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We Could Have Beaten Kennedy…

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The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power

By Robert Caro
Knopf, 2012

Robert Caro has been writing his biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson for nearly forty years – twice as long as it took Gibbon to chronicle the decline and fall of ancient Rome – and he still isn’t finished. The Years of Lyndon Johnson was conceived as a trilogy: one book would cover Johnson’s early life and his days in the House, another his time in the Senate, and the last would be for the Presidency. But The Passage of Power is volume four, and there will be one more at least.

Caro brings a few rare qualities to the art of biography, and one of them is a meticulousness bordering on pathology. Johnson’s youth was supposed to take up a few chapters of the first book, The Path to Power, but interviews with his college classmates revealed an outcast with a cold aptitude for campus politics – an eerie prefiguration of the older Johnson’s behavior in office. Caro had to include all of it. Book two was supposed to dispense with Johnson’s 1948 Senate campaign in a single chapter (Doris Kearns Goodwin gives it four paragraphs in her 1977 biography), but research unearthed a story of stuffed ballot boxes, grim pistoleros, and forces that would help shape the contours of modern politics: industry money, mass communication and new centers of economic power. It was too important to relate in few pages, so Caro gave it a book. Volume three, which won the Pulitzer, is a thousand-page exegesis of the Johnson’s first ten years in the Senate, where he became the most powerful legislator in American history. The first half of The Passage of Power, the latest, covers Johnson’s last two years in the Senate and his vice presidency, but its second half goes little further than his early months in the White House – those, too, were only supposed to take up a chapter. And not only is Caro meticulous, but his research team consists of only two people: his wife, Ina, and himself. So the series inches forward like defrosting molasses.

Thirty-one years ago Caro declared confidently that “Knowing Lyndon Baines Johnson—understanding the character of the thirty-sixth President of the United States—is essential to understanding the history of the United States in the twentieth century.” “For the drama of his life,” Caro writes in The Path to Power,

…was played out against a panorama vast in scope: the panorama of the westward movement in America… the story of the slow settlement of endless, empty, fearsomely hostile plains… And the story of Lyndon Johnson is, in microcosm, the story of how, at last, government, deaf for generations, finally, during the New Deal, during the Age of Roosevelt, answered the pleas of impoverished farmers for help in fighting forces too big for them to fight alone. The story of Lyndon Johnson is the story of great dams that tamed the rivers of the West, and turned their waters into electric power—for it was because of Lyndon Johnson that great dams were built in [his native] Hill Country. And the story of Lyndon Johnson is the story of the electric wires, gleaming silver across dun-brown plains and hills, which linked the life of the West, as railroads had linked its commerce, to the rest of America—for it was Lyndon Johnson who brought those wires to the Hill Country.

And so on, as Johnson reached for the Senate using methods of campaigning, fundraising and networking everyone else would soon have to adopt. At the capitol, he began dismantling the Senate’s seniority-based hierarchy, creating room for civil rights legislation which, weak though it was, reflected the nation’s evolving attitudes toward race. As President he brilliantly shepherded the first truly effective civil rights bill in almost a hundred years through Congress, while bringing the full power of government to bear on social problems—and the thatched roofs of Vietnam.

Still, it’s plain that when he started Caro could not have understand how “essential” Lyndon Baines Johnson was. He hadn’t yet buried himself in the paper stacks of the LBJ library, but more importantly, his great project began before the election of Ronald Reagan, the ascendance of the conservative movement, the calcification of America’s political parties, and the resurgent faith in laissez-faire economics—all in some way an unintended consequence of Johnson’s hyperactive White House. We know that history is not a bare arena full of Great Men, but more than any other person, Lyndon Johnson, with his nagging insecurity, manic ambition, and fugitive empathy, wrenched America onto the course it has been following for the last half century.

