Tuesday, July 17, 2012
"He looked up the history of the office. Seven VPs had become president through the death of the man in office – five among the last 18 presidents. The odds were better than four to one. He took the offer. ‘I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’,’ he said to his companion on the way to the new president’s inaugural ball."
by Roger Dobson
The Years of Lyndon Johnson., Volume 4: The Passage of Power by Robert Caro
An alternative title to this tome might have been: ‘Succeeding Kennedy’. It’s difficult to imagine a harder act to follow given the national trauma of JFK’s televised assassination before the eyes of his whole devastated country.
Remember the Kennedy charisma, his good looks, his debonair glamour. Then look at the cover photograph of Lyndon Johnson. In any competition for grim, unmerciful mouths, he would take some beating. Also for uncomfortable eyes – black, shrewd, crafty.
LBJ was a big man – almost 6 ft 4in, with a big nose, ears, chin and hands to match. He was Texas personified. But a warm, welcoming personality he was not. Every signal said: ‘Do not cross this man.’ For 12 years, he dominated the U.S. Senate as its Democratic Majority Leader. He was a champion at fixing a vote. He would target his man, get up close to him, clasp his hand in those enormous mitts, put an arm round his shoulder and coax, wheedle and flatter in a soft voice making the receiver bask in his esteem. If there was no response, the bonhomie snapped off with a strong hint that ruin would follow.
But this power-broker had a surprising weakness. He was scared of humiliation. He had known it as a boy when his father, who ran a ranch of sorts and – ruined by drought – lost it, went bankrupt and rapidly slid down to the bottom of the heap, taking his family with him, in a tiny hick town called grandly Johnson City.
In his teens, Lyndon learnt what it was like to build roads, clear cedar, or pick cotton; to live in a home threatened by eviction, only surviving on handouts of money and food from relatives and neighbours.
Yet, though he had only a scratch education, he was convinced that some day he would be president because he was meant to be.
His father, before his crash, had been a Representative in Austin, the state capital. Lyndon made it as Representative of Texas to Washington, and later as king of the Senate. In 1960 he lost the Democratic nomination to Kennedy but Kennedy, needing Southern Democrat support, reluctantly asked him to run as his vice-president.
Vice-presidents, or ‘Veeps’, are the also-rans in Washington politics, their duties mainly ceremonial. Should Johnson give up his immense power in the Senate to become Number Two to a man he saw as a rich playboy and dismissed as ‘sickly, pallid, not a man’s man’?
He looked up the history of the office. Seven VPs had become president through the death of the man in office – five among the last 18 presidents. The odds were better than four to one. He took the offer. ‘I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’,’ he said to his companion on the way to the new president’s inaugural ball.
He was gambling on the one heartbeat separating him from the top. The gamble came off on November 22, 1963.
The bulk of this 600-page book is about the next seven weeks; most of it about the next three or four days. It is about the collision of a bankrupt’s son from Nowhere with the Kennedys’ court of Camelot which had jeered at him, calling him ‘Cornpone’ or ‘Riverboat’.
Caro seems to know exactly what every participant saw, said or felt at almost every moment. Where this really pays off is in Dallas and its immediate aftermath; what it was like from Johnson’s viewpoint in a car well behind in the motorcade.
He was thrust violently down on the floor by his Secret Service guard, rushed to the hospital, kept waiting in a tiny room for the words ‘He’s gone’, then swept off to Air Force One and sworn in immediately on the plane before take-off with a bloodstained Jackie beside him and the bronze coffin in the rear.
It is almost like being there. We are told where every person sat or moved, argued or sobbed in the chaos. One person who remained entirely calm, decisive and self-controlled was Johnson. He assumed the office he had lived for without a hiccup or a tremor.
The other figure present who longed to take charge was younger brother Bobby Kennedy who saw himself as the natural heir. They hated each other from the first. The names they called each other make juicy reading.
Bobby had tried his hardest to stop Johnson becoming vice-president. When he did, both brothers sidelined him into obscurity.
Bobby was Jack’s confidant while Johnson, in all of 1963, spent only two hours alone with the president. He was ignored in Cabinet, excluded from the vital meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis, sent off on pointless foreign trips and reduced to a cypher.
He had brought in the Southern vote for Kennedy, but now experienced the humiliation he feared. Then suddenly, the situation was reversed.
Craftily, Johnson put up with Bobby’s reluctance to let him move into the White House until three days of national mourning were over. He even humbled himself to the Kennedy advisers - whom he contemptuously called ‘the Harvards’ - to persuade them to stay on to serve him. He talked a reluctant Chief Justice Earl Warren into chairing the Commission to kill the hysteria about Oswald being under orders of the Russians.
Continuity was important at a time of national crisis. But after seven weeks of it, he gave his State Of The Union address and stood out plainly as himself. He declared war on the poverty in which a third of Americans lived, with a hatred of it that was personal.
Kennedy’s civil rights and welfare bills had been log-jammed in Congress where Southerners and ultra-Conservatives always sank any reform of racial discrimination. Johnson got them through and also separately gave blacks the vote.
‘We’ve been talking about it for 100 years,’ he told Congress. ‘It’s time to write it into the books of law.’
I began this over-long book not liking Johnson (mainly because of Vietnam). I ended it still not liking him, but respecting him a good deal more. Caro writes well, fairly, and readably (he was a reporter).
So for all its sometimes wearisome length he could argue that far more has been written about Kennedy who achieved far less than Johnson in reforming a grossly unfair society.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-2172691/The-Texan-gambler-bet-life-JFK--won-THE-YEARS-OF-LYNDON-JOHNSON-VOLUME-4-THE-PASSAGE-OF-POWER-BY-ROBERT-A-CARO.html#ixzz20tREUXJY