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Efficacy and Democracy

Why Lyndon Johnson should matter, not least to Barack Obama.

Before 2013 begins, catch up on the best of 2012. From now until the New Year, we will be re-posting some of The New Republic’s most thought-provoking pieces of the year. Enjoy.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson:
The Passage of Power
By Robert A. Caro
(Knopf, 712 pp., $35)


MANY LIBERAL Democrats have yet to come to terms with Lyndon Johnson. There was—and remains in memory— a “good” Lyndon, the surprisingly compassionate Southerner addressing a joint session of Congress and exclaiming the civil rights movement’s protest refrain, “We shall overcome.” The “good” Lyndon masterminded passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill of 1965, and envisaged and then enacted the landmark programs of the Great Society. But there was also the “bad” Lyndon of Vietnam and the credibility gap. By the time Johnson abandoned the White House in 1968, the “bad” LBJ had thoroughly displaced the “good” LBJ as far as reformist liberals were concerned. Less than three years after he signed the Civil Rights Bill, Johnson, the champion of social protest, had become the reviled target of protests: “Hey, hey, LBJ/How many kids did you kill today?”

Vietnam was not Johnson’s only offense. Even before the 1960s, a strain of high-minded liberalism mistrusted Johnson for cunningly practicing power politics. Born of the old good-government tradition of the anti-party Mugwumps, and reinforced by the liberal bien pensants’ adoration of their icon Adlai Stevenson, and solidified by the cool John F. Kennedy followers’ disdain of the professional pol, this reformist outlook classified glad-handing politicians, with their party machines, arm-twisting, and smoke-filled rooms, not as agents of democracy but as corrupt evils thwarting the pursuit of open, efficient, and rational public policy. A matter of style as well as ideology, this lofty sensibility endures today among better-educated and more affluent liberal Democrats. Just as Lyndon Baines Johnson, the supremely expert practitioner of old-school party politics, made many liberals uneasy in the 1950s and 1960s, so does his history today.

Inspired by a Dump Johnson movement launched in 1967, anti-war liberals flocked first to Johnson’s challenger, Senator Eugene McCarthy, who attacked the president’s Vietnam policies with a waspish wit and a gloss of detached Stevensonian erudition. Then, to Johnson’s furious dismay, much of the liberal base bolted to Senator Robert Kennedy when he finally entered the primaries—the displaced prince of Camelot who would not just end the war but reclaim the presidency from the vulgar Texas usurper.

The contest between McCarthy and Kennedy provoked further liberal disquiets, which have endured over the decades. Johnson despised Kennedy for a multitude of personal and political slights dating back to the 1960 campaign. It was a case of mutual contempt, to borrow the title of Jeff Shesol’s fine book about their rivalry. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson feared, not without reason, that Bobby, or some in his coterie, were plotting to remove him from the presidency. But many liberals, including McCarthy’s most ardent supporters (original Stevensonians who saw JFK as the usurper), also loathed Bobby, and nearly as much as they loathed Johnson. For them, there was a “bad” Bobby, memorably caricatured by the popular Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer—an unscrupulously ambitious ruffian who had been his martyred brother’s henchman. As campaign manager and political adviser, RFK exposed the sharp-edged political side of the Kennedy operation—and because JFK was imagined to be above such sordidness, Bobby became the evil one. “We believe that he is anti-liberal and disturbingly authoritarian,” said the Bobby-hater par excellence Gore Vidal.

THE FIGHTS BETWEEN McCarthy’s and Kennedy’s supporters in 1968 were fierce, and the differences in political sensibility of those days are still very much alive, at least among liberals of a certain age. Over time, however, Johnson has become the supremely vexing figure in the modern history of the Democratic Party, honored for his domestic achievements but disgraced for his destructiveness and deceit over Vietnam, and for his cynical political arts.

Exactly forty years after the fateful campaign of 1968, Johnson’s specter briefly returned to haunt the Democratic Party, a visitation that especially frightened a number of liberals in the press and academia. At issue was the claim by presidential aspirant Hillary Rodham Clinton that Johnson, as president, had been able to achieve the monumental civil rights reforms for which Martin Luther King, Jr. had courageously agitated. Clinton’s point was simple: the jobs of president and social activist are fundamentally different, and so, she claimed, she was better prepared for the presidency than her opponent, Barack Obama, who had begun running for the presidency almost as soon as he arrived as senator in Washington. But many of Obama’s supporters took enraged offense at what they deemed Clinton’s racially loaded embrace of Johnson. “Why Mrs. Clinton would compare herself to Mr. Johnson, who escalated the war in Vietnam into a generational disaster, was baffling enough,” the editorial page of The New York Times declared. “It was hard to escape the distasteful implication that a black man needed the help of a white man to effect change.”

Vietnam, it seemed, had completely effaced civil rights reform and the Great Society—only the “bad” Lyndon remained. The Times editorial also twisted and racialized the distinction between presidents and activists into an offensive contrast between a white man and a black man, in order to push the unsubtle innuendo that Clinton was appealing to white racism. With that distortion came both a denigration of Johnson’s political skills and an obliteration of the mundane proposition that presidents, in the final analysis, do more than even the most eloquent and heroic movement leaders to enact social and political reforms. This is a question of history, not politics. And there was another implication beneath the surface. It would be infinitely better, these anti-Clinton liberals contended, to nominate for the presidency a postpartisan, bottom-up, “movement” candidate who had been an inner-city community organizer than a partisan politician who honored the example of the monstrous Lyndon Johnson.

Nearly four years later, many of these same liberals, including some of President Obama’s erstwhile enthusiasts, have been complaining about the administration’s, er, compromises, and wishing Obama was more like, well, Lyndon Johnson. “Along with the inevitable FDR,” Benjamin Dueholm, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, writes, “Johnson has become an unlikely touchstone for progressive discontent with President Obama.” In winning civil rights reform along with Medicare, Medicaid, and the rest of the Great Society programs, Johnson is now admired for masterfully deploying methods of persuasion that Obama appears to disdain. Johnson had no use for the kind of high-minded post-partisanship that Obama seems genuinely to have believed in well after it was exposed as a pallid, self-defeating conceit. Johnson, so the argument goes, understood as Obama has not that the best arguments and the loftiest rhetoric do not necessarily get much done by themselves. Johnson, in short, was a thoroughgoing politician, whereas Obama has distaste for any kind of politics other than the electoral.

