The Book Club

LBJ—Master of the Suck-Up

Dear David,

I feel like I’ve been asked to review The Ocean. Robert Caro’s projected four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson—of which we now have Vol. 3—is certainly the most ambitious political biography of our time. It’s a colossus, and Caro has taken a further turn for the colossal in this last volume. If I remember correctly, Vol. 1, which charted Johnson’s rise out the Texas Hill Country, weighed in at about 700 pages. Vol. 2, which dealt with his years as FDR’s Lone Star protégé in the House and contained a gripping account of the 1948 senatorial election LBJ stole from Coke Stevenson, was downright manageable at 400-some-odd. The present volume, which covers Johnson’s Senate years, has metastasized into a 1,167-page telephone directory. In fact, in a departure from the earlier volumes, Caro starts with a Michener-esque history of the Senate as an institution, so we’re at least a hundred pages into the book before LBJ even arrives there in 1949. Important colleagues (Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, Richard Russell of Georgia) get such in-depth treatment that they could be carved out of this book and re-bound as mini-biographies in themselves.

That’s as it should be. Pre-Senate, Johnson had (particularly for a Southerner) an extremely innovative approach to making peace with the New Deal and with FDR personally—but he cannot be called a major legislator by any stretch. Post-Senate, Johnson’s presidential activity was impressive, particularly on race and health care—but he must share most of the credit with massive social movements in the former case and with the political momentum of President Kennedy’s martyrdom in the latter. (We’ll leave aside Vietnam for now.)

About his Senate years, however, there can be no argument at all. LBJ is the towering figure in the U.S. Senate this century. As a power politician, he is the greatest figure in the history of the body. He revolutionized the way the Senate did business, largely through his use of debate-stifling “unanimous consent resolutions,” which, depending on how you view it, either destroyed the Senate’s legacy as a deliberative body, turning it into a smaller, haughtier version of the House; or revivified it, breaking a dangerous legislative logjam, particularly on race matters, that had been building for almost a century.

And Johnson did it in the face of a Democratic schism—between Northern liberals and Southern segregationists—that only deepened after World War II revealed Jim Crow as not just malignant but absurd. The balancing act between factions proved so complex that it cost his two predecessors—Scott Lucas of Illinois and Ernest “Bob” McFarland of Arizona—not just their leadership but their seats. (McFarland was defeated by Barry Goldwater in 1952.) In fact, it cost the Democrats their majority in 1952. It was Johnson who as minority leader came up, single-handedly, with the plan to win back a Democratic majority in 1954—by steering the Senate toward issues that would highlight Republican isolationists’ differences with Eisenhower. Thus, he backed the Marshall Plan, supported Eisenhower on his nomination of Chip Bohlen as ambassador to Russia, and came up with an ingeniously unworkable “compromise” on the Bricker constitutional amendment that would have eliminated Eisenhower’s presidential treaty-making power.

As a Southern senator with his eyes on the presidency, Johnson had to compromise a lot. Such dealings make up the first two-thirds of the book. This meant sucking up to House Speaker Sam Rayburn by taking on the role of surrogate son, sucking up to Senate bull Richard Russell by making disingenuous segregationist speeches and pretending to share Russell’s love for baseball, sucking up (as always) to the Texas oil-and-gas barons who backed him by slandering energy regulator Leland Olds as a Communist, and (most innovatively) using Hubert Humphrey to suck up to Northern liberals. The way Caro lays out this friendship is one of the high points of the book, as each tries phonily to use the other as a means of consolidating both blocs necessary to move into position as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Their buttering-up would make the worst Machiavellian blush. (Johnson to Humphrey: “My deep thanks go to you for being my everlasting friend.” Humphrey to Johnson: “The privilege of your friendship is a priceless gift.”)

The highlights of Johnson’s Senate decade include the Korean War, which Johnson used to position himself as a defender of “our boys” against profiteering military suppliers, much as Truman had done in World War II; McCarthyism, which Johnson, himself a red-baiter, prevented his Democratic ranks from protesting (“At this juncture,” he told his friend William S. White, “I’m not about to commit the Democratic Party to a high school debate on the subject, ‘Resolved, that Communism is good for the United States,’ with my party taking the affirmative.”); his own heart attack; his wheelings and dealings to secure the presidential nomination for himself in both 1956 and 1960; and—more than anything else—his success in pushing through passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, a minor measure, it’s true, but the first race-relations bill that had been pushed through the Senate in decades.

Caro dwells on this bill as a means of asserting what he sees as an opening-up of the compassionate side of Lyndon Johnson. According to Caro: “Power, Lord Acton said, corrupts. Not always. What power always does is reveal. And now there began to be revealed a Lyndon Johnson who would have been familiar to those who had known him in college.” So:

Do we buy this “power reveals” argument?

Does Johnson deserve this big a biography?

Does Caro like Johnson? He has a reputation for not doing so, but I think that’s wrong. Caro is one of those liberals for whom race is the key that unlocks all the mysteries of American life, and his estimation of LBJ’s role in the Civil Rights battle is generous. I detect a turning point in Caro’s skepticism toward him around Page 725.

Do we get a good idea of Johnson the person here, particularly of his appetites? Is Caro too credulous in accepting the view of Johnson as a “larger than life” figure, or is Johnson ultimately a petty person who happened to be physically large and like to drink and have sex a lot? Did Johnson have any idea of what he wanted power for (in this volume, Caro strongly implies he did), or was he just a pig out of a Georg Grosz painting who drifted into heroism on the tides of history?

You don’t have to answer any of those questions, of course. LBJ wouldn’t have.