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Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Review: Passage of Power

Passage of Power is Robert A Caro's biography covering Lyndon Johnson's career between the last year of his time in the Senate (including his unsuccessful run to be the Democratic nominee against John F Kennedy) and the 100 days after his assumption of the presidency after Kennedy was assassinated.

The selection of time period was so that Caro could have a rising arc and end on a triumphant note. Basically, Johnson under-estimated Kennedy as a politician, and failed to campaign early enough or sufficiently strongly to claim the primary. Then when asked to be his running mate, Johnson looked at the odds and decided that 1 in 5 Vice Presidents got to be presidents without having to be elected, which was pretty good odds by his standards.

Those 3 years as Vice President proved to be demonstrative about how much loss of power affected Johnson. Stripped of the power he had as majority leader, he became obsequious, humbling himself but still not getting anywhere near the levers of power.

The death of JFK made Johnson presidency and effected an immediate transformation. Caro by no means is a huge fan of Johnson, but he makes several good points: first, because JFK wasn't a master legislature and spent very little time in the senate, both his major bills (the tax cut and the civil rights bill) were stuck in the senate. Only Johnson, with his grasp of what was going on could have pushed both of JFK's bills through, and it wasn't just because of sympathy for Kennedy's policies:
“Startled officials at the Government Printing Office” picked up their telephones to find that the caller was the President, ordering them not to close for the weekend in case the Finance Committee report was completed, one account said. Then a “flabbergasted” Elizabeth Springer picked up the phone to find the President of the United States on the line to tell her that the Printing Office was waiting for the manuscript. “No other President of the United States,” this account said, “had ever been quite so familiar with the minutiae of the legislative process.” (Kindle Loc 12863)
He had never had a gift for (or even much interest in) the more pragmatic requirements of Senate warfare: for learning, and using, the rules. (Russell “knew all the rules … and how to use them,” Johnson had told him in that Oval Office lecture. “He [Johnson] said liberals had never really worked to understand the rules and how to use them, that we never organized effectively, … predicting that we would fall apart in dissension, be absent when quorum calls were made and when critical votes were taken.”) Nor had he ever had a gift for organization; or for counting votes without false optimism. (Kindle Loc 13002) 
It was also because Johnson was under the gun if he wanted to win the presidency for himself in 1964: 
“I knew,” he was to tell Doris Goodwin, “that if I didn’t get out in front on this issue, [the liberals] would get me.… I had to produce a civil rights bill that was even stronger than the one they’d have gotten if Kennedy had lived.” And there was, as always, something more than calculation. Assuring Richard Goodwin there would be “no compromises on civil rights; I’m not going to bend an inch,” he added, “In the Senate [as Leader] I did the best I could. But I had to be careful.… But I always vowed that if I ever had the power I’d make sure every Negro had the same chance as every white man. Now I have it. And I’m going to use it.” (Kindle Loc 12980)
 Overall, the major point of the book is that history has tended to belittle Johnson's accomplishments in 1964 and 1965 with major legislature and programs, in the light of his later issue (Vietnam, etc). While parts of the book felt like padding, most of it was not, and all of it was worth reading. Recommended.

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