The president’s defenders have replied that changed structural realities and a pathological Republican partisanship, unknown in the mid-1960s, have prevented Obama from accomplishing as much as he would like—all true. Yet Johnson, in winning the Civil Rights Act in 1964, overcame brutal opposition, led by the segregationist Democratic bulls of the Senate for whom the filibuster was a favored and lethal weapon. Johnson’s political craftiness, Dueholm contends, proved “that the true genius of power can circumvent those limits to a degree, through fair means or foul.”

It is ironic that Barack Obama’s travails have, at least for the moment, prompted some liberals to reassess Lyndon Johnson more positively than they have in forty years. And adding to the irony, the catalyst for this re-evaluation has been the publication of Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power.


CARO LABORS UNDER analytical constraints as he moves forward with his monumental biography of Johnson, of which The Passage of Power is the fourth enormous volume. Having boldly declared, long ago, his basically hostile interpretation of Johnson, Caro is stuck with it. The suspense in reading Caro’s successive volumes has been to see not how Johnson fares, but how Caro fits his subject’s sprawling and stormy life into his own established and unforgiving view of the man.

Caro opened his first volume, in 1982, with a summary prospectus of Johnson’s presidency—a topic that his narrative would reach, barely, three volumes and thirty years later. The Johnson administration, he argued, was a “watershed in America’s history, one of the great divides in the evolution of its foreign and domestic policies.” On one side were “the tides of social change that had begun flowing during the New Deal,” and that crested with Johnson’s Great Society. On the other was disaster—“the widespread mistrust of the President that was symbolized by the phrase ... ‘credibility gap,’” as well as the decisive moment in the shift “from a ‘constitutional’ to an ‘imperial’ Presidency.” And there was more: Johnson, he wrote, was the “most effective instrument” of a rising ascendancy of Sunbelt robber barons in oil, gas, aerospace, and other new industries that, having despoiled the riches of their own region, used their stunning wealth “to bend government to their ends.”

Lyndon Johnson, in other words, not only oversaw the demise of liberalism as Caro’s generation had come to know it. By sapping the public’s trust in government, undermining the separation of powers, and abetting the Sunbelt buccaneers, his misdeeds also paved the way for the abuses of power by Richard M. Nixon and then for the rise of Ronald Reagan, who had won the presidency two years before Caro’s first Johnson volume appeared. Johnson’s offenses, Caro insisted, stemmed less from foolish decisions, political pressures, unintended consequences, and chance occurrences—key factors in most historical writing— than they did from Johnson’s foul character and personality, shaped by the drama of his own life. Character was destiny—not only his, but also ours.

ALONG WITH HIS VIEW of Johnson’s politics, Caro fully formed his interpretation of Johnson’s character thirty years ago. Johnson, he explained in volume one, always displayed a bright “thread of achievement,” exemplified by his efforts as a young congressman in the 1930s to secure electrification for the Texas Hill Country—but that thread was entwined with, and usually obscured by, another thread, “as dark as the other is bright.” This latter impulse Caro described as “a hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will.” If ordinary citizens’ lives happened to be improved as a result of or in tandem with Johnson’s sinister ambition, so much the better. But the will to dominate, and the insecurity that fueled it, was always primary for LBJ, to the point of defying rationality. Johnson’s hunger for power, Caro contended, linked to his bad personal and business ethics, was “a constant throughout his life,” something “so fierce and consuming that no consideration of morality or ethics, no cost to himself—or to anyone else—could stand before it.” The moralistic good Lyndon/ bad Lyndon distinction that liberals seized upon in the 1960s became, in Caro’s hands, a deep-seated Manichean dualism—a case of turning the political into the personal and then explaining Johnson’s political career on the basis of those alleged personal drives.

Caro ascribed Johnson’s will to power, rather reductively, to a combination of heredity and boyhood trauma, specifically to young Lyndon’s shame at watching the humiliating failure of his father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., a sometime state legislator. Caro was certain that Johnson’s mostly appalling personality had been completely shaped by the time he finished his studies at Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College in 1930. “Some men—perhaps most men—who attain great power are altered by that power,” he asserted. “Not Lyndon Johnson. The fire in which he had been shaped ... had forged the metal of his being, a metal hard to begin with, into a metal much harder.” And so, in the 882 pages of volume one (which took the story through 1941) and in the 1,673 pages of the two succeeding volumes (taking the story through 1958), Caro poured an astonishing wealth of detail, much of it newly discovered, into a simple analytical structure involving the eternal oscillation between good and evil—never quite a struggle—that defined Johnson’s inner self and then changed the course of history.

THIS WAS NOT the first time that Caro hit upon the simple structure to deal with a powerful man. He built The Power Broker, his earlier triumphant biography of the tyrannical New York City planner Robert Moses, around a dualism remarkably similar to the one he finds in Johnson, and he did so with remarkably similar language, contrasting “the bright gold” of Moses’s idealism with “a darker shadow.” The more power Moses accumulated, Caro observed, “the darker element in his nature ... loomed larger,” in the form of a visceral arrogance that Moses himself could not even comprehend, let alone control. “He couldn’t listen [to the public], couldn’t—even for the sake of the power he coveted.” Caro is a demon researcher who unearths a staggering amount of factual information about his subjects, much of it fascinating and valuable. But with Moses and Johnson, his analysis of those mountains of facts seems to have become generic, and mechanical in its moralism, although the metaphor of gold has by reverse alchemy been transformed into thread.

This is not to say that Caro views all highly successful public figures simply as ogres with a saving grace or two. Indeed, he has dramatized the vileness of Johnson’s character by playing him off against noble foes or allies who serve as moral foils. Most unfortunate, for Caro’s readers, was his prolonged encomium in his second volume to Coke Stevenson, Johnson’s opponent for a U.S. Senate seat from Texas in 1948. Stevenson was a charismatic ex-governor, political reactionary, and racist whom Caro ennobled as a larger-than-life, rugged, incorruptible hero—“the Abraham Lincoln of Texas,” as one of his enthusiasts wrote. Critics, notably Sidney Blumenthal in these pages, lambasted Caro’s skewed account. Before and after Stevenson, Caro found Johnson’s chief foils not in his rivals but in his mentors: the lonely, wise, and truly honorable Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, and the equally lonely, wise, and honorable (although staunchly pro-segregationist) Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia.

