Lyndon Johnson: Greater than a book's criticism

A new volume in a generally critical series of books looks at Johnson's start as president. Eventually, Johnson will be judged in the upper ranks of presidents.
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President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn into office shortly after the assasination of John F. Kennedy.

A new volume in a generally critical series of books looks at Johnson's start as president. Eventually, Johnson will be judged in the upper ranks of presidents.

The fourth volume of author Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson was released this month to anticipated critical acclaim. The current volume, The Passage of Power, covers LBJ's career from 1958-64, leaving off before the Vietnam War began to swallow his presidency, which had begun with historic domestic-policy achievements.

There are no stunning new disclosures in the most recent Caro volume. Most of the ground has been covered before by others, including historian Robert Dallek, whose two-volume Johnson biography is an authoritative source for later scholars. But Caro's work stands out, in particular, because of the numerous personal interviews he undertook over many years with figures of the period.

The first volume of Caro's Johnson series, The Path to Power, was published in 1982 to favorable reviews and to general horror by the Johnson family and friends. It traced LBJ's early rise in Texas and made him appear a man who would resort to just about any means to attain and hold political power.

Soon after that first book's publication, what amounted to a Johnson rally was held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., organized principally by former LBJ staffer Jack Valenti, then head of the Motion Picture Association of America. Alumni of the Johnson White House and Administration gathered for dinner and a program afterward, which featured Lady Bird Johnson. Mrs. Johnson, asked about the Caro book, said, "I understand that it will be the first of a series.  The books will be heavy and, piled together, they should make a good doorstop."

By 1999, when a similar reunion was held at the LBJ Ranch in Texas, hosted by Mrs. Johnson, a second volume had been published, not quite so critical of LBJ as the first, although by no means adulatory. By then antagonism toward Caro had waned and, over two days, no one mentioned him or his project.

A third volume was published in 2002, dealing with Johnson's tenure as a highly skilled Senate Majority Leader. By that time Caro already was researching the next one.

I had a long luncheon with Caro in New York, nearly six years ago, focused mainly on the period 1965-8. (That period will be covered in his upcoming fifth volume.) Caro took copious notes. He expressed surprise that, although Johnson often had bullied and mistreated my boss at the time, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, I nonetheless took a balanced view of LBJ. I did not like Johnson's treatment of Humphrey or his escalation of the Vietnam War, I told him, but nonetheless respected his domestic achievements and his attempts to escape the Vietnam trap on honorable terms.

I also was sympathetic to LBJ as an insecure man doing his very best to get big things done. Caro was pleased at the time because Harry Middleton, a former LBJ White House aide, had just retired as director of the Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, and his successor had granted Caro, for the first time, access to the archives there.

Caro himself no doubt will be the subject of later studies for his immersion over some 35 years in the life of a man, LBJ, whom he mainly disliked. I asked him why he had taken on the LBJ project. He said that, while writing a 1974 biography of New York public-works czar Robert Moses, he had become fascinated with men who understood and effectively exercised power. That led him to Johnson.

Caro was and is an archetype New York Upper West Side liberal, far in cultural orientation from Johnson's rural Texas Hill Country populism. His books reflect that gap.

Finishing the current book, I wondered: What would Johnson think of it? I could imagine him saying, first of all:  "Hell, this book is as much about the Kennedys as it is about me!"

That would really have nettled Johnson, who resented what he saw as the Kennedys' patronizing treatment of him while he served as President John Kennedy's vice president and who shared with Robert Kennedy a mutual dislike verging on hatred. The Johnson-Kennedy tensions were well known at the time but they were only a part of the Johnson story in the years covered.

Readers of The Passage of Power, however, could easily conclude that they overshadowed everything else.,  There was a lot of drama and intrigue in the relationship, though, and those who may be reading about it for the first time will be engrossed.

Caro recounts how Robert Kennedy tried to get his brother to withdraw his offer of the 1960 vice-presidential nomination to Johnson.  (As it turned out, Johnson's presence on the ticket carried Texas, and the election, for JFK).  During the three years of Kennedy's presidency, Johnson often was ridiculed and frozen out by the president and his staff.  Yet, after the JFK assassination, Johnson went out of his way to reach out to Kennedy's family and inner circle and to give him more than his due publicly as he moved forward liberal programs which had languished under JFK.  

For those of us once removed from the Kennedy-Johnson line of fire, the whole rivalry seemed a shame. It was mainly personal and related to style more than substance. The Kennedy Cabinet members, with the exception of Robert Kennedy, rallied to Johnson on his assumption of the presidency. Council of Economic Advisors Chair Walter Heller would become an invaluable counselor to both presidents.

It could be argued that LBJ's eventual downfall was caused, ironically, by Kennedy holdovers on his national-security team: Secretary of State Rusk, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and National Security Advisors McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow. They were the architects of his Vietnam escalations.

Most of the Kennedy and Johnson inner circle are now deceased. But, back in the 1960s and 1970s, I knew most of them on a working basis and developed long friendships with several. They were, for the most part, an admirable collection of dedicated, hard-working people.

Even the most avid loyalists in both camps came over time to recognize that they were part of the same family and shared a common outlook toward politics and policy. The statements and attitudes attributed to some of them in Caro's book reflected their outlooks during the 1958-64 period covered but not necessarily in later years. The leading Kennedy-associated figures all attended Johnson's January, 1973 funeral service in Washington, D.C.

Caro has maintained his intense focus on the project over several decades and forged on against obstacles, including Johnson associates' initial reluctance to cooperate with him and, then, his own serious health setback a couple years back.

The closing lines of Caro's new book suggest that his next volume will be rough on Johnson. LBJ deserves his share of blame for continuing and deepening a mistaken Vietnam War. But he also deserves recognition for politically courageous and historic civil-rights and social-welfare achievements which changed America for the better. He died in Texas, isolated and depressed, before his time. History's ultimate consensus no doubt will be that he reached high, sometimes succeeded, at other times failed, but that his transforming successes should qualify him for rank among the top tier of American presidents.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of