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America’s Nastiest Blood Feud

The President

But once Johnson had some of the Kennedy team staying with him—e.g., Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy—he knew that the way to keep them there was to keep them busy, busy accomplishing things. Here Caro can go back to his original theme, Johnson as a virtuoso creator and user of power—every form of power, crude or subtle, blatant or disguised, cynical or sentimental. Johnson came into office like a tornado, clearing things out of his way. There were already on his desk three bills offered by Kennedy—a foreign aid bill (blocked by Senator Karl Mundt’s amendment banning sale of surplus wheat to Russia), a tax cut to stimulate the economy, and a civil rights bill. Members of his cabinet told him these had little or no chance of passage, and certainly none before Congress left Washington for the Christmas holidays (Kennedy, remember, was killed in late November). Johnson saw a way to push them all forward at once.

On the Mundt amendment, he told senator after senator on the phone, “Do you want the first act of the United States Senate to be a posthumous repudiation of John F. Kennedy?” He used the jolt of Kennedy’s death to kickstart his own presidency. On the tax cut, he went to its principal foe, Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia, who hated deficits, and got him to pledge that if Johnson could keep his new budget under a hundred billion dollars for the coming year (including the tax cuts), Byrd would support it. Johnson called to his economic aide, “Get in here, and bring your meat cleaver.” Then he browbeat agencies to abandon their demands (five thousand jobs for the Post Office alone) to make room for the tax cuts.

The civil rights bill had been held up, it seemed forever, by Howard Smith, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, who refused to release it from committee. Johnson knew that a revolt of committee members could be ignited by an extensive petition drive to release the bill. Johnson organized that drive by calling in civil rights leaders, labor friends, religious organizations. Many of these people were skeptical of Johnson’s late conversion to the rights of blacks. But he convinced them of his sincerity in emotional meetings. Caro has no doubt of that sincerity. He has demonstrated in earlier volumes Johnson’s identification with the poor and despised. It was common in Washington to speak of the “Good Bobby/Bad Bobby” oscillation. Caro knows there had always been a Good Lyndon/Bad Lyndon dynamic of the same sort in Johnson.

By the Christmas break (whose beginning Johnson had persuaded Congress to delay) all three “unpassable” bills were speeding toward passage, and Johnson had just begun. In his first State of the Union Address, he upped the Good Lyndon ante by calling for a War on Poverty. This was the harbinger of a series of reforms he envisaged for his Great Society. They would eventually include such things as Medicare, Medicaid, the Teaching Corps, VISTA, the Job Corps, Upward Bound, and Model Cities. The Washington press, which used to mock Johnson as Uncle Cornpone, registered increasing awe at what he could accomplish.

Caro gives a good example of this in the way Johnson set up the Warren Commission to investigate the murder in Dallas. At first Johnson wanted to rely on Texas criminal procedure to establish guilt for the act. When people let him know this would not convince people that the truth had been discovered, Johnson set up a bipartisan high-level body to conduct an investigation. He knew he needed certain key individuals for this, including the liberal chief justice of the United States, Earl Warren, and the conservative Senator Richard Russell, men at opposite political poles, each of whom despised the other. Both men turned him down, emphatically. But they were then subjected to “the Johnson treatment.”

He told each he was essential to reaching the truth, and only the truth would calm the fears of a jittery nation. He told each the fate of the world depended on him, since only he could allay suspicion that Moscow was behind the killing, which would push America into a dangerous (possibly nuclear) war. He called on each man’s previous military service, saying this was a new way the nation was drafting him. When even this did not bring Russell around, he simply released the official list of commissioners with Russell’s name on it. Then Johnson said that if Russell withdrew his name, he would irremediably wound the whole effort, and jeopardize national security.

Though conspiratorialists have subsequently nibbled endlessly at the Warren Commission’s report, it was at first received with great relief and popular acceptance. It succeeded in doing what Johnson needed, assuaging national nervousness over the assassination. Johnson soared in the national polls, reaching a record 77 percent approval rate in April, then the highest any president had reached at that point in his administration. James Reston, the most recognizable voice of The New York Times, wrote: “President Kennedy’s eloquence was designed to make men think; President Johnson’s hammer blows are designed to make men act.”

