Having read all of the Caro LBJ books I was eager to read LBJ’s perspective on his Presidency. I grabbed this book at my library, and it was well worth the read. It was set up to deal with issues of the Presidency in a chronological way. LBJ reviews the awful day in Dallas and in so doing tried to refute some of the legend surrounding the trip, including some of the details on Democratic infighting that supposedly brought JFK to Dallas. LBJ’s point of view on the Johnson/Yarborough feud, and JFK’s supposed role in it, rings true, as his political logic was unassailable. The events following the assassination are covered, but with no reference to the tension that existed between him and RFK, especially over the issue of the swearing in at Love Field. LBJ expressed his views on the need for strong action immediately following the death of JFK, and he does deal with the legislative logjam that existed. How he broke that logjam is lightly touched upon by Johnson, but for real details the Caro book “The Passage of Power” tells the detailed story. LBJ highlights the two immediate bills he wanted to move, the Tax Cut bill and the Civil Rights bill, and talks of the important role of Senator Harry Byrd on the tax cuts. LBJ’s legislative mastery is left to Caro, but his discussion of those items is illuminating nonetheless.
LBJ talks early on about the war on poverty, truly one of the most important aspects of his Presidency. Again, his commitment seems real, driven by genuine concern for the plight of the poorest amongst us. In discussing whether to begin the program that Jack Kennedy had on the drawing board LBJ had a prescient observation on the political risks involved. His aide Horace Busby articulated the political risk inherent in a large anti-poverty effort, and LBJ cited that Busby warning in the book:
“America’s real majority is suffering a minority complex of neglect. They have become the real foes of Negro rights, foreign aid, etc., because, as much as anything, they feel forgotten, at the second table behind the tightly organized, smaller groups at either end of the U.S. spectrum.”
LBJ foresaw the backlash before it happened, always referring to a diminishing pile of political capital that he intended to use. The Busby warning, given in 1964, seems topical, even in 2017.
LBJ covers Vietnam, defending the policy that arguably destroyed his presidency. He moves the subject to separate chapters covering different time frames, initially attempting to show that his decisions were a natural outgrowth of the policies of JFK, and taking pains to show early RFK support for the war effort as well. When President Kennedy dispatched Vice President Johnson to South Vietnam in 1961 LBJ brought back a report urging a strong U.S. response to “communist aggression.” His description of the JFK response:
“President Kennedy shared this estimate. He regarded our commitment to Southeast Asia as a serious expression of our nations determination to resist aggression. As President, he was determined to keep the promises we had made. He understood what they meant, and what they might mean in the future.”
LBJ, eventually embittered by the “Kennedy” people abandoning him on the war, (although never in this book) went out of his way to associate those “people” with the Johnson policy. Without question they were initially supportive, but many became disillusioned about the policy, and became opponents of the war. LBJ never gave up the initial policy, upping the military ante right until the end of his Presidency. LBJ appears somewhat astonished that there was never any real movement from North Vietnam on his many peace overtures, never truly understanding what was driving the psyche of the North. While LBJ recognized the political implications of the Tet offensive he stubbornly clung to the idea that the North had suffered a major military defeat, with the stunned American public’s response a result of a “false” narrative on Tet being propagated by the anti-war media and movement. LBJ had terrific political instincts, but they failed him completely on Vietnam. As a person who grew of political age during the “who lost China” and Joseph McCarthy era LBJ was a political captive to the fear of being charged with losing Southeast Asia to the communists. LBJ’s instincts told him that he should not allow the GOP to flank him from the right on anti-communism, but he failed to discern the shifts coming in the country until it was too late. It was an American tragedy, and a personal one for the Johnson presidency. Fascinating all of these years later to see the rationales used to justify the effort.
The LBJ Presidency is certainly remembered for the Great Society, and for Vietnam, but there was so much more. He covers, in no order, the seizing of the Pueblo by the North Koreans, the Six Day War between Israel and the Arab states that still impacts us today, the Dominican crisis, shoring up the NATO Alliance, the efforts to achieve agreement with the Soviets on arms control, the NASA effort to land a man on the moon, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the income tax surcharge driven by the financial strains of guns and butter, the passing of Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, the assassinations of RFK, and Martin Luther King and the turmoil in our cities. LBJ, whether you like him or not, had a monumental set of issues, and deep rooted shocks to the system that occurred during his Presidency. He handled most of them, leaving Vietnam aside, in a way that that earned him respect, if not love.
LBJ covers his decision not to seek re-election in a way that does not quite ring true to me, but who really knows. He does acknowledge, as any good politician would, that he kept his options open until the very last minute. He truly did try to get something going with the North Vietnamese, who came to the Paris peace conference on LBJ’s watch, and as a result of his initiative to call a bombing halt. While LBJ was quite diplomatic in the book in dealing with people and controversies he was fairly explicit in accusing the “Nixon people” of going behind his back to the South Vietnamese leadership and successfully urging them to sabotage the 1968 peace push. LBJ felt that the Nixon effort severely hurt what chance there was of securing some sort of agreement with the North Vietnamese. A book of interest on this subject is the Ken Hughes effort “Chasing Shadows,” which sheds further light on the Nixon subterfuge.
Finally I was looking for some LBJ perspective on the RFK relationship, one of the most fascinating blood feuds in American history. We get some “readouts” from LBJ about the meeting with RFK on the 1964 Democratic Vice Presidential nomination, where Johnson slammed the door in Bobby’s face, as well as his last meeting with RFK after Bobby had declared for the 1968 Democratic nomination, where RFK was trying to divine LBJ’s true political intentions after his withdrawal. As RFK displayed his distrust of Johnson’s political intentions, albeit diplomatically, LBJ told him, “if I move you will know it.” Soon thereafter RFK was dead. In this book Johnson does not betray the depth of the dislike, and distrust, that existed between him and RFK.
The book closes with some transition boilerplate, but how can that not be a little fascinating when the transition is from LBJ to Richard Nixon, two giants of American politics in the 20th century. The book is hard to find, but good reading for those who are fascinated by LBJ, and the explosive period that he led our country through.
Below, Robert Caro discusses the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson at the Kennedy Library.
Just Added on 8/7/2017