What if he’d made it earlier?

David Runciman

  • BuyThe Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV: The Passage of Power by Robert Caro
    Bodley Head, 712 pp, £30.00, June 2012, ISBN 978 1 84792 217 5

Lyndon Johnson always believed he would be president. As a boy in Texas, growing up in poor and sometimes desperate circumstances, he told anyone who would listen that he was headed for the White House. He mapped out a plan to get there from which, as Robert Caro writes, ‘he refused to be diverted.’ It meant first establishing himself in state politics, then winning a seat in the House of Representatives, then moving up to the Senate and finally to the highest office. He was undaunted by the fact that no Southerner had been president for the best part of a century. In the view of many experts no Southerner could be elected president, because the numerically and economically superior Northern states would never stand for it. Johnson would prove the experts wrong.

In his early campaigns he insisted his managers refer to him by his three initials, as a mark of his future status. ‘FDR–LBJ, FDR–LBJ,’ he told them. ‘Do you get it?’ During the 1950s, when he was ‘master of the Senate’, and perhaps the most brilliant and ruthless political operator that body had ever seen, he refused to support any measure that might circumscribe presidential power, especially in foreign affairs. As Senate leader he would have benefited from the additional leverage over the White House this could have given him, but he wasn’t interested in that: he would be president himself one day.

So it came to pass. As president, Johnson took advantage of all the powers of office he had done his best to preserve intact. These powers, along with his secretive and manipulative personality, allowed him to drag the country step by step into the Vietnam War. The oversight that might have saved him from his folly was not there. The war ultimately destroyed his presidency and much of his reputation. This, then, looks like a familiar story: the politician whose remarkable faith in his own abilities brought him to the top and then undid him once he got there. But Johnson’s story does not quite fit that pattern. The reason is straightforward: his plan didn’t work. In fact, it was an abject failure. He didn’t know how to make himself president and his attempts to do so resulted only in humiliation and despair. It was an event over which he had no control – the assassination of JFK – that bridged the gap between his sense of his rightful position and his own capacity to achieve it. His destiny was to be a deeply disappointed man, until Lee Harvey Oswald intervened to redeem him. (I am assuming that Johnson had nothing to do with the assassination, as does Caro, who says that in his many years of research he has found nothing to suggest any involvement or foreknowledge on Johnson’s part. You may not believe this. But if you don’t, you won’t believe anything else, so best to stop reading.)

It is the mismatch between Johnson’s fate prior to the assassination and his fate in its aftermath that gives this book, the fourth volume of Caro’s monumental biography, its compelling but also unfathomable flavour. Caro begins this part of the story with the presidential race of 1960, when Johnson was easily seen off for the top spot on the Democratic ticket by Kennedy and had to settle for second billing. But the story really starts at the 1956 Democratic Convention, when Johnson made his first bid for the nomination. At that point he had firmly established himself as the dominant figure in the Senate, despite still being one of its younger members (he was 47). He had proved a master manipulator of his fellow senators. His political gifts were perfectly suited to a small club of self-important men whom he could get at one on one. He alternately flattered them shamelessly and openly threatened them, never missing an opportunity to get them on the hook for something they either coveted or feared. Everyone knew that Johnson was the conduit through which their political ambitions must pass: he was the maker and breaker of legislation. In this way, he made himself the most powerful Democratic politician in the country. He hoped that his standing would carry over into the nominating convention.

He knew he could not win the nomination with a direct appeal to the party, since too many people associated him with the Southern bloc in the Senate, which had been blocking civil rights legislation for more than fifty years. Johnson had always supported his fellow Southern senators in refusing to back anti-lynching legislation, claiming it was a matter for the individual states. This was the price he paid for getting them to do his bidding when he needed them. But it made him repugnant to the liberal wing of the party. To them, he reeked of ‘magnolia’. Nonetheless, Johnson believed a brokered convention that could not coalesce around a liberal standard-bearer would turn to him as the man who delivered results: the supreme politician of the age. He was wrong. The party chose its liberal darling Adlai Stevenson for a second time, even though he stood little chance of defeating Eisenhower. Johnson received barely 5 per cent of the ballot. What surprised his supporters was not so much that he failed – it was hard to see how he could have succeeded, given his reputation – but that he failed to notice what was going on. He made a fool of himself, continuing to push his claims well past the point at which it was clear no one was listening. He had entirely misjudged what would be needed to get his way. His genius for manipulation had been no use to him: he had been manipulating the wrong people. Senators did not sway presidential nominations; state governors did and Johnson had not cultivated them, partly because he had little he could tempt or threaten them with. He had almost no popular appeal, since he could not get his hands on the electorate one on one. He was out of his depth, and floundering.