The Passage of Power now presents a very different foil for Johnson, neither a contrasting hero nor a noble mentor: Robert F. Kennedy. Herein lies a major reason why several reviewers have described the book as far less hard on Johnson than Caro’s earlier volumes. Describing Bobby Kennedy, Caro returns to his dualism of darkness and light: “The portrait that was Robert Kennedy has always been heavily layered, with the harsh, dark colors—the rudeness, the ruthlessness, the rage; the desire to please and emulate his father—so dominant that it had been hard to see the glimpses of brighter hues. But they were there.” In glimpses, anyway: although Caro’s book discusses his compassion and gentleness, Kennedy’s darker hues dominate—no metal, no threads, just painted “colors.”

The Passage of Power shows Johnson becoming locked in a political death struggle with a man whose damaged, ambitious, and repulsive character easily matched his own—and whose mean-spirited competence actually frightened Johnson himself. The contrast with Bobby Kennedy helps enormously in making Caro’s Lyndon Johnson appear, if not wholly decent and honorable, then at least sympathetic. Much as with his treatment of Johnson, Caro’s disparagement of Kennedy recalls reformist liberals’ disparagements of him from fifty years ago. As the “bad” Bobby becomes a major protagonist, the “good” Lyndon emerges valiantly as never before in Robert Caro’s pages.


CARO FORESHADOWED the “good” Lyndon’s appearance at the conclusion of Master of the Senate, his third volume, with a dramatic extended narrative on the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1957. Many officials had a hand in that achievement—including, somewhat oddly in retrospect, Vice President Richard Nixon—but Senate Majority Leader Johnson was the indispensable man. It was LBJ who achieved a compromise between “the incorrigible right and the immovable left”—Caro here quoted the great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward—with a “political astuteness ... amounting to genius.”

Liberals, to be sure, complained with a good deal of justice that the final bill was weak. As Caro made clear, Johnson was initially moved by the assurance that failure to get some sort of legislation through the obdurate Senate would damage his leadership and kill his chances of winning the Democratic presidential nomination. But LBJ, Caro wrote, had “done all he could” in the fight for civil rights, “the most he could do in the position—Majority Leader of one of the two houses of Congress—in which he was situated.” And the piecemeal victory of 1957 beckoned to a presidency in which Johnson, “among all the white government officials in twentiethcentury America,” would do “the most to help America’s black men and women in their fight for equality and justice.” But not before Johnson had to suffer the many indignities of his vice presidency—not least the indignities of his vicious battles with Robert Kennedy.

The hatred between Johnson and Kennedy is unavoidable in any full account of either man or of the politics of the 1960s, and several books have examined it (above all Shesol’s Mutual Contempt, which Caro acknowledges). There can only be so much for Caro to add. Still, Caro finds some intriguing new nuggets, including the story of the first nasty encounter, in the Senate dining room in 1953, between the then-minority leader of the Senate and the young staffer for the irresponsible, loutish Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Johnson had been telling unkind jokes around Washington about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s savvy handling, back in 1940, of the staffer’s troublesome father, the former ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. The elder Kennedy, a supporter of McCarthy, had obtained for Robert his position in McCarthy’s office, and Robert was extremely touchy about criticism, let alone ridicule, directed at his family. Bidden by the senator, Johnson stopped by at McCarthy’s table and shook hands with him and his aides; and Kennedy, seething, refused to offer even a perfunctory pleasantry. Alert to the smallest slight, Johnson practically forced Kennedy to shake his hand. A minor, forgettable incident at the time—although not to Johnson’s aides, from whom Caro ferreted it out—it backdates the bad feeling by a decade before Johnson succeeded Kennedy’s murdered brother to the presidency. And although, in the event, Johnson acted, as ever, the thin-skinned bully, it was young Kennedy’s implacable resentment that sparked the feud.

The pattern recurs in The Passage of Power from the 1960 campaign through Dallas and beyond, with Kennedy generally the aggressor. After Johnson made his maladroit bid for the Democratic nomination in 1960, John Kennedy considered him for the vice presidency and offered him a place on the ticket—only to have an exasperated Bobby repeatedly try to persuade him to back away. Throughout his brother’s administration, Attorney General Kennedy made no pretense about his scorn for Vice President Johnson. Aboard Air Force One, after it had landed at Andrews Air Force Base with his murdered brother’s body, Kennedy brusquely ignored President Johnson; and over the coming days, Johnson came to believe, Bobby “seriously considered whether he would let me be president.”

And Kennedy was not alone in regarding Johnson as a usurper. Caro repeats the story reported by Shesol of how, a day after the assassination—with the late president lying in state in the East Room—Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. convened a private lunch to discuss the possibility of dumping Johnson in 1964 in favor of a ticket of Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. Somehow, they thought LBJ was still the utterly irrelevant vice president.

PART OF JOHNSON’S genius had been to take offices previously accorded little influence and turn them into staging grounds for his gargantuan ambitions, notably the position of Senate majority leader. “Power is where power goes,” he would remark. But unlike certain of his successors, above all Dick Cheney, Johnson found himself defeated by the vice presidency and by the men he called the “Harvards” inside the Kennedy White House, the closest to the president being Robert Kennedy. After failing in awkward efforts to retain his powers as party leader in the Senate—an abrogation of the separation of powers that his former colleagues would not abide—and then to expand his role in the White House, Johnson became virtually a forgotten man in Washington. Cut out of important decision-making, reduced to performing on ceremonial occasions while presiding as the figurehead president of the Senate that had once been virtually his instrument, Johnson came to realize that, whether or not President Kennedy kept him on the ticket in 1964, his political future looked bleak. Deflated, he retreated into a sullen funk. “My future is behind me,” he told his aide Horace Busby.

Caro does not try to turn Johnson into an injured saint, which would all but repudiate what he has thus far written. Prone to self-pity, Johnson nursed slights, especially those dealt him by Robert Kennedy. Caro also shows Johnson brazenly trying to throttle the press when a reporter got too nosy about his private financial dealings. And some of Johnson’s more dubious past activities and relations, copiously described with dogged zeal in Caro’s earlier volumes, continued to haunt him. Indeed, at the very hour of Kennedy’s death, official and journalistic investigations were about to unleash storms of controversy about Johnson’s connections with the unsavory Capitol Hill fixer Bobby Baker, as well as about his own shady finances, that might well have driven him from public life entirely.

