Readers of the latest volume in Robert Caro’s monumental LBJ biography, The Passage of Power, can look forward to 400 pages of gripping, closely-documented historical narrative. This is great, and would be even better if the book weren’t 800 pages long. Caro has either lost a battle with his word processing software or succumbed to an OCD-like need to state, restate, and re-restate conclusions and summations that the those readers not suffering from early-stage dementia could have supplied for themselves.
Assuming that you can fast-forward past the filler, you will be confronted with a truly enigmatic and troubling portrait. You will see Johnson’s genuinely heroic fight for the Civil Rights Act, his surprising refusal to compromise on critical points such as the right to accommodations, his wheedling, bullying, and out-manoeuvring of Southern legislators who had stonewalled every civil rights bill for a quarter century. He succeeded in getting the government to enact something unequivocally good, where the much-admired JFK had failed, perhaps distracted by his harem of pill-pushing doctors, his staff of Mafia-moll mistresses, and the weekly plot to assassinate Castro. It is stirring to watch racist Congressional titans like Harry Byrd and Dick Russell get a little of what was coming to them, and there are few actions that any President has taken for which the country owes a greater debt.
At the same time, there is yet further evidence that LBJ was not merely a jerk who treated his wife and his wife and his subordinates like shit, but a career criminal who should have been living in the big house instead of the White House.
Here’s an example: LBJ owned a TV station in Austin (he had used his pull to make sure it was, for many years, the only TV station in Austin). When he sent some business the way of an insurance agent in Maryland, he demanded kickbacks in various forms, including a large campaign donation in cash, a fancy stereo (check made out by insurance agent, delivery address LBJ’s house), and the requirement to buy a bunch of ad time on the TV station (though of course a Maryland insurance agent had no use for ads on a Texas TV station). Now in December 1963, it seems that a Dallas investigative reporter is asking some questions about the TV station, so Johnson gets on the horn to her editor and threatens to open a federal investigation of the newspaper, its owners, and the TV station owned by the same owners, if the reporter isn’t shut up immediately. Plus, the editor has to conceal the fact that LBJ is behind the shutting up. Keep in mind, this isn’t Caro voicing suspicion, LBJ recorded the phone conversation.
Or how about this: the day after that chat, LBJ decided that he was fed up with negative coverage in the Houston Chronicle. He called the publisher and said he wanted written assurance that the paper would support him not only at the moment but for as long as he was President. In this case he needed a personal meeting to spell out to the publisher that unless a promise of undying fealty was forthcoming, a proposed merger between two big Texas banks, one of which happened to be owned by said publisher, would be dead in the water. Publisher produced letter, Johnson told the Justice Department he wanted the merger approved, and everybody was happy—except, I suppose, anyone who hoped that our government would actually enforce its anti-trust laws. From then on, the Chronicle was effusive in its praise of the new President, and a Johnson aide had only to dictate a paragraph of text to have it appear in the paper.
I once heard Molly Ivins tell a Minnesota audience that we just don’t understand how lucky we are to live in a state where corruption is the exception rather than the rule (Molly had covered both the Texas and the Minnesota state legislatures). She said that practices that in Minnesota would have provoked outrage were in Texas considered just “bidness,” so I guess that Johnson may have thought of himself merely as a savvy operator and not, as he seems to me, a kleptocrat engaged in an assault on sacred democratic institutions
Sometimes, in reading Caro, one longs for a bit of perspective. For example, even before the Civil Rights Act, Johnson expended heroic efforts to push through another piece of Kennedy legislation, a tax cut of $10 billion or so, which must have seemed like a lot of money at the time. Caro explains that this was essential because cutting corporate taxes would stimulate the economy so much that tax revenues would ultimately increase, and that this in fact led to greater prosperity under Johnson. Caro seems unaware that this supply-side rationale, which I believe George Bush Sr. referred to as “voodoo economics, is considered plausible only on one fringe of the political spectrum.
Another case is the Cuban missile crisis. Caro’s main focus, understandably, is on Johnson’s exclusion from JFK’s inner circle; given Johnson’s analysis that Khhrushchev was a mad dog and you can’t let a mad dog taste blood, that exclusion seems eminently reasonable. And indeed, Kennedy comes off as a voice of reason and restraint, compared to his national security team. Apparently a high point in the tensions came when the Cubans shot down a U2 spy plane, which was presumably taking pictures of the missile installations. The hawks wanted immediate and devastating retaliation for this outrage, while the President advised waiting a day or two. What I wish Caro or somebody would explain, though, is why anybody thought there was anything wrong with Cuba shooting down a spy plane over their country…isn’t that what we would do to a Soviet spy plane photographing our military installations? Isn’t that the whole reason we use spy planed and satellites instead of just sending over a team of photographers from LIFE? The fact that nobody brings this up gives one almost the feeling of being gaslighted—is everyone else here crazy, or am I?