The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power
Caro, Robert A.
Before 1960, Lyndon Baines Johnson had been Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, “the second most important man in Washington.” But beginning in January, 1961, he was Vice-President of the United States, a position with virtually no power in it whatsoever. For instance, the VP “presided” over the Senate, but could not vote except in the case of a tie. He couldn’t join debates. The first VP, John Adams, called the Vice-Presidency “’the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived. Its powerlessness was a staple of Washington humor: everyone in the capital, it seemed, knew the joke about the unfortunate mother who had two sons who were never heard from again: one was lost at sea, and the other became Vice-President; everyone quoted, actually misquoted, the remark that one Vice President, the Texan John Nance Gardner, had made about the job: ‘It’s not worth a bucket of warm spit.’ (Actually, as Johnson knew because Sam Rayburn [Speaker of the House of Representatives and a fellow Texan] had told him, Cactus Jack had said that what the job was not worth was ‘a bucket of warm piss.’” The obscurity of the job was even in American theater. In the Gershwins’ musical Of Thee I Sing, the Presidential Candidate cannot recall the Vice-President candidate’s name, and the Vice-Presidential candidate wants to resign from the ticket because he fears that, should be actually become Vice-President, the shame of it all would be too great for his mother to bear. Somebody talks the Vice-President out of quitting, and, sure enough, he falls into deep national obscurity; “after the election, the only way he can get into the White House is by joining a guided tour.” In 1961, this was the position in government the formerly “second most important man in Washington” had inherited, and the insignificance of it almost broke him.
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Trying to carve out of the President’s authority some new areas of Vice-Presidential authority Johnson proposed that his office should be in the White House too, and that he should have a large staff to help him with his new “general supervision” over a wide range of national security issues. But the President didn’t respond. He lapsed into “charitable silence” and did it so casually, as if the Vice-President’s proposals were hard to take seriously.