Johnson tried to learn his lesson from this fiasco. He went back to the Senate determined to get a civil rights bill passed, and to be seen as the man – the only man – who could do it. It had to have his name on it. The story of how he managed this in 1957 was the centrepiece of the third volume of Caro’s biography, and it is as exciting as any political thriller, full of cliffhangers and extraordinary twists of fortune. Johnson was probably right that he was the only man who could have pulled it off. The bill itself was so watered down that to many liberals it looked more like a defeat than a victory: all mention of desegregation was dropped in favour of an exclusive focus on black voting rights. These were to be enforced by jury trial, which is what made the legislation palatable to the Southern senators: they knew no Southern jury would convict an election official for failing to register black voters. Still, Johnson justified the bill in three ways. First, he had shown that civil rights legislation could get past the Senate: as he put it (with typical bluntness), once you lose your virginity there’s nothing to stop you doing it again. Second, he claimed that voting rights were the key: once black voters were able to exercise some leverage at the ballot box, the rest would follow. Those were the public justifications. The private one was that Johnson could now present himself to the Democratic Party in 1960 as a plausible presidential candidate.

He was wrong again. What now stood in his way was not so much his public record as his private fears. He knew now that in 1956 he’d been grabbing for something that was way beyond his reach. The consequence was humiliation, the thing, as Caro records, that Johnson was most afraid of. His ruthless ambition was shaped by his resolve to be nothing like his father, a successful local politician whose wishful schemes and careless self-regard had ultimately plunged his family into poverty. When LBJ was a child the Johnsons had become a laughing stock in their own town, Johnson City. He was determined that he would never be laughed at as a politician: if he reached for something he would have the weapons at his disposal to make sure he got it. When orchestrating votes in the Senate he liked to win by a wide margin: the world had to see that he couldn’t be beaten. In the words of one of his aides: ‘He had a horror of defeat. An absolute horror of it.’

Though he was well placed to run in 1960, he couldn’t be seen to run unless he could be sure he wouldn’t be humiliated again. So he held back, refused to campaign in any of the primaries, denied that he was a candidate to any journalist who asked, refused to meet the governors whose support he would need at the convention. He agreed to give speeches that would have raised his profile as a candidate and then, at the last minute, cancelled them. The problem was that he already had a national profile as one of the most driven, ambitious men in America. No one believed his protestations that he was happy to stay in the Senate, ‘tending the store’, as he put it. They thought he was running scared. The more he insisted he didn’t want to be president, the more he was in danger of becoming a laughing stock. ‘Fear of humiliation,’ Caro writes, ‘led to humiliation.’

Eventually, as the convention approached, he realised he could no longer hold back. He let it be known that he was a candidate and threw himself into the campaign. But it was too late. Once again he was hoping for a brokered convention, where he would emerge as the choice of the dealmakers. But Kennedy, who had been risking his campaign in a series of hard-fought primary battles against the popular liberal Hubert Humphrey, had already tied up the votes he needed. Kennedy won on the first ballot, with more than half the delegates and twice as many as Johnson. It was better than 1956 but still nowhere near good enough. Kennedy had another advantage that Johnson couldn’t match. American politics had entered the TV age, and Kennedy was the most telegenic person in American public life. It turned out you could after all get to the voters one on one, but not the Johnson way, with snarls and finger-wagging gestures. What it took was a boyish smile.

The day after he secured the nomination, Kennedy asked Johnson to be his running mate. His decision is shrouded in controversy and Caro devotes a lot of space to it. The received Kennedy myth, propagated years later after Johnson had been seen to tarnish and then squander Camelot’s golden legacy, was that JFK had made the offer pro forma, in the clear expectation that LBJ would turn it down. Why would a man who had the Senate in the palm of his hand trade all that power for an office that was, in the famous words of one of its previous occupants, ‘not worth a pitcher of warm piss’? As Caro shows, both men knew what they were about: Kennedy wanted Johnson because of what he could bring to the ticket, and because he would be much less trouble inside the White House than ruling the roost in the Senate; Johnson wanted to run because he saw all other routes to the White House being closed off to him. The person who could not understand it was Robert Kennedy, who had hated Johnson from the moment he set eyes on him ten years earlier, when Bobby was a young staffer and LBJ was lording it over the Senate. Bobby desperately tried to persuade his brother that it was a mistake to bring a man he considered a monster into the fold. When that failed he went to Johnson himself to try to talk him out of it. All he succeeded in doing was securing his lifelong enmity.

