“Read this Book, Obama,” a review of Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, vol. 4, The Passage of Power

Frum, David

Newsweek, April 15, 2012

pp. 10 - 14

“For three years under President John F. Kennedy, the cause of civil rights inched forward, if it moved at all. Then, suddenly, Kennedy was dead—and seven months later, so too was legal segregation. To this day, the mystique of John F. Kennedy lingers. One third of Americans rate Kennedy a great president, and professional historians typically bestow generous accolades on him as well. And yet on the day he was murdered, President Kennedy had accomplished astonishingly little of his domestic program. He could plausibly claim to have prevailed over the Soviets in Cuba and Berlin. Yet in Congress, it was his opponents who had bested him—and his most effective opponents were found inside his own party, the conservative Southern Democrats who controlled the switching points of power in the House and Senate. It was the graceful Kennedy’s ungainly successor who transformed Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric into legal reality. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who pushed through Congress the laws that overthrew legal segregation in the South. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who gained Southern blacks the right to vote. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who created Medicaid and Medicare. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who protected wild rivers. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who passed the great tax cut that carries Kennedy’s name to this day. . . Caro’s Johnson is a bully and braggart, a manipulator, a man of bad personal morals and worse business ethics. And it is this, frankly, monstrous character who realized more of Caro’s liberal ideals than any politician in modern times, Franklin Delano Roosevelt very much included—and vastly more than the charming, but domestically ineffectual JFK. In a story already rich with drama, this tension between author and subject—between Caro’s loathing of Johnson and his reverence for Johnson’s accomplishments—is the tensest drama of all. How did Johnson do it? Here is Caro’s disconcerting message: Johnson didn’t do it by inspiring or exhorting. He did it by mobilizing political power, on a scale and with a ruthlessness that arguably surpassed all other presidents, before or since. . . As Caro tells it, Johnson instantly understood how to put to maximum political use the public grief over the Kennedy assassination. Johnson was not reckless enough to say aloud, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ But he certainly acted on that maxim.”