All this was gall and wormwood to Bobby, who felt that Johnson was killing his brother over again by stealing his thunder. In an oral history interview given in the spring of 1964, he vented his bitter resentment at the press “in their buildup of Lyndon Johnson, comparing him to the President” (the President). He said, “An awful lot of things were going on that President Kennedy did that Johnson was getting the credit for—and [he] wasn’t saying enough that President Kennedy was responsible.” And, of course, there was nothing like Bad Bobby to bring out the worst in Bad Lyndon. Johnson told Pierre Salinger, a Bobby loyalist who would get word back to him, that John Kennedy’s death was “divine retribution” for his role in the assassinations of Raphael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. God, he said, puts his mark on those who do evil. So the killing in Dallas “might very well be God’s retribution to President Kennedy for his participation in the assassination of these two people.” Needleess to say, these words did get to Bobby, who told Schlesinger they were “the worst thing Johnson has said.” His own sainted brother was evil, was destroyed by God for his vices? What could more inflame the younger brother?

I doubt that Caro, when he began his huge project, thought he would end up composing a moral disquisition on the nature of hatred. But that is what, in effect, he has given us. Hate breeds hate in an endless spiral. Clausewitz, discussing hate as the necessary fuel of war, says it is always on supply, since foes undergo a Wechselwirkung, a back-and-forth remaking of each other, one hostile act prompting a response even more violent, in a continual ratcheting up. That is what Johnson and Bobby are engaged in doing in this book; and Caro has given us many clues to their continued venomous interaction to come in his next volume.

There has not been a great deal in Volume Four about the Good Bobby, but that is bound to emerge in Volume Five, which will treat the 1968 campaign, in which Kennedy championed the poor and opposed the Vietnam War. There has already been a hint of the Bad Lyndon to come as he thrashes deeper into Vietnam. In his very first days in office, he not only escalated troop movements to the war, but did it in secret, deceiving both Congress and the American public. Caro will no doubt trace the way Johnson’s dark war undermined his bright Great Society, “guns” draining money from “butter.” So we have some idea of what lies ahead in Caro’s great literary endeavor. Johnson always expected that Bobby would run against him in 1968, and Caro makes it seem likely that his withdrawal from that race was done in fear of being humiliated at Bobby’s hands. Then we have all the drama of 1968, the killing of Dr. King (which caused an anguish in Bobby related to his brother’s death) and the murder of Bobby himself.

Caro gives us one clear indication of where he is taking the story. He telegraphs ahead of time Johnson’s reaction to the news that Bobby had been shot in Los Angeles (where the two once battled over the 1960 ticket). The president kept asking Joseph Califano, “Is he dead? Is he dead yet?” Califano made so many calls to his assistant. Larry Levinson, to check with the Secret Service that Levinson had to ask: “Joe, is this something that he’s wishing to have happen?” Bobby had tried to keep Johnson out of the White House. Johnson, returning the favor, will try to keep Bobby out of burial beside his brother in Arlington. The hatred had reached depths where it amounted to kicking a corpse. It is disheartening to see such large men reduced to such petty furies.

To understand the sheer wastefulness of this conflict, try to imagine the impossible. What if the two men, instead of bringing out the worst, had played to the best in each other? Suppose Bobby had recognized his brother’s need of Johnson in 1960, had helped capitalize on his resources in the South, and had made him an effective partner in Jack’s administration, instead of a sullen man isolated in his discontent. Would some of the effective legislation of Johnson’s turn in office have been accomplished earlier? Or suppose that Johnson, open to the alternative insights of Bobby, had seen the force of objections to the Vietnam War before he floundered so deep into that Big Muddy. What if he had won over the young people who ended up chanting outside the White House, “Hey, hey, LBJ/How many kids did you kill today?”

But we see that what happened was the opposite of such reasonable alternatives. That is why we read this long book with a growing and almost guilty fascination, and anticipate horrors still to come. It is like watching two very powerful railroad trains racing at top speed toward each other along a single set of tracks.

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