* * *

Johnson didn’t invent the mainstays of modern campaigning – mass-communication technology, slush funds for purchasing political allegiance (the SuperPACs of yesteryear), character assassination – but he combined and used them more effectively than anyone before him. Similarly, Johnson didn’t invent the modern game of acquiring political power, but before he was even a congressman he built the rudiments of a political network – a menagerie of local Texas politicians, businessmen, and bureaucrats – that would secure him a future in politics. Johnson could do this because he understood money’s relationship to power, and as Caro describes in Path,

Because [the money at Johnson’s disposal] came from Texas, the rise of Lyndon Johnson sheds light on the new economic forces that surged out of the Southwest in the middle of the twentieth century, on the immense influence exerted over America’s politics, its governmental institutions, its foreign and domestic policies by these forces: the oil and sulphur and gas and defense barons of the Southwest… Lyndon Johnson was not the architect of their ascendancy , but he was its embodiment and its instrument… It was these new economic forces… that raised him to power, and once he was in power, helped him extend it. They placed at his disposal sums of money whose dimensions were extraordinary in politics, and he used this money to force other politicians to do his bidding. By 1941 [when Johnson was making his first run for the Senate], the influence of these new forces on national policy would only be beginning to be felt, but the pattern had been established.

Johnson did create the position of Senate Majority Leader as we know it. Before he arrived in the Senate it was a thankless, powerless post whose efficacy was entirely dependent on its relationship to the President, who was in turn dependent on his standing in the polls and the acquiescence of Congressional barons. Nobody wanted the job, which, along with his ability to ingratiate himself with the powerful Southern bloc, was why Johnson was got it only four years into his first term.

Through disciplined vote counting and parliamentary maneuvers, legislative bribery, vote exchanges, quid pro quo, and of course money, he was able to forge the Democratic party into an effective voting unit and, when the party was split, he would bend to his will enough Republicans (a far more heterodox party in those days) to pass his bills. He rarely lost a vote, and Johnson is to this day the most powerful Majority Leader in history. While he had the keys it was the second-most powerful office in the country.

Before he entered the upper house, chairmanships of the Senate’s fifteen standing committees were awarded by seniority: the member of the party in the majority who had served longest on any given committee would be its chairman. The committees were the true centers of power in Congress, the gates through which every bill considered on the floor of the Senate had to pass. With its pro-business, anti-government allies, the South, which returned the same segregationist Congressmen to office in election after election, controlled the most powerful committees. Liberal social and civil rights legislation couldn’t breach the dam, to use a metaphor of which Caro is fond.

Johnson sold his fellow Southerners on two propositions: that the Democratic party could wage more effective political combat if some committee memberships were assigned by merit rather than seniority, and that passing modest but symbolic social and civil rights legislation would ingratiate him with the liberal wing of the party and smooth the path toward his election as President, after which he would be an effective defender of the Southern way of life. The weakening of the seniority system allowed liberal senators like Hubert Humphrey (one of many indebted to Johnson for choice committee assignments) to rise in the party, and when Johnson won the 1964 Presidential election in a landslide, they took over. And though the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, was so weak as to be useless, it was nevertheless a precedent and a symbol of hope.

* * *

At glance at Caro’s dramatic, old-fashioned style of prose gives us a good idea of his moralistic approach to history—also old-fashioned. Wade through the ovations that greet his books and you’ll find the critics, who when they are not praising him for his industry, are shelling him for viewing the world—especially the practical world of politics, they explain with a sigh—as a battleground of good and evil.

Sean Wilentz summed it up as well as anybody when he recently wrote in The New Republic:

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…

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.

Wilentz, of course, produces that kind of historical writing (in Chants Democratic and The Rise of American Democracy he does so brilliantly), but ironically it’s with Caro’s rendering of Johnson that this accusation is least effective. Search through the negative and ambivalent reviews and you will find few if any examples of where Caro gets Johnson wrong. It’s the act of moral judgment that makes reviewers uneasy. The Manichean reproach is really more of a gesture, a feeling that Caro’s extremely critical disposition—”hostile,” many have called it—and his reliance on the tapestry metaphor, with its light and dark threads, can’t be right, that life is just more complicated than that. But Caro simply amasses too much evidence, and the idea that people do good and bad things for personal reasons is uncontroversial. That’s where “foolish decisions,” with their “unintended consequences,” often come from.

