This November 22 marks the 49th anniversary of JFK’s assassination as he rode in an open convertible through Dealy Plaza. America was changed forever in the minutes that followed as Kennedy’s death was confirmed and Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) became president as he stood in a commandeered examining room at Parkland Hospital.
Robert Caro, chronicler of LBJ, recently published the fourth volume in his series, this one centered on Johnson’s vice presidency, the assassination and the transfer and transition of power that followed. (The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power) Caro’s earlier books describe LBJ’s coming of age as a poor boy in the Texas hill country, his election to the House and Senate and his time as Majority Leader in the Senate.
Caro has always maintained that Johnson was motivated first by ambition and second by compassion. But whenever the two were in conflict, ambition would always win. The darker side of LBJ was his obsessive fear of failure and his ability to demean and hate. Anyone who has ever worked for a tyrant or a bully will empathize with Johnson’s staff as they are subjected to his tirades and emotional abuse. But they will also clap when reading about Pierre Salinger’s resignation.
It’s doubtful that LBJ hated anyone more then Robert Kennedy (RFK) and the feeling was certainly mutual. The bad blood had as its source LBJ’s constant retailing of the story of Joe Kennedy Sr.’s firing by FDR. RFK, much to his dislike, was uniformly referred to as “ruthless” as he served as his brother’s campaign manager and then, Attorney General. Caro’s story of the LBJ/RFK relationship will have you on the edge of your seat. (Apparently few men could handle RFK, but Speaker Sam Rayburn, of whom LBJ was a protege, was one.)
The epic center of the book is the re-telling, from a different vantage point, of the minutes and hours after the assassination, as well as the weeks that followed. LBJ, this man variously derided as “Uncle Rufus Cornpone” and worse, successfully sublimated his worst characteristics to lead America through one of its greatest crises. He understood the need for a firm but deft hand as well as a sense of continuity. He was truly masterful, if only for awhile.
If you like your leaders unblemished and uncomplicated, go elsewhere. Caro’s great strength is his ability to give us a portrait of LBJ as an immensely complicated human being who was simultaneously deceitful, dishonest, brilliant and compassionate. Perhaps most amazingly, while many bullies fake their compassion, LBJ’s was real and as President, he risked his most cherished possession, his political power, to help the needy and the less fortunate.
When LBJ said, “We shall overcome”, he meant it.