It is Lyndon Baines Johnson’s fate that as much as he was venerated during his career for his raw skills, he is remembered today largely as a colossal blunderer, by the right as a prototype of excess who spent taxpayers’ money profligately, and by the left as an adventurer who made a catastrophe out of a molehill called Vietnam. His own party, while framing the signature achievements in his domestic record–Medicare, the Voting Rights Act–as a secular temple that Republicans must be kept from dismantling, simultaneously avoids awarding Johnson much of the credit. His image is as grainy as the black and white television reels of his era, as harsh and remote as the perpetual grimace on his face in the footage from those reels.
Robert Caro’s latest entry in his opus on LBJ, “Passage to Power”, will do something to revive the 36th president’s reputation. It spans from Johnson’s inept, misconceived effort to win the presidency in 1960—a race which he never embraced and never seemed to think he should, much less would, win—to the stretch in the wilderness as John Kennedy’s vice president; to Johnson’s frenetic succession to power after November 22, 1963. Unexpectedly, the narrative stops in the spring of 1964, short of the demolition of Barry Goldwater, and well short of the 1965 legislative season that was Johnson’s epic moment. Caro’s readers will recognize that he has rarely felt bound by the precision of a conventional biographical framework and has stopped and started these volumes based on his own sense of rhythm and his perspective on which details best illuminate his much misunderstood subject.
So, the last and next edition is the one that will take on the well worn tale of Johnson going up and down Mt. Olympus between the 64 election and the fall from grace in 1968. This narrative dwells on the less familiar struggles of a politician who was unsuited to the changes that television and the atrophy of the establishment were effecting during the 1960 election; and to the almost as forgotten description of a president seeking to convert an unprecedented public moment, the assassination of a leader with an unfulfilled and active agenda, into a legislative program on Capitol Hill, in a political climate that was decidedly more right-leaning and resistant to change than is currently appreciated.
A book about a liberal president mastering power is bound to be mined for clues about the present. Because he never shies away from giving chapter and verse on Johnson’s major league corruption, including stealing votes in Texas and exploiting his Senate career to gild his pockets, Caro always seems an antidote to the tendency to build a cult of personality around successful leaders. You can plausibly read all 3388 pages of his series as one collective scream at his audience that it took a flawed, sometimes criminal, many times pathological, piece of work to deliver an iconic agenda, and that all of Johnson’s venalities even conferred an edge that he used to do massive good. (It is almost conventional wisdom at this point that a lifetime of social humiliation helped fuel his sympathy for underdogs).
It is no stretch, then, to conclude that Caro means us to consider the implications of this reality: the transition to image dominated politics would have kept Johnson from ever gaining the presidency except through succession. Indeed, no candidate with an insider, congressional pedigree has made it to the presidency since Johnson and the few who have tried have found that their DC ties were their most severe impediment: is it just a coincidence that every one of his successors has been stymied by hostility from the legislative branch and that the inventory of landmark legislation since that time does not match six months worth of Johnson’s greatest hits?
If Johnson’s Washington resume would seem toxic today, so would the schizophrenic nature of his pre-presidential politics, as a progressive who turned conservative and then turned back again. He won his second Senate race by managing to slide to the right of a Texas right-winger, and denounced civil rights laws as an intrusion on state authority; he financed his campaigns by slavishly courting business interests and farming out the Senate calendar to the oil and gas industry whenever they needed a tax break. It is the opposite of the “authenticity” profile modern consultants emphasize, and perhaps, a reminder of the limits in such a profile.
The other lesson in this story revolves around the assembly of congressional majorities on the Civil Rights Act and the much less well known tax cuts package of early 1964. The assiduous cultivating of his ideological opposition is a kind of mastery and subtlety that eluded Barack Obama as he tried to cash in the momentum from his 2008 victory; and it almost seems fanciful given the polarization of 2011 and 2012. The rebuttal, to be sure, is that Johnson never faced anything resembling the wall of unified Republican opposition that Obama has encountered.
But it is also true that Obama’s public gifts as a orator and the fact that he rose to power in a Democratic leaning state and on the tailwind of a severe national backlash against Republicans meant that he never had to hone much of an insider game, much less the skill of converting or neutralizing conservatives. Nor, as David Frum points out in Newsweek, has Obama taken much of a shine to LBJ’s strategic unwillingness to demonize congressional Republicans while the legislative end-game was playing out. There is a self-conscious moralizing to this administration that Johnson knew how to wield during the throes of a campaign, but kept sheathed until the votes were secured on the Hill.
And when Johnson did take to the bully pulpit, for example, the masterpiece of an address to a joint session of the House and Senate after Selma, there was almost no trace of partisanship or implication that social progress was a one party cause. In addition, Johnson’s defense of civil rights laws as a strategy for individual empowerment and self-reliance sounds weirdly, well, conservative, and off-key to a contemporary liberal tradition that rhetorically emphasizes group rights.
Both the political tactics and the arguments sound antiquated today. But the fact is that Johnson managed to undo a congressional logjam of northern Republicans and conservative southern Democrats that had held its ground for a political generation. As George Will observes, it is a seminal example of one force of personality undermining structural, inertial forces that seemed unstoppable and that had thwarted his charismatic predecessor.
In fact, that is the perplexing irony of LBJ’s record: as much as Vietnam remains indefensible as a semi-colonialist approach to foreign policy; as much as his war-making was distorted by lies and deceptions about cost; as much as the Great Society drowned in domestic commitments without accountability; as much as his style eroded confidence in the public trust, there is the insurmountable truth that Lyndon Johnson is the last Democratic president who was adept enough to significantly alter his political environment. Liberals shouldn’t be so quick to minimize how he did it.