And it’s with “political pressures” and “chance occurrences,” with the churn of the outside world, that Caro’s ethical approach is most successful. In the first volume Lyndon Johnson isn’t born until page 66. That’s because the first four chapters are a sad description of the trials Johnson’s ambitious ancestors met after they settled in the deceptive Texas Hill Country (where Caro, ever the intrepid researcher, pitched tent for a time in order to better understand the place). It looked like an eden, but the soil was thin and the weather was fickle. Lyndon’s father was Sam Ealy Johnson, an un-corruptable, reform-minded state representative who accepted no favors. He wanted to build a ranch, but he went broke trying, and the young boy who had idolized his father grew up determined to succeed where the latter had failed, to be ruthlessly practical in the accumulation of power. There is sympathy, not hostility, in Caro’s method, and it mixes with his anger at Johnson’s crimes (and there were many) to give the book a peculiar charge, which Caro channels through his throwback prose – a quixotic mix of Robert Carlyle and David Halberstam.

the infamous “Johnson treatment”

“The books are really about political power,” Caro once explained to an interviewer. About how it’s acquired and used, yes, but also about what it means for people who don’t have it. Some of the finest passages in The Path to Power are in a chapter called “The Sad Irons,” which describes the debilitating physical labor Hill Country residents spent their days performing before Johnson brought them electricity: milking cows by hand before daybreak, canning every bit of food, tending to boiling laundry. The introduction to Master of the Senate begins with the courageous black residents of a rural Southern town, who risked their lives and jobs to register to vote, because Caro needs us to understand the symbolic importance of the bill Johnson drove through the Senate in 1957. It’s at these moments that Caro’s unabashed moralism is most rewarding.

The oceans of context also endow The Years of Lyndon Johnson with a sense of gravity that few historians can manage. After that introduction in volume three, we are treated to a one hundred page mini-history of the Senate – its culture, its hierarchy, its achievements or lack thereof – so that when Johnson begins to break down the seniority system that allowed the South to dominate, we understand the magnitude of the achievement and have the proper measure of wonder at his abilities. The important people in Johnson’s life, like his wife Ladybird, his early protector Sam Rayburn, and the fatherly Southern Senator Richard Russell, all get mini-biographies of their own, because Caro means to forge a strong connection between moments, people and the circumstances that made them.

But Caro’s feelings sometimes pull him adrift. His opprobrium for Johnson’s faults invariably leads him to sympathize with the people Johnson tramples and uses. It’s here the critics have the strongest case. For Caro the essential goodness of Johnson’s enemies is reflected in their un-Johnsonian aspects: their honesty, selflessness and loyalty to higher things like country and family. But those qualities have a tendency to mist over other things, like, say, hatred for blacks and liberals.

Means of Ascent, the second book, is mostly about the 1948 race for one of Texas’ Senate seats, in which Johnson tried to lie and spend his way to victory. When he realized he was going to lose anyway, he stole it. Johnson’s opponent was a man named Coke Stevenson, who refused to pander, engage in ad hominem attacks or accept dirty money. He was also a crude racist who hated anything associated with communism—which back then meant liberals, social spending, and unions. But Caro dispenses with that in a few sentences. He defended himself in the New York Times Book Review by saying that race wasn’t an important part of the campaign, which it wasn’t. It was a piece of Stevenson’s character, something Caro praises repeatedly, albeit for other reasons.

* * *

Now in The Passage of Power the enemy is Robert Kennedy, a man nearly as full of contradictions as Johnson himself. Their enmity dated to the early 1950s. In the late 1930s Joseph Kennedy, Sr., an isolationist, was Roosevelt’s ambassador to England. When Roosevelt found out Kennedy was making a trip back to America during the 1940 election season, he suspected it was in order to endorse his opponent. So he called Kennedy, pleading urgent business, and told him to come straight to the White House, where the ambassador was promptly fired. Johnson was there for the phone call, and being a natural storyteller, gifted mimic and compulsive talker, spread the tale through the halls of Congress.

