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The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro

August 2, 2012 by  

If you really want to understand how the United States became the way it is today (with its bloated bureaucracy, strange tax system, labyrinth of regulatory agencies and intrusive attitude toward its citizens), you have to read Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson and other books like it. This book — an exhaustive (and I do mean exhaustive!) look at how Lyndon Johnson came to power, what his goals were once he was in power and how he achieved his aims in his first term — provides an impressively complete description how our politics began to change into what they have become.

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.

Ultimate Politician

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.

Powerful Fall

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.

Bob Livingston

is an ultra-conservative American and author of The Bob Livingston Letter™, founded in 1969. Bob has devoted much of his life to research and the quest for truth on a variety of subjects. Bob specializes in health issues such as nutritional supplements and alternatives to drugs, as well as issues of privacy (both personal and financial), asset protection and the preservation of freedom.

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  • Vigilant

    “Would Johnson be able to manipulate today’s Washington?”

    Tough question to answer, but I suspect that he would be less successful now than he was then.

    Crossover votes in the Senate and House were more common then, yet Johnson was able to either finesse or strong arm his supporters and opponents like a conductor of the philharmonic. Nowadays, the politics of self-interest, as well as polarization that results from it, make it easier to predict the outcome at voting time, but the pool of uncommitted in Congress is much smaller.

    Moreover, public scrutiny of earmarks and log rolling is keener. Things like the “Louisiana Purchase” and the “Corn Husker Kickback” vis-a-vis Obamacare passage were less publicized in Johnson’s day.

    Johnson was perhaps the most skilled politician ever to have occupied the Oval Office. Perhaps not so ironically, he was also one of the worst presidents we ever had.

    Obama is pure politician and nothing else. And, like Johnson, he will occupy the list of least worthy of presidential honors.

    • Bill

      Actually, I don’t think there is any difference in the way politics was handled then and now except back then it took days or weeks for the news to get out and now it takes minutes.

      • steve

        who cares how it came about. it doesn’t work and it never has. no problems will ever be solved unless you get rid of the political system in this country. and there is only one way that can happen , civil war , the people against the government. until then everything will be status quo. anything else is a bandaid.

  • s c

    The basic message to be gleaned from people like LBJ [anybody who's a willing utopian or helps those faceless bastards destroy America] is the idea that politicians OWN everyone in this once great country.
    Amerika has been out of Washingtons, Jefferson, Franklins and other TRUE leaders for generations. We have an overstock of posers and traitors. NO MORE career politicians, people. If you don’t understand that by now, you NEVER will. And may your kids and grandkids find a way to forgive you.

    • cawmun cents

      LBJ,has one of my favorite quotes,(though I didnt necessarily agree with his politics)

      “When you find yourself up to your ass in alligators,just remember that you came to drain the swamp.”-Lyndon Baines Johnson


  • Palin16

    “Where’s them damn dogs so I can pickem up by their ears?”…LBJ

  • Marvin Fox

    I remember the LBJ regime very well. I was a appalled by the cost of his programs and the lack of benefits to our Republic. I wasn’t politically astute enough to realize how unconstitutional the programs were, (10th Amendment wise.)
    I consider HOPE and CHANGE to be a product of the coming sweep against the Democratic fParty in Nov. I HOPE Obama and his entire administration are CHANGED to the cast out pols they deserve to be.
    A vote against any Democrat is a vote against every Marxist.
    Marvin E. Fox

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