THE ELBERT FILES: Lessons from Lyndon
Volume four of Robert Caro’s planned five-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson is, at times, as interesting for the light it sheds on current politics as for what it says about our 36th president.
Johnson, Caro makes clear, was a rare historical figure. When he became president in 1963, he was one of the cleverest and most politically astute men ever to hold the office. When he left five years later, he was one of the most tragic, having wasted his tremendous talents on what he viewed as a historically compelling but ultimately unwinnable war.
The Vietnam War and Johnson’s downfall are subjects for volume five, which Caro is still writing. Volume four, which is titled “The Passage of Power,” tells the story of Johnson’s bungled run for president in 1960, his “blood feud” with Bobby Kennedy, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Johnson’s transition from a vice presidential joke who was about to be thrown off the 1964 re-election ticket, to the master politician who was able to accomplish more in a matter of months than Kennedy probably would have during an entire second term.
In Caro’s story, though, there is always a dark side lurking in the background, even when Johnson was acting to stabilize the economy, promote civil rights and launch a much-needed “war on poverty.” His dark side was the equal of most anything Richard Nixon did. In fact, it is now clear that few of Nixon’s sins were without Johnson precedents.
Roughly one-third of the way into Caro’s 605-page story, the author explains that three months before Kennedy’s Nov. 22, 1963, assassination, Johnson was beginning to face potentially damaging scrutiny. If it had not been for Kennedy’s death, the author suggests, LBJ would have been dropped from the 1964 re-election ticket.
Johnson’s problems began to surface when Texas reporter Sarah McClendon wrote a syndicated column about a civil lawsuit in which Johnson protégé Bobby Baker was accused of influence peddling and double-dealing. Johnson pulled strings to get McClendon’s column killed, but failed. Caro wrote that the first newspaper to run the column on Sept. 18, 1963, was The Des Moines Register. Others soon followed and by October, Life magazine and others were looking into Johnson’s business dealings and his connections with Baker.
One of the Baker stories involved a party house, called the Quorum Club, where Register reporter Clark Mollenhoff wrote that women, including “the spectacularly exotic and sensual-looking wife of an East German army sergeant” were “associating with congressional leaders and some prominent New Frontiersmen.”
At the time, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had just resigned in the wake of a sex scandal known as the “Profumo affair.”
But then the Kennedy assassination diverted everyone’s attention.
The book ends on an up note, with Caro revealing how Johnson, a man who had studied politics and politicians his entire life, was able to use that knowledge to push through Congress legislation that was life-changing to the U.S. economy, Southern blacks and “the one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs,” as Johnson put it in his first State of the Union address.
Nearly 50 years later, at a time when Congress can’t seem to accomplish anything, it is interesting to see how Johnson was able to end-run the deadlocks of that earlier Congress.
In just two years, he was able to pass such groundbreaking legislation as the tax cut that set the stage for one of the nation’s longest economic expansions, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act that outlawed discrimination in accommodations and voting, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and Model Cities.