Instead Lyndon Johnson rose to the presidency through tragedy. After his years in purgatory, Johnson curbed his instinctual excesses and assumed office with composed authority, sensing clearly what needed to be done once the nation’s nerves began to settle down. Martyrs need to die for causes, he would later tell Doris Kearns Goodwin, the young White House fellow whom he picked as his assistant, but JFK had never quite defined what his cause was: “That was my job. I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into a martyr’s cause.”


SOME REVIEWERS have noted how central the Johnson-Kennedy feud is in The Passage of Power and described Caro’s interpretation as a meticulous assault on some of the enduring elements of the Camelot myth as created by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Theodore Sorensen. Nowhere, some have said, is Caro’s work more devastating than in its obliteration of the fanciful story repeatedly spread by Robert Kennedy that JFK had never intended truly to offer the vice presidential nomination to LBJ in 1960, but that he issued a pro forma invitation, which, to his amazement, Johnson accepted. Caro supposedly proves that JFK was perfectly sincere in his offer, seeing in Johnson an ideal choice for helping him to carry crucial states in the nolonger-so-solid South, especially Texas. But Robert Kennedy, with his abiding hatred of Johnson and his preference for other candidates, willfully bought his brother’s fiction about Johnson snapping up a pro forma offer (a story designed to pacify Bobby as well as outraged Northeastern liberals), then acted upon it, trying unavailingly to persuade Johnson to turn down an offer that the candidate had actually made very much in earnest. Out of Bobby’s farcical performance came a false story that would eventually undermine Johnson’s legitimacy as JFK’s successor in the eyes of the Camelot courtiers.

Perhaps. Caro certainly amasses sufficient evidence to show that Bobby’s account (as repeated by Schlesinger, among others) was inaccurate, although as Caro, to his credit, notes, Shesol’s book and Evan Thomas’s biography of Robert Kennedy, published in 2000, examined much of the same evidence and came to the same conclusion. But Caro goes a bit further. John Kennedy, he claims, having tendered his initial offer to Johnson, said and did nothing to indicate that he wanted to withdraw it, while he also said and did a great deal to show that he wanted Johnson to accept. Why, then, did Bobby believe anything otherwise? Caro quickly considers the possibility that the younger Kennedy heard what he wanted to hear, and thought he knew his brother’s mind and desires, and acted accordingly. But Caro pushes another line of interpretation—that JFK, a cold calculator, simply did not divulge his true thinking to his brother lest his brother try to stop him, and that Bobby was operating under his own furious steam in trying to push Johnson off the ticket. Quite possibly, Caro reasons, JFK had known all along—“for months, perhaps for years”—that, were he to win the nomination, he wanted Johnson as his running mate. And that line of speculation squares entirely with what Johnson believed then and always—that JFK was blameless, and the entire affair had been worked up by “that little shitass” Robert Kennedy.

Yet Caro’s own reporting also opens up another possibility: although JFK never indicated that he wanted Johnson to withdraw, he was less than adamant about his decision, especially after important labor leaders, big-city mayors, and northern liberals reacted to the early word about Johnson with fury and threatened a floor fight. Caro quotes Kennedy’s close aide Lawrence O’Brien to the effect that Kennedy did not, “to my recollection,” ever seem to waver on his choice of Johnson, which is not a particularly strong statement. But Caro also cites a phone conversation held at the height of the backstage furor, in which Johnson’s supporter Philip Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, told Kennedy that Johnson would accept if Kennedy publicly tendered him the offer. Kennedy responded indecisively—“to the general effect,” Graham later recalled, “that he was in a general mess because some liberals were against LBJ,” and that people with whom he was meeting at that very moment “were urging that ‘no one had anything against [another contender, Missouri Senator Stuart] Symington’”—and he asked Graham to call him back in a few minutes “for a decision.” Only when Graham made that call did Kennedy calmly say that it was all set, and that he, Graham, should tell Johnson that he wanted him on the ticket. The drama would drag on for more than an hour—involving more interventions by Bobby Kennedy, and another call from Graham to JFK telling him to stop vacillating—before Kennedy finally telephoned Johnson directly and read him the press release that Johnson wanted.

It is reasonable to conclude that Kennedy, put on notice by Graham, finally paused and made up his mind once and for all, but even then let circumstances drift. And if Kennedy seemed hesitant to one of Johnson’s chief lieutenants, how might he have seemed to his brother, whom he knew thoroughly opposed LBJ? Caro himself, much later in the book, says that the brothers were “so close that they finished each other’s sentences, or communicated without any words at all.” Through the fog of political warfare, with its unreliable recollections, there are at least some grounds for blaming the fateful mess over Johnson’s nomination on JFK’s apparent irresolution. But that would detract from the image of John Kennedy as the shrewd decision-maker, cold and calculating beneath his winsome charm, and of his brother as (by Caro’s Manichean psychologizing) the dark one, the one with “the rudeness, the ruthlessness, the rage.”

ROBERT KENNEDY genuinely hated Lyndon Johnson, Lyndon Johnson genuinely hated Robert Kennedy, and there is no surer way to make either man look brutish than to explore how they conducted that hatred. After the 1960 convention, Caro relates, Johnson would reply to the merest mention of Kennedy’s name by moving one hand swiftly across his neck, sometimes saying outright that “I’ll cut his throat if it’s the last thing I do.” But after the election, and after his appointment as attorney general, Kennedy owned all the power and Johnson had to bear continual mortification. Caro offers up in wrenching detail all the old stories and some new ones about the verbal eviscerations of Johnson at Kennedy’s home, Hickory Hill (where LBJ was very rarely invited), as well as inside the West Wing.

On one famous evening in 1962, after a White House social function, the anxious Johnson confronted Kennedy directly, asking him over and over to explain the reasons for his dislike, before he supplied his own explanation: that Kennedy thought he had attacked his father and tried to stop his brother’s nomination at the 1960 convention. Of course, Johnson had done both of those things, but to try and smooth things over he clumsily denied it, which only deepened Kennedy’s contempt. Johnson, he complained, “lies all the time.... In every conversation I have with him, he lies.... He lies even when he doesn’t have to lie.” The gap was unbridgeable. Constantly wary, Kennedy helped make sure that Johnson was excluded from the small groups of close advisers and experts that made all the significant decisions in his brother’s White House.