We know JFK was serious because he went to the trouble of persuading Johnson’s mentor Sam Rayburn, the veteran Texan speaker of the House, to let his man run. Rayburn was adamantly opposed to the idea after what he’d seen happen to another Texan titan, John Nance Garner, who had traded his power as speaker of the House to become FDR’s running mate in 1932. Eight years later Garner went back to Texas a bitter man, to eke out his days as a pecan farmer; the vice-presidency had broken him. (It was Garner who compared the office to a pitcher of piss.) Rayburn thought Johnson would be making the same mistake, but Kennedy and Johnson between them talked him round. We know Johnson was serious because he asked his aides to find out the statistics on vice-presidential successions. How many presidents had died in office? The answer was seven out of 33. Johnson liked the odds: better than one in five.

This is the part of the story that looks creepiest, with Johnson the implacable man of destiny spotting another route to the top. Again, he probably miscalculated. Johnson was preoccupied with Kennedy’s health, which he rightly suspected was much worse than he was letting on. Kennedy was suffering from Addison’s disease, which, undiagnosed, had nearly killed him as a young man, though cortisone injections eventually gave him a new lease of life. One of the reasons Johnson had persistently underestimated Kennedy was that he thought he was simply too sickly to be president. ‘Yella, yella,’ was the way he used to describe the young senator, meaning not that he was a coward (like all the Kennedys, JFK was physically absurdly brave) but that he was jaundiced and gaunt. As it turned out, the ‘yella’ Kennedy looked golden on TV. But Johnson must have suspected that Kennedy’s health would break down over the next eight years. He was also conscious that his own health might not last long enough for him to fight a fresh battle for the presidency in 1968. He had had a massive heart attack in 1955, and he knew the men in his family tended not to outlive their early sixties. Johnson was almost certainly not thinking of the assassin’s bullet when he weighed the odds, but the race between the two men to beat the surgeon’s knife.

Kennedy was confident that his health would hold. Certainly he liked his chances against Johnson. ‘I am 43 years old,’ he told aides who worried that LBJ as vice-president would be a hostage to fortune, ‘and I’m the healthiest candidate for president in the United States.’ He also liked his chances with Johnson on the ticket. Kennedy had calculated that the attributes that made Johnson unacceptable to the Democratic Party as a presidential candidate – his Southern roots, his crude politicking – would serve him well as a running mate. He was right. Johnson’s skills were well suited to campaigning for vice-president. He didn’t have to debate his opponents or set out a vision for the country. He simply had to tour the South in his own 13-carriage train – the ‘LBJ Special’ – glad-handing local dignitaries and feeding the crowds his inimitable no-nonsense hokum. His speeches were short, sentimental and to the point. ‘What has Dick Nixon ever done for you?’ he would ask in each small town, and he would smile and wave and wax lyrical about his Southern childhood, poverty and all. He also found opportunities to exercise the other side of his political personality. In Florida he met in private with a group of state Democratic leaders who he felt had been lukewarm in getting behind the campaign. ‘This boy Kennedy is going to win and he’s going to win big,’ he told them. ‘And if he wins without the South, I’m warning you – I’m warning you – you bastards are going to be dead. You’ll get nothing out of the Kennedy administration.’ After that, the Washington muckraker Drew Pearson noted, Florida’s top Democrats ‘really began to work’.

Finally, Johnson brought to the ticket his well-honed skills in vote rigging (the skill being not so much the rigging as the getting away with it). Johnson’s first and most important job was to deliver his home state to Kennedy. He was not as popular in Texas as he had been and his attempts to position himself for a national campaign had alienated local conservative Democrats, who saw themselves being sold out to the liberals. For many, Johnson’s decision to run alongside Kennedy, an archetypal Northern liberal snob, was the final straw. But Johnson knew how to win in Texas without being popular. He had first captured his Senate seat in 1948 in an incredibly close contest – he won by just 87 votes – thanks to some ballot-stuffing that had been brazen even by Texan standards. Ballot boxes, particularly in poor Mexican districts, that delivered for Johnson by implausible margins in 1948 did the same again in 1960. The notorious Precinct 13, which in 1948 produced 202 ballots for Johnson certified in the names of voters who were dead on election day, went for the Democratic ticket in 1960 by a margin of 1144 to 45. The pattern was repeated across the poorer parts of the state. Kennedy won Texas; he won the South; and he won the presidency.

But if Kennedy got what he wanted from the election, Johnson didn’t. His hope had been that he would be a different kind of vice-president from his predecessors because he had a better understanding of power than they did. ‘Power is where power goes,’ was his motto. He was the most powerful man in the Senate, and he was moving, so the power would move with him. It is true that some vice-presidents have been much more powerful than others (see Dick Cheney). But it only happens when the president decides to let it happen (see George W. Bush). No one can bring power to the office by their own efforts. Johnson tried in the early days, throwing his weight around in the Democratic caucus in the Senate as though nothing had changed. He was politely, and then less politely, ignored. He discovered he had no personal weapons to threaten anyone with; all he had was the authority of the president.