Robert Kennedy, like Johnson, never forgot an insult. In 1952 his father got him a job as assistant counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy. One morning in January the next year, Johnson was leaving the Senate cafeteria with his aides, and between them and the door was the table where McCarthy sat every day with his aides.

As Johnson, [his aides] Busby and Reedy walked by, McCarthy, as was his custom, jumped up to shake Johnson’s hand, calling him, as senators were already starting to do, “Leader,” and McCarthy’s staffers also rose—except, quite conspicuously, for Bobby, who sat unmoving, with a look on his face that Busby described as “sort of a glower.”

Lyndon Johnson knew how to handle that situation. Moving around the table, he extended his hand to take McCarthy’s and those of the standing staffers, and when he got to Bobby Kennedy, stood there, with his hand not exactly extended but, in Busby’s words, “sort of half-raised,” looking down at Kennedy. For a long moment Kennedy didn’t move. The glower had deepened into something more. “Bobby could really look hating,” Busby says, “and that was how he looked then. He didn’t want to get up, but Johnson was kind of forcing him to,” and finally, without looking Johnson in the eye, he stood up and shook his hand.

Kennedy never forgave him, and Johnson gave him no reason to.

Everyone assumed Johnson would run for the presidency in 1960, but he was unusually reticent. He was so afraid of defeat that he waited, chary of commitment to a race he might lose. (The weak 1957 Civil Rights Bill hadn’t done what he intended: liberals still didn’t trust him and Southerners were now suspicious.) Johnson rested his hopes – which took on an air of fantasy – on the convention, wagering that John Kennedy wouldn’t be able to win the primaries outright, and that he could step in there and win on the floor.

Johnson eventually realized that he would have to commit himself to the race earlier and win a few primaries, so he had a base when the fight for delegates came. Well before that, John F. Kennedy sent Robert down to the Hill Country to ferret out Johnson’s intentions. Johnson forced the younger man to go on a deer hunting trip, and gave him a shotgun instead of a rifle. When Kennedy fired it he was knocked to the ground. “Son,” Johnson said, “you’ve got to learn to handle a gun like a man.”

The trip convinced Robert (and thus John) that Johnson wasn’t running. But he was. And late in the race Johnson discovered that he was losing. His people would visit this or that state and find that someone had already been there and locked up the delegates for John F. Kennedy. Robert F. Kennedy, it turned out, was as good at pleading, bullying and counting votes as Johnson was.

After decades of hoping and planning to be President, Johnson was beaten. Kennedy, hoping the Texan would help him in the South, asked him to be Vice President. Johnson had already considered the possibility. He figured he might not even have to wait eight years. “Sometime in early 1960,” Caro writes,

he had had his staff look up the answer to a question: How many Vice Presidents of the United States had succeeded to the Presidency? The answer was ten… He had his staff look up a second figure: How many Presidents of the United States had died in office? The answer was seven…The chances [for the latter] were about one out of five.

Johnson was also aware that Kennedy, who had Addison’s disease, was sicker than the public knew. He accepted the offer.

There followed, in Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel, a confusing flurry of meetings and back-channel talks. Johnson and JFK sought to reassure their skeptical allies, while Bobby – as Caro always calls him – scuttled about frantically trying to reverse the decision. How actively JFK fought for the nomination is not clear, but Robert’s claim to posterity that his brother didn’t really want Johnson, and that he was acting on behalf of his elder sibling, is either delusion or clever manipulation on JFK’s part. Whatever the case, Johnson remained on the ticket.

“Power is where power goes,” Johnson had told a friend the morning after the convention, trying to explain why he might give up leadership of the Senate. But the power of the Vice Presidency is a function of the Vice President’s relationship with the President, and relations between Johnson and Kennedy were distant, if cordial. The next three years were a humiliation: Johnson had next to no influence, and was the frequent butt of jokes on the D.C. cocktail circuit (they called him “Rufus Cornpone”). During the Cuban Missile Crisis he was kept out of the the crucial meetings (a good thing, no doubt, because he was unthinkingly hawkish), and he was rarely consulted on legislation, though he knew more about how to pass it than anyone alive. Caro rightly depicts the latter as foolishness on the part of the Kennedys, though it’s difficult to underestimate the extent to which someone like Johnson would repel them.

