The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro
August 2, 2012 by Bob Livingston
Caro’s book — part of his series on Johnson’s life — starts when Johnson becomes Vice President, moves through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and takes a detailed look at how Johnson assumed the reins of power. As you read Caro’s discussion of how Johnson reshaped the Presidency and hammered out his initial legislative agenda, you get a great feel for how high-stakes politics works and what it takes to make things happen in Washington.
When it came to getting what he wanted, Johnson (when he could control his personal foibles) was a master at pushing legislation through both houses of Congress. He knew when to pressure Senators and Representatives and when to back off. He knew how to manipulate their emotions to get them to bow to his wants and how to eke out legislative majorities at crucial moments in political battles.
Johnson said: “A measure must be sent to the Hill at exactly the right moment. Timing is essential. Momentum is not a mysterious mistress. It is a controllable fact of political life.” And Johnson, whose timing was impeccable, knew how to maneuver, wheedle and convince. He didn’t passively wait for legislators to create bills he could go along with; he was involved in every political process at virtually every moment, making sure he got what he wanted.
After Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson used the Nation’s strong feelings about the event to ensure that the bills Kennedy had backed and which Johnson supported would be passed. Caro points out: “Lyndon Johnson had grasped in an instant what needed to be done with Kennedy’s men and Kennedy’s legislation: his insight into the crisis and the rapidity of his response to it a glimpse of political genius almost shocking in its acuity and decisiveness.”
Political Fault Lines
At the same time, Johnson’s manipulations set the scene for changes in the political landscape. No matter what you think about the Civil Rights Bill that Kennedy had backed and that Johnson pushed through, it marked the beginning of new political alignments in the Southern States. Democrats had controlled most of the South for a very long time. Once Southerners perceived that the Federal government was intruding into their daily lives, their political allegiances began to shift to what they viewed as the more amenable Republicans.
As you go through this book, take special note of how Johnson worked with particular legislators, agreeing to work for measures they wanted in exchange for their support of the Johnson Administration agenda. Although the details of how particular Senators and Representatives changed and adjusted various bills while jockeying for political power may seem like unimportant historical factoids, Caro’s explanations offer a good look at how the process functions in all its human and bureaucratic details.
Of particular interest at key moments is Johnson’s relationship with Senator Harry Byrd, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who, at the time, was a powerful force in the Senate. Over the years, Byrd had battled with Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Byrd often bragged that Truman’s attacks “actually helped me get re-elected.”
When Johnson pressed for a tax bill to get passed, he had to spend long periods of time making sure Byrd was on his side (or at least not against him). At times, the manipulations Johnson employed to get this bill passed appear to be like a complicated chess game. Legislators and Administration aides traded positions back and forth; nobody knew exactly what the final outcome would be.
Eventually, Johnson got what he wanted: the knowledge of how to work Byrd and convince the other Washington insiders, i.e., his keys to legislative victory.
Would Johnson be able to manipulate today’s Washington? That’s hard to say. But there certainly seems to be nobody with his legislative skill anywhere near the reins of power.
Caro promises that the next installment in the series about Johnson will describe how Johnson’s character flaws led to his undoing and the political debacles surrounding the Vietnam War. But this book offers an instructive view of a legislative master at the peak of his powers.