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Jane Ahlin, Published November 09 2013

Ahlin: Caro book reveals rough politics of LBJ, Kennedys

In the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Kennedy legacy is getting plenty of attention. It seems America never tires of our own Camelot, even when we know in a hundred ways that the myth was far, far removed from reality. In the fourth book of a five-volume series of books by Robert Caro on Lyndon Baines Johnson, this book named “The Passage of Power,” we’re given a different perspective on the brief presidency of Kennedy – what made him politically so successful and what made his brother Robert (Bobby) so important to his presidency.

The story presented by Caro is of rough politics, played out in intense dislike and mistrust between Johnson and the Kennedy brothers – enmity that Caro specifically calls “hatred” between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy. That hatred affected history and holds lessons for today.

As Senate majority leader, Johnson despised the junior senator from Massachusetts, Jack Kennedy. Kennedy’s record suggests Johnson had valid reasons to consider him a lightweight, a rich man’s son to be written off. Kennedy often was gone from the Senate because of illness he intentionally hid (he had Addison’s disease, which hadn’t been diagnosed easily). He authored no meaningful legislation and made no apologies for his absences. When it became obvious that Kennedy was aiming for the presidency, Johnson scoffed at it, often saying, “The boy can’t win.” Caro says Johnson foolishly ignored all that Bobby Kennedy had learned working in Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 presidential campaign, expertise he applied to lining up support for Jack in the 1960 Democratic race. Instead, Johnson was sure Kennedy could not win on the first ballot, and then the convention would turn to him.

Johnson was wrong. On the first ballot, Kennedy became the nominee, and Johnson was offered the vice presidential spot on the ticket. (Kennedy needed Johnson’s credibility in the South.) From the beginning of his political career, Johnson had wanted to be president. He realized with Kennedy as the nominee, he had to go with historical odds, “one in four” chances the vice presidency would lead to the presidency. He told one woman that he was a “gamblin’ man” and that was his best shot. It was a devil’s bargain. He gave up the tremendous power he had as majority leader of the Senate for constant humiliation at the hands of both President Kennedy and his brother Bobby, whom JFK had made attorney general. The Miami Herald editorialized the mistake by saying that Johnson had “given up so much for so little.”

Looking back, one of the startling things is the youth of the Kennedy brothers: JFK was 43 years old when he took office; his younger brother Bobby, only 35. (Jackie Kennedy was 31.) No wonder Johnson could not get over how he’d been out-foxed and embarrassingly sidelined.

After Kennedy’s assassination, the tides turned. It was Bobby Kennedy who had to deal with the humiliation of having the man he derided as “Rufus Cornpone” become president while Johnson took every opportunity to make Bobby – a “grandstanding little runt” in Johnson’s eyes – as miserable as possible. Yet Johnson also understood that martyrdom was a powerful political tool for passing legislation. Three bills JFK had wanted on foreign aid, tax cuts and civil rights – all of which were stalled and unlikely to have passed – quickly were driven through by Johnson. James Reston wrote in a New York Times column, “President Kennedy’s eloquence was designed to make men think; President Johnson’s hammer blows are designed to make men act.”

Interestingly, this fourth book in Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson ends up being as much about hatred as it is about the use or abuse of political power. Hatred between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson was unusual, Shakespearean in scale, tragic and demeaning to both their legacies.

What should give us pause today is how usual such extreme hatred has become; indeed, it is the controlling force in national politics.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.