“I’m telling you,” Robert said once, “he just lies continually about everything. . . . He lies even when he doesn’t have to lie.” “[Robert] detested the politician’s false bonhomie,” Caro writes, “and Johnson embodied that bonhomie.” Robert hated being physically handled, “and of course Lyndon Johnson was always touching and hugging… So many of Bobby Kennedy’s pet hates were embodied in Lyndon Johnson.” Robert was also protective of his brother. In less guarded moments he disclosed a submerged fear: “I can’t stand the bastard, but he’s the most formidable human being I’ve ever met.” “He just eats up strong men,” he told Richard Goodwin (Doris Kearns’ future husband) on another occasion. “The fact is that he’s able to eat people up, even people who are considered rather strong figures.” It was, the repetition suggests, a kind of awe.

Johnson, in turn, recognized Bobby’s ability. Robert had beaten Johnson in 1960, and like him was the sort who wanted to ruin his enemies, not defeat them. Richard Goodwin said that Johnson’s attitude toward the younger Kennedy “was more than hatred. It was fear.” And while he was Vice President he had to submit to the humiliations Robert visited upon him: berating his staff, ignoring him in meetings, Robert’s staff ignoring him.

In late 1963 Johnson was starting to believe he would be dropped from the ticket the next year. Whether or not this was true – and many in the Kennedy camp disputed it – it is likely that JFK would have been forced to drop him. By November, Life magazine’s reporters had discovered that Johnson was far richer than he let on, and that he had gotten that money by abusing his public office. At the same time, a scandal involving his most trusted aide Bobby Baker – splashed all over the front pages of the nation’s magazines – was being investigated by the Senate Rules Committee, and a man named Don Reynolds was willing to testify and give physical evidence that Johnson and Baker had shook him down in exchange for political help with his insurance business. The Senate Rules Committee was reviewing that evidence at a closed hearing the day Kennedy was shot.

Instantly Johnson was the most powerful man in the world. The Life article was shelved. The Rules Committee took Reynolds’ evidence away, and the hearings were discontinued.

It is telling that even in the midst of all that chaos, the new President could not forget the slights of the past three years. Thirty minutes after he heard that his brother was dead, Robert Kennedy got a call from Lyndon Johnson. Johnson wanted to know if he could be sworn in right there in Dallas, information he could have gotten from anyone at the Justice Department. It was, Caro writes, a conversation “between a man who knew exactly what he wanted and what to say in order to get it, and a man so stunned by grief and shock that he hardly knew what he was saying, or even, to some extent, what he was hearing.” Johnson, to secure his assumption of the Oval Office, wanted the Kennedy imprimatur on record. Maybe a sadistic part of him wanted to hear Bobby’s pain, too. And as if to drive the point home, that he had the power now, he had his aides summon Federal District Court judge Sarah Hughes to the plane to administer the oath of office. Johnson had been unable to secure her appointment from the Kennedys; he had to get his friend, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, to do it for him. Johnson didn’t have to take the oath there. He didn’t have to take it at all: technically, at Kennedy’s death, he became the President. But the oath, frozen in that famous picture, had a dual symbolism: one for the nation, and one for Johnson and his enemies. When that was done, the plane left for Washington.

* * *

Johnson threw himself into the transition with an energy the people who knew him hadn’t seen in years, and he conducted it with a gravity entirely new to him. “And by doing so,” Caro writes of the first few months of Johnson’s Presidency,

by overcoming forces within him that were very difficult to overcome, he not only had held the country steady during a difficult time but had set it on a new course, a course toward social justice. In the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, this period stands out as different from the rest, as perhaps that life’s finest moment, and as a moment not only masterful but, in its way, heroic.