Amid the greatest crisis of the Kennedy presidency, Caro suggests, it was a good thing that the deceitful and belligerent Johnson was not in charge. Allowed, as a matter of course, to join the so-called Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm, formed in October 1962 in response to the Soviet shipment of missiles to Cuba, Johnson said little but quietly funneled confidential information to Richard Russell, his erstwhile mentor and the hawkish chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Then, at a delicate moment, after the attorney general had supposedly begun pushing toward a peaceful resolution of the crisis, Johnson began drumming up sentiment for an American attack on the Soviet installations.

Writing in Slate, Fred Kaplan has contested some familiar elements in this account, above all Caro’s portrayal of the “good” Bobby Kennedy rising to the occasion to become, in Caro’s words, “a master of compromise, of diplomacy, of diplomacy with a moral element.” The long de-classified tape recordings of the ExComm meetings, Kaplan says, reveal incontrovertibly that RFK actually took a hawkish stance throughout this crisis. For once, it appears, Caro has given Robert Kennedy far more than his due. President Kennedy may have been virtually alone in navigating toward a peaceful settlement with the Soviets; Johnson’s view actually appears to have been the consensus among the president’s counselors, including his brother. Either way, though, Johnson supported a hard line that, but for President Kennedy, might have led to cataclysm.

Finally, the president had the attorney general tender to the Soviets the critical private understanding that, in exchange for the Kremlin removing the missiles from Cuba, the United States would remove its own Jupiter missiles from sites in Turkey. Seven members of the ExComm were apprised of the offer, but not the vice president. “The most important decision of the Kennedy Administration,” Caro writes, “was made without Lyndon Johnson’s knowledge.” Yet this leaves open a question, which Caro may go on to answer in his next volume: had Johnson been informed of the secret deal about the missiles in Turkey, instead of being left to believe the story concocted at the time about how the tough-minded Kennedy had forced down the Russians, might he have been more cautious, as president, about escalating the American war in Vietnam?

 OTHERWISE, THOUGH, Caro presents Johnson’s isolation as a terrible waste of his talents, not least on the burning issue of civil rights. Despite his segregationist voting record, Johnson’s bright thread, according to Caro, had always included what he calls a “genuine empathy and compassion for Americans of color,” which dated back to his days in the 1920s as a schoolteacher among poverty-stricken Mexican children in desolate South Texas. Having first worked himself up over the Civil Rights Bill in 1957—when, Caro writes, “compassion had, for the first time, coincided with ambition”—Johnson worked himself up all over again as the civil rights movement surged in 1962 and 1963.

In February 1963, after he had delivered pro–civil rights speeches in Detroit and Cleveland, Johnson visited strife-torn St. Augustine, Florida, and addressed racially integrated audiences, achieving what his aide George Reedy called “a major breakthrough on the color line.” In a Memorial Day speech at Gettysburg, nearly a century after Lincoln’s address, Johnson echoed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eloquent but controversial “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written just six weeks earlier: “The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him—we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil—when we reply to the Negro by asking ‘Patience.’ ... To ask for patience from the Negro is to ask him to give more of what he has already given enough.” Thereafter an invigorated Johnson ceased his sulking and, refusing to be put off, demanded a meeting with President Kennedy to discuss a major civil rights bill that the administration had drafted without consulting him and was about to introduce in Congress.

Johnson soon found himself at the center of the action at last. He offered sage tactical advice, urging the president not to send up a civil rights bill prematurely lest the Southern power-brokers in the Senate hold the rest of the administration’s legislative agenda hostage and force the rights bill to be ignominiously withdrawn. He pleaded for Kennedy to give blacks a firm and eloquent moral commitment. He declaimed about civil rights at top-level White House meetings with influential business and labor leaders, impressing even the skeptical Schlesinger, who thought he outperformed both of the Kennedy brothers. JFK began addressing Johnson, in RFK’s presence, with a respect that exceeded civil courtesy and even approached deference. “For a couple of weeks there, he started to look almost like the old Lyndon,” Reedy later recalled.

But then the “bad” Bobby intervened, showing up the vice president at a White House meeting with civil rights leaders, personally and ostentatiously undermining his authority over the committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, and generally humiliating him. Kennedy acknowledged that Johnson had some sound points to make on dealing with Congress, but he described his caution as obstructionist. Outmaneuvered, Johnson retreated once again into depression, probably worsened by heavy drinking, which scared his closest aides. Rumors were spreading around Washington that with the administration, including the vice president, now firmly on the record in favor of civil rights, Johnson’s electoral usefulness in the South had evaporated and he would be dumped in 1964— rumors that JFK stoutly denied, but that redoubled Johnson’s gloom. The Senate Rules Committee had undertaken an investigation of Bobby Baker that was moving uncomfortably close to Johnson. Despised by the “Harvards” and mistrusted by northern liberals generally, alienated from his long-time Southern conservative allies over civil rights, Johnson still had powerful friends in Washington, but he was beginning to resemble a political party of one. Finally, the vice president’s inability to heal a political division down in Texas between his former protégé Governor John Connally and Senator Ralph Yarborough signaled how badly his influence had waned even in his native state. It was left to the president to try and clean up the Texas mess on a four-day political and fund-raising trip that would take him to Dallas.


CARO COULD HARDLY have foreseen the extent of it, but his decision to close The Passage of Power neither with President Kennedy’s assassination nor the events immediately thereafter, but nearly seven weeks later, in early January 1964, has largely shaped the book’s reception. Caro’s historical instincts were sound. At the time, and ever since, there was a great deal written about how the anguished but successful transition from President Kennedy to President Johnson testified to the resiliency of the American constitutional order. Although this is true enough, Caro understands that constitutional order depends on the actions of real-life flawed human beings. And tested by unimaginable burdens, Lyndon Johnson performed magnificently. “For a period of time, a brief but crucial moment in history,” Caro writes, Johnson held his destructive impulses in check, and, in overcoming them, “in a way conquered himself.” For just less than seven weeks, the “good” Lyndon was resplendent—and inside those weeks he began blasting open the logjam that had trapped the Kennedy administration’s legislative agenda, including the Civil Rights Bill.

