Saturday, 21 July 2012

Robert A. Caro, "The Passage of Power", Part One

the fourth in Caro's masterly series on the years of Lyndon Johnson, a character I thought did not much interest me until I started reading these books a few years ago.  This one is perhaps the most readable of the four (he tells us there is another in preparation) and covers a very short period, that of the transition from Kennedy to Johnson and the early part of Johnson's Presidency.  It is informed by LBJ's hatred of Robert Kennedy, something which was known about in political circles at the time but is explored psychologically most interestingly here.  And made me wonder how it would have developed later, if RFK had lived.  "To watch Lyndon Johnson during the transition is to see political genius in action" - and so it was.  I was too young at the time to understand, but fairly un-political people in the UK were agog with interest in American politics, as they have almost never been since - I remember the adult conversations around me.  Johnson's background - his father going broke, and his family having to walk past shops that would no longer give them credit - made him terrified of failure.  So he said he wouldn't run for the 1960 presidential nomination - because if he didn't run, he couldn't fail.  And then he changed his mind.  Politics was no stranger to fraud,then as now - in Johnson's 1948 Texas Senate race, very late, after polls had closed, 200 new votes were found for Johnson.  All had written their names in the same ink and the same handwriting, and had voted in alphabetical order.  The selection by JFK of LBJ as running mate caused a storm among northern liberals, but one journalist, Doris Fleeson, had it right when she wrote that the choice was "a decision to win the election".  There is a parallel with the UK and recent times too obvious to go into here.

During JFK's brief Presidency LBJ kept silent, mostly, as vice-presidents must.  He was also routinely humiliated and sneered at.  LBJ, the briefer and leaker, did none of this during the Kennedy years.  He never criticised the President, and would not allow anyone else to do so in his hearing.  The Kennedys and their acolytes laughed at LBJ's clothes, his accent and his manners, and LBJ knew they were doing it.  We learn that it was LBJ who told the media that the Cuban missile crisis had erupted.  Johnson's remark on what to do about it was, "All I know is that when I was a boy in Texas, and you were walking along the road when a rattlesnake reared up ready to strike, the only thing to do was take a stick and chop its head off."  We  know of course that that is not what happened in 1962.

A great speech LBJ made, and which has been forgotten until now, is worth quoting from: "One hundred years ago, the slave was freed ... one hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.  The Negro today asks justice.  We do not answer him - we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil - when we reply to the Negro by asking, 'Patience' ... to ask for patience from the Negro is to ask him to give more of what he has already given enough ...the Negro says, 'Now'.  Others say 'Never'.  The voice of responsible Americans - the voices of those who died here and the great man (Lincoln) who spoke here - their voice says, 'Together'.  There is no other way."

A big story which might have destroyed LBJ, to do with a man named Bobby Baker, an associate who later went to prison, and a possible source of LBJ's wealth, was brewing in November 1963.  In those days of much slower-boiling news stories it was building up as November went on.  The headlines on 22 November 1963 were full of LBJ's waning star, and that he was being snubbed by the President's people.

For chapters on end Jackie seems to be wearing the bloodstained pink suit - but a lot was going on, including LBJ being sworn in on board Air Force One.  Jackie was drinking a Scotch at the time, we are told.  The first one she had ever drunk.  And she did not like it.  Lady Bird Johnson had a wonderful, dignified, Southern turn of phrase when asked when the Johnsons would be moving into the executive mansion in the White house, "I would to God I could serve Mrs Kennedy's comfort.  I can at least serve her convenience."

More soon.

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