He convinced Kennedy’s cabinet (including his brother) to stay on indefinitely, and Kennedy’s closest advisers – including Ted Sorenson – to stay on for a few months. It was not just for the sake of continuity and reassuring the nation, though there was that. Johnson intended to use the Kennedy name, and the aura and sympathy around it, to do what Kennedy had not done.

Months before the assassination, Johnson, for one of the few times in his Vice Presidency, was consulted on an important issue. JFK sought his advice about a civil rights bill. Johnson advised him to hold it back and pass his other domestic legislation first, or everything else he wanted to do would be held hostage to that bill. Kennedy stupidly ignored him, and when Johnson came to office his predecessor’s entire agenda lay dormant on Capitol Hill, which on account of the South would not move until civil rights legislation was withdrawn.

At the time Johnson came to the Senate in 1948, the most powerful senator was not the Majority Leader but Richard Russell, leader of the South. Before he was sworn in Johnson had gone to see Russell, but earnest as Johnson was for power he kept pleading for things Russell didn’t want to give him – a good committee assignment, a big office. Johnson adapted though, and became not only an ally but a friend to the lonely Georgian, who gave his nod when Johnson asked to be Minority Whip, and then again when Johnson sought to be Leader. It was Russell who gave Johnson permission to go ahead with the 1957 Civil Rights Act, thinking that if Johnson could pass a meaningless bill to appease northern liberals, a Southerner could finally be elected President. Johnson had made that very argument to him, promising he was one of them, a son of the South.

But in his address to Congress after the assassination Johnson declared that he was going to pass Kennedy’s civil rights legislation and all the rest. “The Kennedy bills,” Caro writes, “would be passed now, Russell told a friend.”

“He’ll pass them, whereas Kennedy could never have passed them.”

Lyndon Johnson, Russell felt, would even pass the bill against which Russell had been fighting, and winning, for thirty years. Discussing agricultural appropriations with Orville Freemen a few days after the assassination, Russell changed the subject and began talking about Lyndon Johnson. “He said that Lyndon Johnson was the most amazingly resourceful fellow, that he was a man who really understood power and how to use it,” Freeman recalls. And then, Freeman recalls, Russell said, “That man will twist your arm off at the shoulder and beat your head in with it.”

“You know,” Russell said, “we could have beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson.” There was a pause. A man was perhaps contemplating the end of a way of life he cherished. He was perhaps contemplating the fact that he had played a large role—perhaps the largest role—in raising to power the man who was going to end that way of life. But when, a moment later, Richard Russell spoke again, it was only to repeat the remark. “We could have beaten Kennedy on civil rights, but we can’t Lyndon.”

Johnson and Richard Russell, 1963

Johnson still had to pass the rest of the Kennedy bills before he could get to civil rights, and the most important of those was a tax cut, $11 billion to stimulate the economy. He immediately went to work on Harry Byrd, leader of the Finance Committee, befriending him, flattering him, promising to give him what he wanted, which was a budget under $100 billion. Johnson rode his departments hard, got his cuts (5,000 jobs at the Post Office alone), and Byrd allowed the bill onto the floor.

Johnson then set about the complicated task of passing the Civil Rights Act. In the House it seemed to be trapped in committee indefinitely, but Johnson cannily used the threat of a discharge petition (for which he could amass the required amount of signatures) to get Howard Smith of the Rules Committee to allow the bill onto the floor. He sent Robert Kennedy, still Attorney General, out to be the face of the bill, and he marshaled his forces in the Senate. Minnesotan Senator Hubert Humphrey, a fiery and eloquent speaker who owed Johnson much of his prominence, was put in charge of the bill on the floor. All this time Johnson was wooing Everett Dirksen of Illinois, leader of the Republicans, many of whom voted with the South on civil rights. “We are carving out the statesman’s niche and bathing it with blue lights and hoping that Dirksen will find it irresistible to step into it,” Caro quotes a Democratic aide. You’re the party of Lincoln, Johnson would tell him. You’re from Lincoln’s state. After Johnson allowed Dirksen to attach a few inconsequential amendments, the man from Illinois switched sides, and agreed to gather Republicans to join with the Northern Democrats for cloture, which would end debate on the bill and allow it to come to a vote. The South filibustered for 57 days, the longest in history, but Johnson and Dirksen got their votes, and by July 2, less than eight months after he took office, Johnson signed the first substantive civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.

