``Power is where power goes.’’
Prescient words spoken by Lyndon Johnson from L.A.’s Biltmore Hotel in 1960, when he first learned Jack Kennedy was considering him as his running mate.
Some within LBJ’s inner-circle feared if he hitched his wagon to the Camelot candidate and they captured the White House-Johnson would be stripped of the power he had grown so accustomed to in the Senate and left with little influence in shaping public policy.
``Power is, where power goes’’ LBJ told Sam Rayburn, the gruff and abrasive fellow Texan, on the other end of the phone, who was urging his protégé not to, under any circumstances, accept a VP spot if it was offered, like the Speaker of the House feared.
What really transpired between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson at the Democratic Convention in 1960 at the Biltmore Hotel, when John Kennedy’s younger brother and campaign manager made three trips (at least three trips) up and down the back stairs between Room 9333(Kennedy’s suite, on the 9th floor) and Room 7333 (Johnson’s suite, on the 7th floor) probably will never be fully known.
A number of convincing scenarios presented by Caro based on accounts of people who were there at the time, however, suggest RFK, who despised LBJ, (dating back to the first time their eyes locked like two wild animals in the Senate cafeteria in 1953), desperately tried to get Johnson to withdraw from the ticket even after John Kennedy personally offered it to him and convinced the Senate leader he wanted and needed him as his running mate. At one point, Bobby Kennedy, in a frantic state with his light brown hair ruffled as it drooped down over his forehead in yet another attempt to get Johnson to withdraw, went eyeball-to-eyeball with the steely-eyed Sam Rayburn. ``Are you authorized to speak for Jack Kennedy’’? Bobby, clearly caught off guard, grudgingly said, ``no.’’ ``Then come back when you are!’’ Rayburn growled.
The explosive Biltmore Hotel clash was a case study in the stark contrast between Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Bobby, at least in 1960, was rough around the edges, governed largely by his intense passions and his volcanic grudges. Jack, on the other hand, was more cerebral and refined with an amazing ability to put animosity aside when it came to getting what he wanted. What he wanted was the White House and he knew he absolutely had to have Texas and by extension LBJ to win the White House. JFK’s instincts, again, were right on the money; JFK/LBJ took Texas and probably wouldn’t have won the election without the Lone Star State. As Caro points out, in 1956, Eisenhower had taken 5 of the 11 confederate states in 1956, one of those was Texas.
This sets the stage for high drama and a mighty compelling narrative of Robert Caro’s brilliant fourth volume on LBJ: ``Passage of Power.’’ The years covered in this volume covers 1958 through 1964 or the 47 days after President Kennedy’s assassination.
A fifth and final volume is in the works and will cover LBJ’s landside victory over Barry Goldwater, the unveiling of his ``Great Society’’ programs, and the catastrophic Vietnam years, culminating in losing the confidence of the American people and his stunning decision not to seek a second term.
Interestingly, when Caro, a former Newsday investigative reporter, began researching ``Passage of Power’’ 10 years ago, he thought this would be his final volume. It gradually became apparent that the Kennedy assassination and the first seven weeks of Johnson’s presidency needed more attention, much more attention, than the Pulitzer-Prize winning historian had anticipated.
I’m embarrassed to admit I just got around to Caro’s monumental work-even though it was released well over a year ago. If there are any keen observers of the U.S. presidency, especially involving the administrations of JFK and LBJ, who haven’t yet dipped into ``Passage of Power’’, I would recommend you push it to the very top of your Christmas list. It might very well be one of the best presents you’ve given yourself in quite some time.
Unlike others who have written about U.S. presidents, Caro had little interest in writing a biography of Lyndon Johnson, the man and what makes him tick. Caro has devoted 35 years of his life researching LBJ, dating back to 1977.
Rather, he was more interested in writing about political power; specifically an examination of political power in a time of crisis. Long after many of us are dead and buried, there will be scores of college students, some future politicians, journalists, and historians, assigned to read Caro’s brilliant series and come away with a sharper understanding of how power truly worked in the nation’s capital in the 20th century.
Given this country’s strong sense of Manifest Destiny and living the American Dream, it’s truly a compelling narrative when you take a closer look at the circumstances under which LBJ suddenly (and tragically) propelled to power on a warm, sunny Dallas day without a cloud in the sky before the 35th president was fatally struck down by three bullets on November 22, 1963.
Lyndon Johnson, as Caro so dramatically describes, was a tragic figure really, who always lived in fear of failure and being humiliated, much like his father, who went bankrupt, losing their Texas ranch and sending his family to the depths of despair and poverty with Lyndon and his brother and younger sister forced to wear patches, mere rags substituting for clothing. As Senate Majority Leader for six years, LBJ was arguably the second most powerful man in the country, second only to Dwight Eisenhower. A piece of legislation didn’t make it to the floor until Johnson said it would make it to the floor; and when he wanted a bill passed, something he felt strongly about, the bill usually passed as he whipped everyone into line like a herd of cattle on his Texas ranch.