Kennedy, having got what he wanted out of Johnson, had no intention of giving him any leverage over the direction of his administration. He knew full well the kind of man Johnson was: a politician of vast ambition and extraordinary touchiness. This meant he would have to butter him up to shut him up. He told one of his staffers: ‘You are dealing with a very insecure, sensitive man with a huge ego. I want you literally to kiss his fanny from one end of Washington to the other.’ No one was to ignore Johnson; at the same time, no one was to listen to him. Johnson could have helped the administration in one crucial respect: he knew better than anyone how to get legislation through Congress. But Kennedy had no wish to draw on these skills, for fear that people would say it was Johnson who was pulling the strings. So Johnson languished in the doldrums, cosseted but wholly ineffective; and so, for the most part, did Kennedy’s legislative programme.

When he realised that vice-presidents couldn’t get their way by menace, Johnson resorted to the only other reliable weapon in his armoury: shameless flattery. As his power waned, he became more and more subservient to the president, doing whatever he was bid, touring the world on endless goodwill trips, never uttering a word against his boss (though he continued to seethe against Bobby). When asked, he said he was happier than he had ever been, and that Kennedy was the best president he could imagine. In cabinet meetings, this most loquacious of men sat silently and merely nodded assent. All he could see to do was hang in there, and hope against hope that his time would come. Once again, he became a laughing stock. The Kennedys’ Washington – a town of intellectuals, sophisticates and creeps, good-time boys and girls with a taste for the jugular – mocked Johnson’s corniness and his down-home style (pronouncing ‘hors d’oeuvres’ as ‘whores doves’ at an official reception), but what they were really doing was revelling in his thwarted ambitions. This time Johnson knew he was being humiliated. ‘WHATEVER HAPPENED TO LBJ?’ became a regular newspaper headline and a running joke.

Even here, by choosing to suck it up, he may have miscalculated. By the second half of 1963, people were beginning to ask whether Kennedy would drop Johnson from the ticket the following year, which would have been the death of his political ambitions. Kennedy always denied it and there is no evidence that he ever discussed the possibility with his advisers. But as Caro points out, this hardly settles the matter. Kennedy had shown himself Johnson’s equal in ruthlessness and he was quite capable of deciding these things for himself (he had after all barely discussed his decision to put Johnson on the ticket in 1960). By 1963 it was no longer clear what Johnson had to offer: his subservience to the president had made him so unpopular in Texas that it was uncertain whether even the dark arts could rescue him there. Worse, he was now becoming a target for scandal. Life magazine was preparing to run a story on his personal fortune, which was built on the ownership of media outlets in Texas through which political favours were routinely traded for advertising revenue. At the same time, one of his former aides, Bobby Baker, was under Senate investigation as part of a money, spies and call girls scandal that had uncomfortable echoes of the Profumo affair. On 22 November 1963, Johnson was in Texas as part of a long delayed fundraising trip with the president, which had given Kennedy a chance to see for himself how little clout Johnson now carried in his home state. On the same day in Washington, the Senate Rules Committee was interviewing Don Reynolds, the man who had signed the cheques that provided the link between the Baker scandal and Johnson’s business affairs. Meanwhile, in New York, Life was planning to carry the story about LBJ’s finances in its next issue. The stag was at bay.

Then, of course, everything changed in an instant. Caro’s account of the day of the assassination, which was extracted in the New Yorker, is a magnificent piece of writing. What might have seemed familiar becomes startlingly fresh, because it is seen from the perspective of the man whose destiny suddenly came back into focus as the world of those around him was falling apart. Caro contrasts the chaos of the event with Johnson’s preternatural calm as it was unfolding. Indeed, so calm and focused was he, and so coolly efficient in taking command, that it is almost as though he were expecting it. Maybe this will nourish the conspiracy theorists. But what really comes across is Johnson’s instant recognition that his political fortunes were back in his own hands. He was calm because he had real choices to make, for the first time in years. Johnson’s political personality was that of a ‘decider’: politics only made sense to him when he could impose his will on a situation. Now, at last, he could. And he did.

