Tuesday, 31 July 2012

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

I need to tell you about the rest of this book.  At the time JFK was killed there was an executive logjam, as bills were piled up to prevent a civil rights bill from passing - which LBJ had warned JFK about.  JFK had had the eloquence and promise on this, but LBJ, despite the "taint of magnolias" would now have to be the one to deliver on it.  On the plane, with JFK's body and LBJ on it, LBJ now had to make those decisions.  And when Bobby Kennedy met the plane he ran past LBJ, so as not to have to recognise him as President.

The Kennedy administration had, in October 1963, recommended stepping up the training of the Vietnamese army, so that American military personnel could be withdrawn, and assessed that this could be done by late 1965.  Robert McNamara had said, "We need to get out of Vietnam, and this is a way of doing it".  But then there was a coup in South Vietnam, and the National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) was contradictory in its message: it retained the withdrawal pledge, but its soundbite was that the Vietnam conflict was a war against communism, and a war that had to be won, and that it remained "the central objective of the United States isn South Vietnam, to assist the people and government to win".

LBJ was, you could say, populist, or maybe foolhardy, telling Martin Luther King he would "support them all" - Kennedy's policies, which MLK had described as "great... p;regressive".  LBJ told liberals he was going to reform the system, and conservatives that he was going to preserve it as it was.  A great political line he gave to a state governor whose support he needed: "You came to see me when I was sick.  I don't forget that.  Now you let me know if there's anything I need to know out there.  I'm going to depend on you."  While JFK's body was still in the East Room, on the Saturday after he was killed, Arthur Schlesinger, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, hosted a restaurant lunch, in a Washington restaurant with senior economists among others, to discuss the possibility of denying LBJ the nomination at the 1964 Democratic Convention, by running a ticket of Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.  So that is what LBJ was up against.

LBJ had an interesting and quite compelling use of language.  He referred, on the night of JFK's funeral, to Jackie "holding his skull in her lap" - Caro calls him a great storyteller, and he is right to do so.

In the illustrations to the book, photographs mostly, all the politicians look overweight, unhealthy and tired.  LBJ,although older than many, towards the end of this book, looks relatively fresh.  Only RFK, in those pictures, is good-looking.

When lBJ made his inaugural address it had to be typed in large type  Because LBJ was in his late fifties, and most people that age need glasses to read.  He started, "All I have, I would have given gladly not to be standing here today".  And almost straight in after that, urging that "Civil rights be written in the books of law".  The southern senators sat silent.  Previous Majority  Leader Reston had written, "President Kennedy had a way of seeing all sides of a question.  President Johnson has a way of concentrating on his own side of a question."  Johnson had a gift for political phrasemaking: To Republicans: "I am the only President you have: If you would have me fail, then you fail, for this country fails."

There is more in this book, and it is a stupendous insight into a brilliant politician, and into the exercise of power.

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