Read The Passage of Power Online

Authors: Robert A. Caro

The Passage of Power


Copyright © 2012 by Robert A. Caro, Inc.

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

A portion of this work was previously published in
The New Yorker.

Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file with the Library of Congress

eISBN: 978-0-307-96046-7

Cover design by R. D. Scudellari, adapted by Carol Devine Carson

First Edition


For Ina


For Chase and Carla


For Barry, Shana and Jesse

With love

“What the hell’s the presidency for?”

, the President’s plane, is divided, behind the crew’s cockpit, into three compartments. In the first of them, just behind the cockpit, women sat weeping and Secret Service agents were trying to hold back tears (“You’ve heard of strong men crying; well, we had it there that day,” recalls a reporter) as the pilot lifted the big jet off the Dallas runway in a climb so steep that to a man standing on the ground it seemed “almost vertical,” leveled off for a few minutes, and then, warned that there were tornadoes between him and Washington, put the plane into another climb to get above them. In the rear compartment the widow, her suit stained with blood, was sitting next to the coffin of the dead President. And in the center compartment was the new President.

Lyndon Johnson hadn’t been aboard Air Force One on the trip down to Texas. He had long since given up asking
John F. Kennedy if he could accompany him on the presidential plane when they were flying to the same destination (“You don’t mean to say that Mr. Johnson is again insisting on riding with me?” Kennedy had once asked his secretary in an exasperated tone), as he had given up on all his attempts to obtain some measure of recognition, or at least dignity, as Vice President. Once, as Senate Majority Leader, he had been a mighty figure—“the second most powerful man in the country”—but that seemed a long time ago now. Although initially he had been favored to win the Democratic nomination for President, he had been outmaneuvered by the younger man, and, having accepted the vice presidency, had, in that post, become not just powerless but a figure of ridicule. The gibe (“Whatever became of Lyndon Johnson?”) that had started over Georgetown dinner tables was now in headlines over articles about his predicament. He himself was worried about whether or not he would be retained on the 1964 Democratic ticket, and was convinced that whether he was or not, his dreams of becoming President one day were over. He had advised
more than one aide whom he would have wanted with him were he to run for or become President to leave his staff.
future is behind me,” he told one member of his staff.
,” he said to another. “I’m finished.” But he was on Air Force One now.

, this book is the story of the five years—from late 1958, when Johnson began campaigning for the presidency, to November 22, 1963—before that flight from Dallas to Washington: a story of how a man who all his life had yearned for the presidency failed in his great chance to attain that goal, of how, to a large degree because of aspects of his character that crippled him in his efforts to attain it, he allowed the prize for which he had planned and schemed and worked (worked with a tirelessness that made an ally say
never thought it was
for anyone to work that hard”) to be snatched away from him. It is a story of not only failure but humiliation, of how, after he had lost the presidential nomination in 1960, he had taken a gamble—giving up the Senate leadership to accept the vice presidential nomination—because he felt that was his only remaining chance to achieve his goal, and of what followed after he became Vice President. Although Kennedy might not have won in 1960 without his presence on the ticket and his old-fashioned, whistle-stop campaigning—a fact that Kennedy himself privately acknowledged—he received no credit for that. “Power is where power goes,” he had boasted in explaining why he had traded in the Senate leadership: he would be able, through his political gifts, to transform the traditionally powerless vice presidency. But when, not long after the election, he had made two attempts—one with the Senate, one with Kennedy himself—to grab powers no previous Vice President had enjoyed, both were carried out in ways so clumsy and embarrassing that it was obvious that not his old skills but only desperation was behind them. And during the three years since Kennedy had turned aside, with contemptuous ease, Johnson’s attempt to maneuver him into ceding a portion of presidential power, Vice President Johnson had become among Kennedy’s White House aides the object of dislike and distrust, and of derision embodied in the mocking nicknames by which they often referred to him: “Uncle Cornpone” or “Rufus Cornpone.” These nicknames, and a hundred other slights, make this part of the book also a story about what being without power can mean in a city in which power is the name of the game; in a city as cruel as Washington. That part of the story—the five-year part—had ended when Kennedy’s aide
Kenneth O’Donnell had walked into the cubicle in Dallas’ Parkland Hospital in which Lyndon Johnson, standing all but motionless against a wall, had been waiting for long minutes for definitive word on the President’s fate. Seeing the stricken “face of Kenny O’Donnell who loved him so much,” I knew,
Lady Bird Johnson was to say, even before O’Donnell said, “He’s gone.”

And in part this book is the story of a period that began during that flight, for it was on Air Force One, after he had sworn the oath of office with Jacqueline
Kennedy standing beside him in a sweltering, dimly lit cabin, its window shades closed to foil would-be assassins, that his first presidential decisions were made: that the transition between the Kennedy Administration and that of Lyndon Baines Johnson began.

—the transition story, a story just seven weeks long: its end came, as will be seen, on January 8, 1964—is a story of a period in Lyndon Johnson’s life very unlike that of the preceding five years.