Some of his decisions were wholly rational. In the hours after Kennedy’s death he spent time pleading with the administration’s shell-shocked senior officials to stay in their posts, saying that he needed them more than their former boss ever had. He was, as always, shameless in his use of wheedling flattery. He was just poor ol’ Lyndon, he told them, a man without any of Kennedy’s intellectual gifts and charismatic authority. He would be lost without their guidance. They were the brightest and the best: they had to help him, for the sake of the country. Almost all of them did. Some of his decisions were extraordinarily callous. Within minutes of the death being confirmed he called up Bobby Kennedy, not to offer words of comfort or consolation, but to ask him as attorney general for the correct form of words for the oath of office that he was about to swear on Air Force One. Bobby never forgave him, though given that Johnson knew Bobby would never forgive him anyway, that was presumably the point: to remind the younger brother that implacable hatred was no barrier to a fundamental shift of power between them.

And some of his decisions were simply breathtaking in their ruthless self-assertion. One reason Johnson wanted to be sworn in on the tarmac in Dallas rather than waiting until he was back in Washington was that he had a judge in mind to perform the task. Her name was Sarah Hughes, a long-time Johnson ally from Dallas whom he had nominated as a federal district judge in 1961, at the start of his vice-presidency. As a Texas appointment he had assumed this was in his gift. But the Justice Department (Bobby’s fiefdom) had told him that at 64 Hughes was too old for an administration that wanted to get younger judges on the federal bench. Johnson was outraged, but agreed to offer the position to another Texas lawyer. Then Bobby discovered that Sam Rayburn also wanted to see Hughes get the job and that he was prepared to hold up important legislation in the House until she did. The Justice Department immediately changed its tune and announced her appointment the next day. Now Johnson felt humiliated. It was the first and perhaps the bluntest indication that in becoming vice-president he had given up his ability to get his way. He was powerless. Nearly three years later, and within minutes of learning that he was to be president, he acted to undo this humiliation. In the famous photo of Johnson taking the oath in the crowded aircraft cabin, his hand raised and his face as sombre as it is possible to imagine, with Lady Bird on one side and Jackie, still in her blood-stained coat, on the other, the tiny figure in front holding the Bible is Sarah Hughes. Johnson choreographed every aspect of the picture. It sent out all the signals he wanted to convey: continuity, dignity, grief, humility and, for the very few people who would understand, revenge.

In the days that followed, the pattern repeated itself. Johnson was calm, self-controlled and utterly decisive. He recognised at once that the way to assert and entrench his power was not to break with JFK’s presidency but to be seen to complete it. Johnson’s position after the assassination was highly precarious. Loathed by most of the former president’s men, mistrusted and derided by the Washington establishment, increasingly forgotten by the American people, he was taking office less than a year before the next presidential election. That election would be his opportunity – his only opportunity – to legitimise his presidency, yet he could not be seen to electioneer in the aftermath of the assassination: it would have been grotesque. Johnson’s fear – his fear throughout his presidency – was that Bobby would emerge to reclaim the crown from the usurper in the name of his brother. At the same time, Johnson took office at a very dangerous moment in the life of the nation. The Cold War was still at its height, dark theories of Cuban or Russian involvement in the assassination were widespread, and the country was rife with social, and particularly racial, tensions (in part because of Kennedy’s failure to make significant progress on civil rights legislation, which was still being stymied in the Senate). A misstep could have proved disastrous not just for Johnson’s presidency but for the wider world.

Caro argues that America was lucky to have a man like Johnson in charge at this treacherous moment. Few people could have coped as he did. It is easy to imagine other politicians, no matter how experienced, being overwhelmed by the responsibility or intimidated by the risks. But it should be said that Johnson too was very lucky: the situation suited him perfectly. He had no need to fear humiliation: the country was too shaken and grief-stricken to pay much attention to what he did. (The assassination also had the magical effect of making the Baker scandal and the investigation into Johnson’s finances go away, at least until they could no longer do him terminal damage.) He knew he couldn’t compete with the tragic glamour of the bereaved Kennedys and he didn’t try. He stayed in the background during the days of official mourning, behaving more like a funeral director than one of the mourners-in-chief. He did his real work behind the scenes, where he knew he could be most effective.

He was able to concentrate on domestic affairs because the international situation remained quiet. The Russians, probably no less alarmed by the conspiracy theories than anyone else, were careful to do nothing to raise tensions. Johnson addressed the American public’s desire to know the truth by quickly setting up the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination. He had been spared the worst of the public’s suspicions of his own motives by another piece of good fortune: his closest Texan ally, Governor John Connally, who had been travelling with Kennedy in the motorcade, had also taken a bullet (he survived). If the president was going to be shot in Texas, then it was essential for Johnson’s reputation that a Texan should take a hit too. (Lady Bird, who emerges from the story as a remarkably selfless woman, also recognised this: ‘I only wish it could have been me,’ she said.) Getting the right people onto the Warren Commission offered a master-class in doing politics the LBJ way. He wanted another of his mentors, the Georgia senator Richard Russell, to serve as his eyes and ears on the committee. Russell refused: he was too old, he said, and ill (he had emphysema); in fact he hated the idea of working under Earl Warren, the Republican chief justice and a man he despised. So Johnson got to work on Russell, begging him, pleading with him and ultimately abasing himself before him. ‘I haven’t got any daddy,’ he told the old man, ‘and you are going to be it.’ While this was still going on, Johnson announced to the press that Russell had agreed to serve. So he also told him that any backsliding now would look to the world like an unpatriotic betrayal of his duty. He would hang Russell out to dry. ‘Daddy’ did what he was asked.