There is something almost spooky in Caro’s presentation of Johnson’s sudden reawakening and powers restored. Even before his limousine has reached Parkland Hospital, Caro depicts Johnson as almost preternaturally calm, fully in control of himself and, as far as possible, tempering the chaos all about him. Despite the embarrassment he had suffered, the new president had to project humbleness and deference to all the late president’s men, many of whom disliked or despised him, while also getting himself fully up to speed on the domestic and foreign policy issues about which he had been purposefully kept out of the loop. He wore what Caro describes as a mask of humility, “a mask,” he writes, “that in those crucial days, never slipped.” With skill and even with grace, Johnson turned that mask of humility into a mask of command.

He began with a carefully modulated speech before a joint session of Congress two days after Kennedy’s funeral, in which he pledged to continue the slain leader’s programs and singled out the Civil Rights Bill as a fitting memorial. (“We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights,” he insisted.) Johnson had proved capable of delivering strong speeches and delivering them well, but the nation, knowing him chiefly as a Capitol Hill pol from Texas, was unprepared for his skillful weaving together of Kennedy’s legacy with his own sense of purpose. “The formidable and elusive Majority Leader of the United States Senate sounded like a President,” Time magazine observed.

What the country and its national leaders were even less prepared for was a president who could combine forceful rhetoric with an immense knowledge of how power worked in Washington and an immense skill at putting that knowledge to use. President Kennedy had not been at his best when it came to legislative arm-twisting. “Kennedy was not naïve, but as a legislator he was very green,” the civil rights leader Roy Wilkins remembered. “He saw himself as being dry-eyed, realistic. In retrospect, I think that for all of his talk about the art of the possible, he didn’t really know what was possible and what wasn’t in Congress.... Johnson knew exactly what was possible.”

Much, probably too much, has been written about the so-called “Johnson treatment,” whereby LBJ would tower over, glower, and almost smother whomever he was trying to persuade. As Caro recognized, these tactics were appendages to Johnson’s vast store of institutional acumen, his talent for sizing up men as well as political situations, and his understanding that all political situations came down to sizing up men. If Kennedy felt most comfortable dealing in foreign affairs, and best showed his mettle when dealing with crises, Johnson’s genius was to take a legislative proposal and, as he vowed to do with the Civil Rights Bill, “write it in the books of law.”

The last third of The Passage of Power shows Johnson pulling off one bravura presidential performance after another. He knew that Kennedy’s murder demanded an official and authoritative investigation: “the atmosphere was poisonous and had to be cleared,” he later recalled. Caro does a fine job narrating how Johnson persuaded two key figures, Chief Justice Earl Warren and Senator Richard Russell, to serve despite their initial strong refusals to do so, playing on their sense of patriotism and, in Russell’s case, boxing him in with a fait accompli by announcing his appointment to the press, behind his back.

CARO’S MOST GRIPPING, even inspiring chapters detail how Johnson, surpassing his performance in 1957, began pushing long-stalled legislation forward while breaking down the formidable Southern resistance to the Civil Rights Bill which, against his advice, the Kennedy administration had sent up to the Hill. As Johnson predicted, the senior Southern senators were making trouble for most of what the White House had asked for, above all a tax cut bill designed to stimulate a sluggish economy. But with the Civil Rights Bill on the agenda, nothing would be done unless and until the administration removed it. So Johnson, suddenly and without preparation, was thrown into the battles over the budget and the tax cut. He fixed his attention on Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, a courteous, polite, but unyielding fiscal conservative. Caro’s account of how Johnson handled Byrd—with concessions wrapped in words and gestures of respect, designed to flatter the old man’s ego—is a small masterpiece of political history and political psychology from as close to the inside as Caro can get. In the end, Johnson “got” the ungettable Byrd—and with Byrd on board, he also got the tax cut bill through the Senate before the Civil Rights Bill came over from the House for debate.

The Civil Rights Bill, meanwhile, seemed to be withering on the vine, its supporters unable even to get it through the House Rules Committee let alone the full House and Senate. After backing the unusual strategy of forcing the bill out of committee with a discharge petition signed by the House majority, Johnson took the even riskier step of placing the full force of his office and his considerable political skills behind the effort, mixing appeals to conscience with promises of political pelf, including a grant of handsome government contracts to Purdue University, which happened to be in the district of House Minority Leader Charles Halleck.

By the end of January the bill had cleared the Rules committee, and eleven days later the House passed it and sent it to the Senate. The denouement involved Johnson marshaling liberal forces, led by Senator Hubert Humphrey, who were strong on oratory but weak on working the rules of the Senate, and an intense courtship of Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, which paid off when Republican votes broke the longest filibuster in Senate history. Finally the amended bill was approved by the House, taking until early July, well beyond the opening weeks that Caro says marked the passage of power to Lyndon Johnson. But as Caro notes, it all stemmed from Johnson’s decision, only ten days after President Kennedy’s death, to support the gambit of a discharge petition, the only possible instrument for saving the bill, and pressing forward with that gambit with every political tool at hand and every ounce of strength.

OF COURSE, as Caro would have it, Johnson’s dark thread did not disappear completely. Before the end of 1963, Johnson’s views on the deteriorating military situation in Vietnam were hardening, as were his linking of his thoughts on the conflict to the domestic political situation and his insistence on hiding his true intentions from Congress and the public. To John Knight of Knight Ridder newspapers, a skeptic on the war, Johnson remarked that he saw three options: to stay and fight, to try and neutralize North Vietnam (which he thought “totally impractical”), or to “run and let the dominoes start falling over. And God almighty, what they said about us leaving China would just be warming up compared to what they’d say now.” No one would ever accuse President Lyndon Johnson of “losing” Vietnam, but with an election coming in November, Johnson was not about to show his cards. Among these cards was a relatively minor escalation, which Johnson secretly approved on January 16, authorizing stepped-up covert operations in a variety of strategic sites—including a place, then known only to area specialists, called the Gulf of Tonkin. Alongside his early triumphs, Caro shows, President Johnson was quietly laying the foundation for disaster.