Although seven times previously in the history of the American republic a presidential transition had come about not through election but through death, the death of a President in office, and in three of those seven instances, death had come by assassination rather than through natural causes, the Johnson transition took place in circumstances that made it in some ways different from—and in some ways more difficult than—any of its predecessors. The very jolt of the news was different. As the first assassination to take place in the age of television, it was the first an entire nation learned about almost at the same moment: by the time Air Force One touched down in Washington, after a flight of two hours and six minutes, 92 percent of the American people had heard the news, which crossed the country,
a shock wave.” Tens of millions of Americans saw the coffin, escorted by Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy, descend from the plane on an hydraulic lift. And hard on the first shock came others. Forty minutes into Air Force One’s flight, it was announced that a Dallas policeman had been shot, and, a few minutes later, that a twenty-four-year-old man had been arrested for questioning, and a half hour later that he was “a definitive suspect in the assassination,” and on the heels of
Lee Harvey Oswald’s name came rumors that seemed to link him to both
Cuba and the
Soviet Union. With America barely a year past the
Cuban Missile Crisis, the fears that had accompanied the realization in October, 1962, that the country was on the very brink of a nuclear confrontation with those two countries were still fresh in America’s mind. And then, two days later, the assassin was assassinated—on live television. The shadowy figure lunging onto the screen from the right; glimpses of a pistol; “He’s been shot! He’s been shot! Lee Harvey Oswald has been shot!” “For one moment of total horror,” the
New York Times
said, “nothing could quite compare with the killing of … Oswald … before the live cameras of the
National Broadcasting Company.” Concern that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the work not of a lone gunman but of a conspiracy escalated—as did concern about where (in Russia? in Cuba?) the conspiracy might have originated.
Johnson’s ascent to the presidency,” says presidential historian
Henry Graff, “came at the most traumatic moment in American political history.” And the assassination’s impact was magnified by television during the next three days, days of funeral ceremonies for the dead President unrivaled in American history for their pageantry and poignance. During the day of the assassination and the three days
following, television in the average American home was tuned to the Kennedy funeral ceremonies for almost eight hours a day. The events in modern American history most comparable in their impact on the public, social scientists found, were Pearl Harbor and Franklin Roosevelt’s death, but, the scientists also found that because these events had occurred before the television age, they were not in fact comparable. The pervasiveness as well as the immediacy of television coverage—
were times during those days when
a majority of all Americans
were apparently looking at the same events and hearing the same words … participating together … in a great national event,” the scientists concluded; “Nothing like this on such a scale had ever occurred before”—made the assassination and the ceremonies following it an event
without parallel in history.”

Adding to the difficulties was the attitude toward the new President among many—most, in fact—of the late President’s advisers, the men on whom Johnson would have to rely for advice and for the operation of the government. So smoothed over have their feelings been during the intervening decades that in recollections today they bear little resemblance to reality, which was that at the time Lyndon Johnson stepped into office, these men not only disliked and despised him—held him in contempt remarkable in its depth and intensity—but were aware also of what they considered indications of how President Kennedy himself had felt about him, feelings also not at all like those that have come down to us in history; it was a matter of common knowledge around the White House, for instance, that although the Vice President was a member of the group (
ExComm, it was called) convened to advise John Kennedy during the
Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vice President had been excluded from the meeting at which the final decision about the American response had been made. And there was yet another circumstance that made this transition unique in American history. The
President had a brother, who hated the new President—as the new President hated
This book is therefore also the story of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy—one of the great blood feuds in American political history. It was a feud that arose out of something visceral, something deep within both men—those who witnessed their first face-to-face encounter, in the Senate cafeteria in 1953, when Robert Kennedy was only a young Senate staffer and Lyndon Johnson was the mighty Majority Leader, would never forget it—and over the years, it had only intensified: Lyndon Johnson never forgot or forgave, could never, until he died, stop talking about, Robert Kennedy’s visits to his hotel room during the 1960 Democratic convention to try to force him off the ticket. Possessing during his brother’s presidency the power to humiliate Johnson, Bobby Kennedy had taken many opportunities to do so. And now, in a single instant, in the crack of a Dallas gunshot, their positions had been reversed, tables turned completely, and Lyndon Johnson had the power to repay the favor—which he soon began to do. Adding still another element to the feud was a factor that seemed likely to make the transition especially problematical. During the final year before the assassination, it had become apparent that the brother had set his sights on becoming President
himself one day, perhaps on succeeding John Kennedy after his presidency was over. Should he decide now to mount a challenge to Johnson, he might have on his side, in addition to the Kennedy name and aura, and the sympathy engendered by the assassination, the support of most of his brother’s White House staff and Cabinet, as well as of political leaders across the country who had been members of the Kennedy camp since 1960. While ordinarily a sitting President could easily turn back any challenge to his renomination from within his party, this would be no ordinary challenge, particularly if, with November, 1964, so close upon him—Jack Kennedy’s death was also the first death of a President to have occurred so late in his term; the
of assuming office and then running for election in the same first year” made Johnson’s transition “unprecedented” in American history, says presidential historian
Richard Neustadt—the new President should prove unable to quickly unify the Democratic Party behind him. Years later, during his retirement, Johnson would speak of
thing I feared from the first day of my presidency”: an announcement by Robert Kennedy of “his intention to reclaim the throne in memory of his brother.”

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