But the arena in which Johnson showed his true mastery was the one where he had always been king: Congress. Again, the situation was set up perfectly for him. He had two imperatives: one, to honour the memory of his predecessor; two, to demonstrate that he was his own man. The way to achieve both was to show that he would not simply get Kennedy’s domestic programme passed, he would enhance it. He would give JFK his legacy by pushing a liberal agenda far more ambitious than any that had been proposed before, encompassing a war on poverty, wide-ranging civil rights legislation and tax reform. Kennedy’s programme was stuck in Congress, in part because Kennedy had refused to use Johnson’s expertise in negotiating the minutiae of the legislative process. In his first State of the Union address, Johnson told Congress that they must now take that programme forward and complete it. He announced this in a spirit of continuity and reverence for the fallen hero. But were he to succeed, he would be sending a different message: the only way to pass Kennedy’s programme was to have a Johnson presidency. He was doing what the other man couldn’t have done.

He began by dismissing his previous reputation as a Southern conservative. He sent out a message to the liberals in his own party, telling them: ‘I am a Roosevelt New Dealer … I’m no budget slasher … To tell the truth, JFK was a little too conservative to suit my tastes.’ But he knew that the liberals were not his real problem. He had to get past his old Southern allies. Kennedy’s true failing, as he saw it, was not his conservatism but his lack of attention to detail. Kennedy had assumed he could outflank the conservative wing of his party by relying on the rising tide of national public opinion. But the Southern senators were impervious to the tide of national opinion: they were answerable to their state electorates, which continued to reward them for blocking change by voting them back into office. Johnson saw that they couldn’t be outflanked; they would have to be accommodated instead. He also saw that the only way to win was to deprive the Southern bloc of its most effective weapon, which was delay. The time-honoured tactic of the South was to create a log jam whenever civil rights legislation was on the table: an administration that tried to force it through would find that there was no time for anything else, even passing a budget. Faced with that prospect, everyone, including the liberals, invariably backed down. Johnson decided to break the log jam by getting the budget through first. And that meant giving the Southern conservatives the sort of budget they wanted: a balanced one. Johnson spotted the thing that had eluded the best and brightest around Kennedy: the only way to pass a liberal agenda was to be a budget slasher.

In 1963 the man sitting on top of the log jam was Harry Byrd, a 76-year-old senator from Virginia and the Democratic chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Byrd was a classic Southern conservative: a self-styled man of honour and unabashed racist, he feared only one thing more than the intermingling of the races, and that was loose public finance. If Johnson had a horror of defeat, Byrd had a horror of debt. He had an ‘extreme obsessive hatred’ of it, a ‘fixation on frugality’ born of his struggles as a 15-year-old to rescue his father’s nickel-and-dime newspaper business. Now, sixty years on, Byrd was adamant that the federal budget should not exceed the symbolic figure of $100 billion. That meant substantial cuts. The Kennedy administration had not managed to find them. Johnson understood that Byrd would not move without them. He would simply sit on the tax bill in his committee, holding everything up. So Johnson decided to give Byrd his budget cuts. But in classic Johnson fashion, he made his point by going further. By relentlessly badgering his officials, and refusing to listen to their excuses, he got the budget down to $97.9 billion. Then he called Byrd into the White House and told him: ‘I got the damn thing down under one hundred billion … way under. Now you can tell your friends that you forced the president of the United States to reduce the budget before you let him have his tax cut.’ After that, Byrd moved, and so did the entire legislative programme.

Johnson’s great achievements – the civil rights and social welfare legislation that formed his ‘Great Society’ programme – came later in 1964 and then, after his overwhelming election victory in November, during the early years of his ‘legitimate’ presidency. To get this legislation through he had to take on the Southern Democrats, break their filibuster in the Senate and put together a coalition of Northern and Western senators. In parting ways so decisively with his former colleagues, he reshaped American politics. But Caro insists that these victories were only made possible by what he did in the hours, days, weeks and months following the assassination, when he established beyond doubt that he was, contrary to everything his detractors had always feared, up to the job of being president. He understood what needed to be done, for his own sake and the country’s, and he knew how to do it. He remained calm and he didn’t overreach himself. But he did reach for the limit of what was possible, determined not to squander his opportunity. No longer fearing humiliation, he was able to avoid it entirely. By April 1964, his approval rating stood at 77 per cent. More surprisingly, for someone who had once been seen as far too divisive a figure to be president, only 9 per cent of Americans disapproved of the job he was doing.