Meanwhile the feud with Robert Kennedy assumed new proportions, with Kennedy violently robbed of both the brother he adored and the power that had come with serving him. Completely shattered, Kennedy nevertheless stayed on at the Justice Department, if only to preserve some sense of continuity with his brother’s glory. But he bitterly resented how Johnson was getting the credit for achievements on civil rights that the Kennedy White House had initiated. And Johnson, always fearful that Bobby would one day try and reclaim the presidency, resented how, despite all of the achievements that were very much his, he still had to deal with the “snot-nosed little runt,” upholding the family honor and glamour. “Every day as soon as I opened the papers or turned on the television, there was something about Bobby Kennedy,” Johnson remarked years later. “Somehow or other it just didn’t seem fair.” For the time being, both men kept up a show of mutual allegiance, but the hatreds were unaltered—except that now Johnson held all the power.

Caro, who is fond of adumbration, is plainly hinting at his final volume to come. Crowding as much as he can of the “good” Lyndon and his landmark works into this volume—ascribing them to a fleeting few weeks, his “life’s finest moment,” when the “good” Lyndon managed to keep the “bad” Lyndon at bay—Caro enhances the moralism that underlies his entire approach to politics, history, and biography. Caro actually promises that the “bad” Lyndon—with what he calls “the elements of his personality [that were] absent during the transition”—is “shortly to reappear.” One gets the sense that the “good” Bobby, likewise already revealed along the way in The Passage of Power, will eventually emerge in counterpoint, the brighter and gentler angels of his nature finally overcoming his rude and ruthless passions.

But for the moment, the image that lingers is of Lyndon Johnson, in the political and spiritual culmination of his transition to the presidency, delivering the State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, plumping for the tax cut (and the reduction in federal spending that was part of Harry Byrd’s price for agreement), but also raising the stakes of social reform, moving beyond the Civil Rights Bill that still had yet to pass, moving beyond anything that any liberal Democrat could have imagined he would fight for, beyond anything any liberal Democratic chief executive, including the sainted Franklin Delano Roosevelt, could have even proposed in earnest. “This administration,” he said—and then threw in, for emphasis, “today, here and now,” before he completed the vow—“declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” With those words, Johnson claimed the presidency as his own with the most sweeping call for social and economic justice ever uttered by an American president. The words would have meant nothing without what Walter Lippmann called, quoted by Caro, “the political gifts for which Lyndon Johnson is celebrated.”


WHAT MIGHT any of this have to do with our own times? It is obviously absurd to imagine that Caro designed The Passage of Power—a book ten years in the making—as a commentary on current events. In response to those liberals who see in Caro’s description of Johnson’s expert dealings with a difficult Congress a reproach, intended or not, of President Obama, Caro sharply denies it. “I happen to think he’s made great strides,” he recently told an interviewer about Obama; indeed, for all of the obvious differences in their political styles, he sees something of Johnson in his successor. “People find a lot wrong with [Obama’s] health care legislation, as do I, the bill that’s passed,” he observes, “but I keep remembering something that Lyndon Johnson said. Once we pass it, we can always go back and amend it. And I feel it was an accomplishment to get a health care bill.” Besides, he points out that LBJ’s civil rights reforms opened the way for an African American to be elected president: “Obama really is Lyndon Johnson’s legacy.”

But to adduce contemporary lessons from Caro’s story of Lyndon Johnson, especially from the triumphs of early 1964, and to understand why some liberals have for the moment come to assess Johnson more positively, it is not enough to seize on legacies or to dwell only on political tactics and style, important as they may be. It is more important to take account of the respective political situations in 1963 and 2009—and how Johnson’s historical understanding of and grappling with the immediate realities he faced in the presidency differed from Obama’s handling of his own situation.

Lyndon Johnson arrived in Washington in 1937, a young New Dealer congressman—and the following year, he witnessed and survived a conservative revolution that redefined national politics. The recession of 1937–1938, along with the failure of FDR’s court-packing scheme and his effort to purge conservative Democratic candidates in favor of New Dealers, cost the Democrats a net loss of seventy-two seats in the House and seven seats in the Senate in the elections of 1938. Those results signaled the beginnings of a new bipartisan conservative working majority of Midwestern Republicans and Southern segregationist Democrats that would thwart liberal politics for decades.

Johnson made his way in the world of that majority, rising to the highest levels of the Democratic leadership by accommodating himself to its limits. As Senate minority and then majority leader in the 1950s, he learned to work with the so-called “Modern Republican” administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower to offset the rise of the hard Republican right epitomized by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and even, in 1957, to secure passage of the weak but symbolically important Civil Rights Bill. Elected vice president three years later, Johnson understood as well as anyone the power of the enduring bipartisan conservative coalition and the imperative of attacking it head on in order to win any reform legislation—and he understood how it might best be done. John Kennedy, who failed to pass a single important piece of domestic legislation in nearly three years in office, could have put that understanding to good use, but instead he froze Johnson out.

After Dallas, when he would turn a dead man’s program into a martyr’s cause, fastening once again on civil rights, Johnson was more than well-prepared. He would, in effect, need to create his own majorities in Congress—not in the name of an ideology, personal branding, or dream of some new fanciful bipartisanship, but piecemeal. He would do so as each ever-shifting political situation arose, relying on a thorough knowledge of the rules of both houses of Congress and just as thorough knowledge of the men he needed to persuade. Thus, to pass the tax cut bill and clear the way for the Civil Rights Bill, he picked the lock of the Senate Finance Committee by winning over Harry Byrd, the senior Democratic member of the venerable conservative majority; and to secure the Civil Rights Bill, with Humphrey’s help, he seduced the Republican leader, Everett Dirksen. And by the end of the year, thanks in part to the Republicans’ overreaction in nominating Barry Goldwater for the presidency, Johnson had obliterated the bipartisan anti-reform alliance and swept in the enormous, liberal Democratic majorities of the eightieth Congress that would swiftly approve, by lopsided margins, the Voting Rights Bill, Medicare, Medicaid, Project Head Start, and the other programs of the Great Society.

BARACK OBAMA came to the presidency with enormous gifts but only four years of indifferent government experience in Washington, which partly accounted for his perception of recent political history and the crisis he faced, above all his notion of the Republican Party. Since the departure of Ronald Reagan, the Republicans on Capitol Hill, and especially the House, had lurched fitfully further to the right, their caucus centered in the white conservative South that Johnson and the Democrats had abandoned when they fought for civil rights and which Goldwater first gathered up for the GOP. Like the conservative counter-revolution of 1938 and after, this had been the overriding reality of congressional politics after 1994.

