on poverty”, appealing adeptly to the right as well as the left.

Behind the words, real substance was soon forthcoming. “The atmosphere surrounding the [anti-poverty] programme bore little resemblance to the atmosphere that had existed before 22 November,” writes Caro. Driven forward like a military campaign, measure by measure, it was summed up by the presidential memo sent to cabinet members with a list of detailed proposals on 6 January 1964 – two days before the speech – with this instruction: “Your preliminary written reactions are required before close of business, Thursday 9 January.” Washington had seen nothing like it since the early days of FDR.

The 1964 State of the Union speech ended what Caro terms the “transition” from Kennedy to Johnson. His administration now secure and strong, with an urgent, compelling programme, LBJ faced no challenge for the Democratic nomination that year and won re-election by a landslide in November.

Caro’s point is that seven weeks previously, on that plane back from Dallas, this outcome was not remotely assured. Locked in bitter rivalry with Robert Kennedy – “one of the great blood feuds of American history” – and distrusted by the left of the Democratic Party as surely as he had come to be regarded as ineffectual by left and right alike, after three years as a marginalised vice-president, Johnson could easily have become a weak, stop-gap president, as Gerald Ford did after Richard Nixon’s resignation 11 years later.

Unlike Ford, however, Johnson had superlative leadership gifts. He also had a reform agenda, honed from a lifetime’s experience. He sensed that he could break the decades-long logjam on social and racial change. He required no think tanks or focus groups to tell him what that change should be. This conviction, together with his vision for the rest of the Great Society programme, grew out of his roots in the poor Texas hill country and his struggle to get on, and to help others get on, which went back to his days as a young teacher of penniless Mexicans. Also significant was his fierce, if concealed, resentment of those he called “the Harvards” who filled Kennedy’s “Camelot”, liberals who knew poverty only from books and seminars.

Caro remarks that if power corrupts – and it certainly corrupted Johnson – “what is equally true is that power always reveals”. It revealed LBJ to be in the mould of the great American reformers. As Walter Lippmann put it, Johnson “knows about the hidden and forgotten American poor” and was “showing himself to be a passionate seeker with an uncanny gift of finding, beneath public issues, common ground on which men could stand”.

Within days of Kennedy’s assassination, the seeds of the Vietnam catastrophe were also sown. JFK’s greatest achievement had been the handling of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when he secured the withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba while circumventing the hawks in his administration, who wanted an immediate invasion of the island, which could easily have escalated into a war with Russia.

Johnson was one of the hawks. He sup­ported invasion and opposed negotiation with Nikita Khrushchev. Trading Russian missiles in Cuba for American missiles in Turkey – even though the latter were obsolete – amounted, he argued, to saying, “I’m going to dismantle the foreign policy of the United States to get those missiles out of Cuba.”

This is crucial background to Vietnam. In response to a memo in Christmas 1963 from Mike Mansfield, his successor as majority leader in the Senate, which called for a political rather than a military strategy, Johnson countered bluntly: “Do you want [Vietnam] to be another China? . . . I don’t want these people around the world worrying about us . . . They’re worried about whether you’ve got a weak president or a strong president.”

What he meant by “a strong president” was made clear a few days later when he backed Robert McNamara’s call for “more forceful moves” against North Vietnam, including covert operations to escalate the war. A national security action memorandum would normally have been signed by the president in such cases. None was ever signed.

So, within days, the compass of the Johnson administration was set. Within weeks, its triumphs and its disasters were equally foretold. And in telling the tale, Caro not only re-creates one of the giants of modern politics, he tells a giant tale about power and about life itself.

Andrew Adonis was a member of the last Labour cabinet. His book “Education, Education, Education” will be published in September by Biteback (£12.99)