Sunday Burgs book review
Reviewed by Hilbert Campbell of Christiansburg. Campbell is professor emeritus of English at Virginia Tech
The first volume of Robert Caro’s “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” was published in 1982. Now, 30 years and some 3,000 pages later, the fourth volume, “The Passage of Power,” has been published. The period of Johnson’s life covered here is from late 1958, when he began planning to run for the presidency in 1960, through the early months of 1964. Caro has said that the real subject of his writing is political power in America in the twentieth century, a subject that no one understood better than Lyndon Johnson. The accolades deservedly received by previous books in the series will certainly come to this splendidly vivid and detailed volume as well.
Caro focuses on the seven-week period between November 22, 1963, when Johnson was thrust into the presidency by an assassin’s bullet, to January 8, 1964, the day he delivered his State of the Union address to Congress, as the primary period of the “passage of power” from John F. Kennedy to Johnson.
It would be hard to imagine a more challenging set of circumstances than those faced by Johnson. For the sake of continuity, he had to convince the “Kennedy men” to stay on, many of whom had earlier shown nothing but contempt for the powerless vice-president they called “Rufus Cornpone.” Conspiracy theories were rampant, Congress was in stalemate, there were a number of pressing deadlines; and confident, decisive action was absolutely necessary to reassure the country. Add to these Johnson’s own self doubts and the enmity of the late president’s brother Robert Kennedy.
Caro demonstrates that Johnson determinedly and successfully met the challenge. He moved quickly to set up what was later called the Warren Commission to investigate Kennedy’s assassination. His televised address to a joint session of Congress on November 27th was highly successful and by December 5th he had convinced Congress to begin moving on two crucial pieces of legislation, the tax cut bill and the civil rights bill, both of which had appeared to be hopelessly stalled.
The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, shepherded through the Senate by then Majority Leader Johnson, had been watered down by compromise, the sections on fair employment and public accommodations having been bargained away in both bills in return for the southern senators’ agreement to end their filibuster. Johnson was determined that this would not happen in 1964. “There will be no wheels and no deals,” he said.
That Johnson was as good as his word in continuing to resist compromise on the substance of the bill does not mean that he didn’t engage in quite a bit of horse trading and even arm twisting. When House Republican Leader Charles Halleck of Indiana was dragging his feet on moving the bill along, Johnson called him in and hinted that the fate of some lucrative NASA contracts sought by Purdue University, in Halleck’s congressional district, might depend on his cooperation.
But the most difficult challenge to the Civil Rights Bill was where it had always been: in the Senate. Powerful and determined Southern senators had always been able to use the threat of filibuster to either kill or severely compromise all such legislation.
It would take all of Johnson’s political savvy and presidential influence to win this one. He unashamedly soft-soaped such powerful and influential figures as Harry Byrd and Everett Dirksen and did not hesitate to apply pressure on several western senators whose states had funding requests pending with the Department of the Interior.
In any case, the historic bill did pass both houses and was signed into law on July 2, 1964. And it was only the first of several successful ventures in social reform proposed by Johnson, including Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, initiatives for a “War on Poverty,” and at least some incipient steps toward the “Great Society” he envisioned.
Caro acknowledges that the fifth and final volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson will be “very different in tone” from this one, largely because of the tragic mistakes and consequences of the Vietnam War; but his summary of Johnson’s accomplishment in late 1963 and early 1964 is worth quoting: “… he not only had held the country steady during a difficult time but had set it on a new course, a course toward social justice. In the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, this period stands out as different from the rest, as perhaps that life’s finest moment, as a moment not only masterful but, in its way, heroic.”
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