* * *

Over the next few years, which await Caro’s fifth volume, Johnson would bring his unparalleled energy and ability to other bills and programs: the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, gun control, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Public Broadcasting Act, Head Start, food stamps, Work Study, VISTA, Model Cities, the creation of the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than ten environmental laws, and the Immigration Act of 1965, which liberalized quotas and allowed immigrants outside of Europe a fairer shot at living in America. The so-called “era of big government” had begun.

Johnson’s 1964 landslide against the conservative martyr Barry Goldwater brought in a vastly transformed Congress. The hold of the South was broken: legislation poured out of Congress at an unprecedented rate, and the old system of seniority broke down further. But Johnson’s success with was dear. “We just lost the South for fifty years,” he would say, and he was right. It slowly spiraled into the Republican camp, and there fused with party’s uber-capitalist, anti-government wing – an embryonic form of the Republican party we know today. Before the 1960’s, opposition to liberal policies took the form of a cross-party alliance of business-friendly Republicans and Southern Democrats, who scratched each other’s backs in the name of state’s rights. Now opposition was unified in a single party, who’s messaging was so effective that serious contenders for the Presidency – think here of Clinton’s “third way” – are now forced to argue on their terms.

Johnson’s Great Society programs, the rise of liberalism, and the tumult of the sixties accelerated the growth of the conservative movement, sired in the 1950’s by men like William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, and William Baroody, who rejuvenated the quiet American Enterprise Institute. Evangelical Christians, too, entered into the political world in increasing numbers. A formidable array of think tanks and advocacy groups came into being (most notably the Heritage Foundation, which formed in 1973), a generously endowed feeder system for conservative intellectuals and activists, who would then go on to staff Congress, media outlets and lobbying groups. Nixon, who won in 1968 after Johnson split the Democrats over the war in Vietnam and dropped out of the race, and whose domestic record was rather liberal (aside from gross violations of laws and decency, that is), nevertheless created a blueprint for a long-term electoral strategy: play on white resentment to secure the South, celebrate free enterprise and law and order, and claim the mantle of strength abroad.

The distrust in government that Johnson had seeded in Vietnam, which reached its apogee in Nixon’s disgrace, may have created a mini-renaissance in the Senate’s oversight of the executive branch (FISA courts and the War Powers Act, for instance, date to this time), and certainly gave Americans a healthy measure of skepticism in their Presidents, whom they otherwise tend to idolize. But it was the Republicans who reaped the electoral gains Johnson’s duplicity had sown, and with Nixon’s playbook in hand they found their avatar in the telegenic but rather empty-headed Ronald Reagan.

Ideas aside, resentment has always been too strong a component of the conservative movement, and of the Republican party. Reagan, at least, was inclined to compromise when he could not win outright, but Newt Gingrich was not, and when he took hold of the House in 1995, it signaled the rise of a new and even more radical generation, which reveled in the “culture wars” that raged during the political turbulence of the Clinton era. They, in turn, were superseded by a new class of Republicans, a notch further to the right, who crashed into office in 2010, galvanized by a man who flourished in the America Lyndon Johnson had helped to create. Barack Obama was an avatar himself, but of everything conservatives resented about that America.

* * *

“The books,” as Caro has said of his epic, one of the finest political biographies ever written, “are really about political power.” And the chief lesson of The Years of Lyndon Johnson is the ambiguity of power, its contingency and dynamism, its refusal to stay put in the cage we fashion for it with our laws and traditions. Democracy, we should remember, can never fully tame those things – those “foolish decisions, political pressures, unintended consequences, and chance occurrences” – that move us forward. It would be glib and foolish to lay five decades of change at the foot of one man. But we would be something else today if Lyndon Johnson – with his corruption, mendacity and compassion – had not come barreling through history like a rogue wave.

Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.