For Caro, it is an inspiring story, and in his eyes that may be the primary justification for having devoted so much of his own life to studying the life of a man who had so many evident failings. Yet as one reads the book one is haunted by the sense of an alternative destiny. It isn’t just the what-ifs surrounding the assassination itself: what if the bullets had missed and Vice-President Johnson had been left to face his hapless fate? Would Caro have thought it worth writing his life then? Another thought: what might have happened if Johnson had mastered his destiny in the way he always imagined? What if he had conquered his demons and seized the nomination in 1960? What if he had been in charge, not during the fraught days of late November 1963, but during the even more fraught days of late October 1962?

The truly chilling part of this book is Caro’s description of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Again he makes a familiar story seem fresh, by describing it from the point of view of Johnson, who is usually treated as a mere bystander. In this case, he really was a bystander. He sat in on the big meetings but JFK, RFK and the small group of men they trusted had no intention of seeking his advice, let alone taking it. All the key decisions were made without him, and he wasn’t even told about the final, precarious trade with Khrushchev (in which Kennedy pledged not to invade Cuba and hinted at the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey if the Russians would dismantle their bases in Cuba). Yet there are moments when we get a glimpse of what it might have been like if Johnson had been in charge. He was a hawk because, as always, the thing he feared was humiliation. He saw the Russian threat as being to American prestige and any concessions as ones that would embolden a bully. During one meeting of ExComm, the top-level group assembled to advise the president during the crisis, Johnson took advantage of the fact that both Kennedy brothers were out of the room to let the assembled company know what he thought. ‘“All I know is that when I was a boy in Texas, and you were walking along the road, when a rattlesnake reared up ready to strike, the only thing to do was take a stick and chop its head off.” There was a little chill in the room after that statement.’ Then Bobby came back in and Johnson shut up again.

When the crisis was over, both Kennedys were confirmed in their view that Johnson must never become president. They had been appalled by the glimpses they’d been given of his recklessness and his bravado, but also by his cravenness and his passivity: his ideas were crass and foolish, but he lacked the courage even to defend them to their faces. It is impossible to know what might have happened had Johnson been in charge. Probably, the outcome would have been worse. But perhaps Khrushchev would not have pushed his own luck so far had he known that a man like Johnson had his hand on the nuclear button. In fact, the person Johnson most resembles in this crisis is Khrushchev himself. Both men – older, rougher, politically battle-hardened, masters of the politics of manipulation – had consistently underestimated Kennedy, whom they viewed as inexperienced and soft. In the end, Kennedy outmanoeuvred both of them: he was much tougher and smarter than they had imagined. Khrushchev’s fate in 1964, turfed out of office and left to live out his days bitter and disappointed, is a glimpse of what Johnson’s might have been had Kennedy lived.

This thought suggests another: what might a man of Johnson’s political temperament have been capable of under another political system, one that gave a freer reign to the dark side of his personality? Johnson was a tyrant by nature. He bullied the people around him, treated them with contempt when it suited him, had little regard for their sensitivities or feelings. He was cruel, capricious, devious, brutal and often terrifying. He was also, when it suited him, sentimental, generous and capable of compassion on a grand scale. It is, perhaps, easier to imagine him reaching the top by his own efforts under the Soviet system than under the American one. It is also fairly easy to imagine what terrible things he might have done when he got there.

Caro’s thesis, which he repeats across the volumes of this biography, is that although power always corrupts, ‘what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals.’ The more power someone has, the easier it is to see the true person behind the mask. When politicians get to make the really big choices for themselves, then we get to see who they really are. This strikes me as entirely the wrong way round. Power doesn’t tell us the true nature of the man; the man tells us the true nature of the power. Caro wants us to see that when Johnson had the big choices to make in late 1963 and early 1964, the real Johnson, who had been obscured for decades on his path to the top, came to the surface. This man was not just the ‘decider’, but someone who would decide for justice, and who became, in Caro’s words, ‘the codifier of compassion’. Johnson, he says, had always cared deeply about the injustice being done to blacks, to Mexicans, to the poor and downtrodden, but had never had the chance to show how much he cared. When he got that chance, he took it.