Now a member of the Kennedy Administration and despite being promised a prominent role, Johnson soon realized just how powerless he had become. For three years, JFK rarely shared sensitive overseas cables with him, he needed permission (usually from Bobby Kennedy) for travel trips, speeches, and the most mundane and trivial tasks. At times, he wasn’t invited to White House parties, other times when he vented his complaint to Kennedy in a White House memo about his lack of responsibility, the president simply ignored it. And around the White House within JFK’s Ivy League inner-circle, Johnson was snickered at and made fun of. He was referred to as ``Rufus Cornpone’’ and when with Lady Bird Johnson, ``Uncle Cornpone and his little pork chop.’’ Face to face, he was rarely spoken to as Mr. Vice President, simply Lyndon. Despite the humiliation, Caro points out, there was a reason Johnson was kept on such a short leash. President Kennedy once confessed to a White House aide that LBJ’s hawkishness, which was in full bloom during the Cuban Missile Crisis meetings, scared the living daylights out of him.
For three long years, LBJ was largely put out to pasture as a VP. He looked gaunt, haggard, his eyes sunken, as if his best days were behind him. And it only got worse. As November, 1963 approached, there was a buzz filling the air that Kennedy wanted to drop LBJ from the 1964 ticket. The thinking was the vice president had become so marginalized, and his Texas star had dropped so precipitously that he was doing Kennedy little good. Besides, the Kennedy team had practically written off the South (as southern Democrats had grown more militant over civil rights) and were setting their sights westward, and thought about tapping Pat Brown, governor of California. Even if Texas was still in play, the consensus was John Connally, a wildly popular Texas governor, would be a better fit than LBJ.
So this was the backdrop, leading up to that star-crossed Dallas trip in November. Johnson, all too aware of the ``Dump LBJ’’ mantra, certainly must have felt the walls caving in around him as he stepped foot on Texas soil. No longer leader of the Senate, a weak link in the Kennedy administration; just weeks from fading into the sunset, out of sight and out of mind; before three loud bangs in rapid succession were heard in Dealey Plaza, the historic West end district of downtown Dallas, catapulted him in a blink of an eye to the most powerful political office in the world.
Caro is at his masterful best describing the transfer of power in perhaps the four most memorable days in U.S. history, from the time of Kennedy being pronounced dead up through the funeral-a full military procession, including the Marine Band as the slow moving cortege reached the front of the White House.
It’s fascinating to learn the immediate makeover of Lyndon Johnson. From the moment he left Parkland Hospital on his way to being sworn in on Air Force One as the 36th president of the United States-his posture had completely been transformed: no longer with the haggard look, his posture was more erect, the swaying in his gait suspended; he now walked in a slower more measured step.
As tragic as November 22nd, 1963 was, LBJ knew exactly what was expected of him and what to do the moment he learned the president was dead.
The eyes of the world were on him, especially from the Soviet Union; they wanted to know if there would be a smooth transfer of power and a sense of continuity.
For 47 days after Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ made sure continuity and stability were the order of the day. His tyrannical outbursts, verbal badgering of staffers, humiliating subordinates, would come later in his presidency. For these crucial seven weeks, LBJ assured the American people, the JFK dream would endure and he was merely carrying the torch. ``Let us carry forward the plans and programs of John Fitzgerald Kennedy—not because of our sorrow or sympathy, but because they are right’’ Johnson intoned during a thunderous State of the Union Speech on January 8, 1964. ``In his memory today’’, Johnson went on to say, ``I especially ask all members of my own political faith, in this election year, to put your country ahead of your party, and to always debate principles; never debate personalities.’’
To put their country above personality was essentially the same line LBJ with his folksy southern charm used to Kennedy’s inner-circle in order to make sure the Dean Rusk’s, the Ted Sorenson's, the Robert McNamara's, the Pierre Salinger's, even making sure Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Kennedy’s ``court historian'' didn’t abruptly submit their resignations so that ``continuity and stability’’ would be sustained.
Keeping the Kennedy staff together while working around the clock in back deals and wheeling and dealing with southern Senate Democrats to get Kennedy’s tax cut bill passed; and another key piece of civil rights legislation passed, set the table for LBJ’s landside victory.
LBJ was back in the saddle again; he was now setting the agenda, twisting and pulling Congressional members toward quick passage of his domestic agenda, particularly his ``War on Poverty’’, enunciated in his powerful State of the Union address.
When Johnson accepted Jack Kennedy’s offer to be his vice president at the Biltmore Hotel, many thought it was intended to dethrone the powerful Texan of his Senate Majority seat, where he otherwise would have been a major roadblock to many of Kennedy’s programs; and to keep him on a short leash as vice president, far away from the sinews of power.
At the time, John Kennedy, or the world for that matter, surely weren’t aware of an LBJ truism: ``Power is where power goes.’’
December 4, 2013