WASHINGTON — Around noon on Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963, almost exactly 24 hours after the assassination in Dallas, while the president’s casket lay in the East Room of the White House, Arthur Schlesinger, John Kennedy’s kept historian, convened a lunch at Washington’s Occidental restaurant with some other administration liberals. Their purpose was to discuss how to deny the 1964 Democratic presidential nomination to the new incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, and instead run a ticket of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Sen. Hubert Humphrey.
This example of the malignant malice of some liberals against the president who became 20th-century liberalism’s most consequential adherent is described in Robert Caro’s “The Passage of Power,” the fourth and, he insists, penultimate volume in his “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” which when completed will rank as America’s most ambitiously conceived, assiduously researched and compulsively readable political biography. The new volume arrives 30 years after the first, and its timing is serendipitous: Are you seeking an antidote to current lamentations about the decline of political civility? Immerse yourself in Caro’s cringe-inducing catalog of humiliations, gross and petty, inflicted on Johnson by many New Frontiersmen, and with obsessive hatred by Robert Kennedy.
Caro demonstrates that when, at the Democrats’ 1960 Los Angeles convention, John Kennedy selected Johnson, an opponent for the nomination, as his running mate, Robert Kennedy worked with furious dishonesty against his brother, trying to convince Johnson to decline. Had Robert succeeded, his brother almost certainly would have lost Texas, and perhaps both Carolinas and Louisiana — President Eisenhower had carried five of the 11 Confederate states in 1956 — and the election.
Johnson, one of the few presidents who spent most of their adult lives in Washington, had no idea how to win the presidency. Convinced that the country was as mesmerized as Washington is by the Senate, Johnson did not formally announce his candidacy until six days before the 1960 convention.
Johnson did, however, know how to use the presidency. Almost half the book covers the 47 days between the assassination and Johnson’s Jan. 8 State of the Union address. In that span he began breaking the congressional logjam against liberal legislation that had existed since 1938 when the nation, recoiling against Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to “pack” the Supreme Court, produced a durable congressional coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats.
Caro is properly enthralled by Johnson putting the power of the presidency behind a discharge petition that, by advancing, compelled a Southern committee chairman to allow what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act to get to the Senate, where Johnson’s meticulous cultivation of another Southern chairman prevented tax cut legislation from becoming hostage to the civil rights filibuster. By taking such arcana seriously, and celebrating Johnson’s virtuosity regarding them, Caro honors the seriousness of his readers, who should reciprocate the compliment.
Caro astringently examines Johnson’s repulsive venality (regarding his Texas broadcasting properties) and bullying (notably of Texas journalists, through their employers) but devotes ample pages to honoring Johnson as the most exemplary political leader since Lincoln regarding race. As vice president, he refused to attend the 400th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, Fla., unless the banquet would be integrated — and not, he insisted, with a “Negro table” off to the side. He said civil rights legislation would “say to the Mexican in California or the Negro in Mississippi or the Oriental on the West Coast or the Johnsons in Johnson City that we are going to treat you all equally and fairly.” Caro never loses sight of the humiliations and insecurities that were never far from Johnson’s mind.
Caro is a conventional liberal of the Great Society sort (“Unless Congress extended federal rent-control laws — the only protection against exorbitant rents for millions of families …”) but is also a valuable anachronism, a historian who rejects the academic penchant for history “with the politics left out.” These historians consider it elitist and anti-democratic to focus on event-making individuals; they deny that a pre-eminent few have disproportionate impact on the destinies of the many; they present political events as “epiphenomena,” reflections of social “structures” and results of impersonal forces. Caro’s event-making Johnson is a very personal force.
Samuel Johnson said of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” that no one ever wished it longer. Not so Caro’s great work, which already fills 3,388 pages. When his fifth volume, treating the Great Society and Vietnam, arrives, readers’ gratitude will be exceeded only by their regret that there will not be a sixth.