Yet the reason he took it was not because he cared, but because it was the way to assert himself given the kind of power he inherited. It was his way of outdoing his predecessor, outflanking his rivals, and imposing himself and his will on the American system of government, with all its checks and balances, its quirks and prejudices. Compassion wasn’t the purpose of power for Johnson. In these circumstances, compassion was power, a means and not an end. Perhaps the person who saw this best was another of the dominant political figures of the age, though someone who barely gets a walk-on part in this volume. Martin Luther King told his supporters, who were fearful of what a Texan like Johnson would do in the White House: ‘LBJ is a man of great ego and great power. He is a pragmatist and a man of pragmatic compassion. It may just be that he’s going to go where John Kennedy couldn’t.’ Ego came before power, power came before pragmatism, pragmatism came before compassion. Johnson would always use whatever weapons were at hand to dominate. It was lucky for America’s poor and oppressed that in late 1963, in the extraordinary circumstances in which he found himself, the most useful weapon at hand was social justice.

The problem with Caro’s thesis is that when we finally get to see Johnson with the power he always craved, the man behind the mask becomes harder to spot. There is an unknowable quality to Johnson in The Passage of Power, certainly compared to the previous volumes of the biography. This book on its own is missing something. We see Johnson from 1960 to 1963 as cowed and craven, then from 1963 to 1964 as self-controlled and dominant. Yet along the way there are grim mutterings from those around him about another Johnson: the blood-sucking monster. Ralph Dungan, JKF’s special assistant, said of Johnson: ‘He really took the substance, the psychological and spiritual substance of people and sucked it right out like a vampire … He could not leave a man whole with his own dignity and his own self-esteem.’ RFK called him ‘mean, bitter, vicious, an animal in many ways’. These might sound like the ravings of paranoid and disappointed men, were it not for what we know of Johnson before 1960, when he often did appear in this light. Johnson abused his subordinates, especially the women, and including the blacks. He was an equal opportunity employer in that he seems to have been willing to mistreat anyone who was beneath him, just as he was willing to ingratiate himself to anyone who had power over him. His compassion did not very often extend to his own family, neither his wife nor his daughters, whom he routinely neglected and sometimes humiliated.

There is almost nothing of that here, except for the occasional flash of casual cruelty. In late 1963 Johnson held court at his ranch in Texas, where he invited West Germany’s new chancellor, Ludwig Erhard, for a state visit. It was a triumphant success. The Washington press corps, which had spent the previous years mocking Johnson’s down-home corniness, now revelled in it (it’s amazing what power will do to journalists as well). Johnson was relaxed and welcoming, holding informal press conferences on his front lawn. One of these took place on Christmas Day, when Johnson introduced all 27 members of his extended family who had come for Christmas dinner. These included his two daughters, Lucy and Lynda. ‘Lynda was wearing her Christmas gift from her father,’ Caro writes, ‘a loose-fitting red shift; [Johnson] reached out and bundled up the fabric, to prove, he said with a smile, that she wasn’t in a family way.’ Lynda was 19 at the time. How the journalists laughed.

While he was charming the press corps that Christmas, he was also turning the screws on their bosses. Johnson was determined to get the Texas newspapers that had criticised him in the past to come back on board. He wanted their pledges to support him put in writing. And if they didn’t deliver, he warned them that he would use his power as president to ruin them. He told the publishers of the Houston Chronicle that he required a signed letter promising to support him so long as he remained in office. If he didn’t get that letter he would block a planned bank merger that the owners of the newspaper were depending on. Johnson’s advisers warned him that now he was president this sort of brazen horse-trading might not be wise. Did he really have to get the quid pro quo in writing? Yes, Johnson said, he did. And anyway, the letter need only specify the quo, not the quid: the promise of support, not the reward. But without it, the bank deal was off. Johnson got his letter. He locked it in a drawer. And the Houston Chronicle never wavered in its support throughout his presidency.

Who is to say which was the real Johnson? Was it the man of compassion or the secretive bully? Caro still has one volume to write, and there we will hear how Johnson’s secretiveness, his horror of defeat (‘I am not going to lose Vietnam,’ he told Kennedy’s foreign affairs team two days after the assassination; ‘I am not going to be the president who saw South-East Asia go the way China went’) and his obsession with outdoing the Kennedys caught up with him in the end. Will this get us closer to the heart of the man? As I finished this volume I was also reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. Some have complained of Mantel’s book that it does not get us any closer to the true Thomas Cromwell than its predecessor. Instead, he becomes more opaque and unknowable as his power increases. But this is the essential truth. Power does not reveal. If anything, it fractures the human personality, as it passes through the prism of moments of choice. Mantel’s Cromwell reminded me of Caro’s Johnson, or perhaps it was the other way round. Reading about these great, brutal, terrifying men in intimate detail, one sees that happenstance plays a big part in their stories. Men like this know how to use their luck. But their luck is also using them.