More on LBJ
LBJ is another example of the Phaeton Theory, that paternal loss in later childhood contributes to unusual ambition. I have applied it to Tony Blair (aged 11 when his father had a stroke), John Major (aged 12 when his father went bankrupt), James Callaghan, David Lloyd George and Henry Asquith (aged nine, 10 and seven respectively when their fathers died).
LBJ was 14 when his father’s ranch failed in 1922 and the family was forced to rely on handouts from neighbours and credit from shopkeepers. His father was to die in 1937 “as a penniless bus inspector; the only thing he had to leave his children was a gold watch and a legacy of the townsfolk’s sneers”.
He was an earthy realist, a style of politician quite different from the idealism and fine rhetoric of a John F Kennedy. “It is the politician’s task to pass legislation, not to sit around saying principled things,” LBJ “often declared”, according to Caro.
In particular, LBJ did not get on with Bobby Kennedy. “Did you ever see two dogs come into a room and all of a sudden there’s a low growl, and the hair rises up on the back of their necks?” George Reedy, who was LBJ’s White House press secretary, asked Caro. “It was like that … Somehow he and Bobby took one look at each other and that was it.” (I once saw, or heard, something like that when I was talking to Alan Milburn in about 2006 and George Osborne, walking past unobserved by me, had come into Milburn’s field of vision.)
Some of the incidental detail is telling. The kind of small town in which LBJ grew up is summoned by a remark about his father, who went to church to please his wife and who drank now and then, although, “as Johnson City knew, ’sneaking a beer by Jesus is like trying to sneak daylight by a rooster’”.
In describing the pointlessness of the Vice-Presidency, Caro recalls a 1930s Gershwin musical, Of Thee I Sing, in which none of a party’s leaders “can recall the name of the party’s vice presidential candidate”; and “after the election the only way he can get into the White House is by joining a guided tour”.
Caro also has an eye for the phrases of other historians. He quotes Theodore Draper on the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba: “One of those rare events in history – a perfect failure.”
The LBJ story is interesting for what it says about lies in politics. Not just LBJ’s lies and the voting malpractice that got him elected to the Senate, but the Kennedy campaign’s lies. When LBJ’s surrogates raised the subject of JFK’s health in their brief competition for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, Bobby said that his brother “does not have nor has he ever had the ailment described classically as Addison’s Disease”, which is what had been alleged. This involved some sophistry about the form of the disease suffered by JFK, and Ted Sorenson, JFK’s speechwriter, went further: “He is not on cortisone,” he told a reporter, flatly, “evidently feeling himself justified by the fact that Kennedy was taking not cortisone but a cortisone derivative”, says Caro.
Caro is matter-of-fact about LBJ’s corruption as President, too, telling how he secured a written promise of support from the owner of the Houston Chronicle, which had endorsed Richard Nixon in 1960. LBJ obtained the letter in return for federal permission for its owner, John T Jones Jnr, who was also president of a Houston bank, to merge it with another Texas bank.
And yet, for Caro, it seems that LBJ was redeemed by the civil rights bills that he wrote into law as President, having stood as a senator with the South against civil rights. Caro quotes what LBJ said to Richard Goodwin, his adviser: “In the Senate I did the best I could. But I had to be careful. … But I always vowed that if I ever had the power I’d make sure every Negro had the same chance as every white man. Now I have it. And I’m going to use it.”Tagged in: contemporary history, lbj, US politics
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