Following the defeat of President Bill Clinton’s health care reform early in his first term, the Republicans regained the House majority led by the right-wing agitator Newt Gingrich; and after Clinton recovered to outfox Gingrich and then win re-election, the Republicans pushed ever further to the right, under the command of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who commandeered the impeachment farce and then forced Gingrich out. The conservative five-to-four majority on the Supreme Court placed George W. Bush in the White House, but Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” quickly gave way to the brutal and politicized methods of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. The DeLay-led right-wing Republican Congress was happy to go along, even after DeLay’s money-laundering corruption came to light, after which the Democrats regained the House majority in 2006. By then, most of the country had turned fiercely against Bush—and so would the irreducible hard-right base over his desperate effort to stanch the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression with a massive bailout of financial institutions. This right-wing revulsion against Bush as a secret “big-government” betrayer would in time explode as the Tea Party.

Looking back on this history, the impeccably centrist political scientists Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann have recently observed that the undeniable reality for decades—obscured by a cowed press corps intent on proving its objectivity—is that right-wing Republicans, especially in Congress, have been the cause of the intensified polarization in Washington, turning their party into “an insurgent outlier in American politics.” Yet in the face of this reality, Obama propagated the idea that both parties were responsible for the acidulous politics of the 1990s, that “politics as usual” and “the old Washington games with the same old Washington players” had produced stalemate. He offered instead a transcendent and “transformative” post-partisanship that would carry the country to the higher ground of peace, prosperity, and social justice. He would be the latest antidote to the kind of low political scheming that an earlier generation of reform Democrats had seen and detested in Lyndon Johnson and, in many cases, in Robert Kennedy as well.

Obama came into office in 2009 with a more favorable political situation than Johnson faced in 1963 and 1964. To be sure, Kennedy’s martyrdom gave Johnson enormous public sympathy, which he was unashamed about exploiting politically. And by the time Obama became president, the sort of right-wing revanchism and even paranoia that in Johnson’s day occupied the margins of American politics, in groups such as the John Birch Society, had become part of the mainstream inside the Republican Party as well as on cable television and the Internet. But unlike the longentrenched bipartisan conservative majority that Johnson confronted, Obama faced a fractured opposition party that was in public disgrace after the eight-year Bush regime and whose candidate, Senator John McCain, had just conducted the feeblest presidential campaign since the Michael Dukakis campaign in 1988. (Even Dukakis had not given America an indignity on the order of Sarah Palin.)

Johnson was an accidental president who had run on a ticket that barely squeaked by three years earlier; Obama had been elected to office with the first presidential popular majority that his party had enjoyed in more than thirty years and the largest in more than forty. On Inauguration Day, Obama enjoyed an astounding 69 percent public approval rating. More important, he enjoyed a seventy-nine-seat Democratic majority in the House and a eight-seat Democratic majority in the Senate—very close to a working party majority, which he would enjoy, briefly, during the summer of 2009, without the Southern-Midwestern conservative axis that Johnson confronted. Johnson, by contrast, began his presidency in political loneliness, detested by Kennedy liberals, alienated from Southern Democrats, and mistrusted by Republicans. And out of this isolation he produced a genuinely transformative presidency.

OBAMA’S LIBERAL CRITICS have complained that, despite his administration’s accomplishments, he did not make the most of his historic opportunity. To his credit, Obama salvaged the auto industry, and he addressed the financial and economic emergency with a modest stimulus plan that, despite his sweet reason, still won not a single Republican vote. He then turned to his signal effort, health care reform—and the White House handed the issue in the Senate over to the dilatory Senator Max Baucus of Montana and the so-called Gang of Six. By the time Obama, prodded by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, finally signed what had become of the Affordable Care Bill, the White House had either backed off from early avowals, above all its support for a public option, or negotiated away important provisions to the big pharmaceutical and insurance lobbies. And still, after all the tussling, only a single Republican in either chamber voted for the amended bill.

Nor did Obama’s winning the historic if weakened health care act pave the way either for a closing of the partisan gap or a public endorsement of Obama’s achievement. Whipped up by Republican demagogy that health care reform proved Obama was a fearsome “socialist,” the electorate handed the House majority to the GOP in 2010 and whittled down to six the Democratic majority in the Senate. The White House and Senate leadership had the chance to alter the rules on filibustering, before the new Congress began its work—the kind of maneuver that Lyndon Johnson could have been counted on to pull off. Instead, boxed in, Obama pursued a “grand bargain” when the Republicans threatened to throw the already fragile economy into utter chaos during the debt-ceiling crisis last summer. Some influential Democrats urged the president to shut down the entire phony crisis by invoking the Fourteenth Amendment that prohibits shenanigans with the full faith and credit of the United States. It is, again, the kind of thing that Lyndon Johnson would conceivably have done, if only to show his opponents that the president of the United States—“your President,” he would have said, with an edge—would not put up with zealous, posturing partisans threatening the nation’s security.

It is at this intersection of past and present that The Passage of Power connects with our own political problems. But finally comparisons between Obama and Johnson—the sort of presentism that is always a temptation—are beside the historical point. In the last third of his book, Robert Caro sees the atrocious Lyndon Johnson getting a grip on his baser drives just long enough to pull the country through its trauma and undertake what would become his greatest political achievements. He leaves us assured that, like a golfer teeing up, he is preparing his readers for the full force of what he will undoubtedly show as the revived hateful Johnson ruining everything in Vietnam. But with this penultimate volume, he offers, perhaps inadvertently, a primer about the sources and uses of executive power as understood by one of the truly formidable presidents in our history. Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt all combined keen historical awareness with a gift for sizing up political situations inside Washington and pursuing their goals with deeply effective governing skills, tactical as well as strategic. These qualities are no guarantee of success, but they have been essential to securing the greater good. And these were qualities that Lyndon Johnson possessed in abundance.

Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of Bob Dylan in America (Doubleday). This article appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of the magazine.

Editor's Note: Due to an editing error, the original version of this review misstated that the Democrats enjoyed a ten-seat majority in the Senate on January 20, 2009. Continuing challenges to Al Franken's election delayed the Democrats' securing their ten-seat majority until July 7, 2009, which then reverted to a nine-seat majority upon Edward Kennedy's death the following August 25. TNR regrets the error.