The Great Rift: How a Party Became Divided


The Great Rift: How a Party Became Divided

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power; Robert A. Caro; Alfred Knopf, 2012

Political lineage fascinates me, and I make no apologies for this fixation. The Republican Party of 2012 and 2013 has no Ronald Reagans at its helm, yet nearly all the leading figures—those candidates from the recent troubles, to those now on the horizon for 2016—in some way seek to trace their genealogy back to Reagan, the man who once stood as the very definition of GOP success. Likewise, the mythology of John K. Kennedy still dominates the thread of Democratic Party fabric, and every Democrat—from George McGovern to Gary Hart to Bill Clinton to John Kerry—has sought in some way to appropriate a piece of that magic.

In this, the fourth book of Robert Caro’s eventual five book series on Lyndon B. Johnson—a series which has become, more or less, Caro’s great life work—astute readers of political history will discover the very beginnings of the political feud which would eventually morph into a family factional war—an intraparty divide which can be traced from the middle 1960s all the way through the late aught years of this century. For younger voters this divide seems both unfamiliar and even pointless. But there was a time when the antipathy that one side held for the other very nearly defined the Democratic Party, and the resurgence of that feud in 2008—when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fought so feverishly for the nomination—reminds us that those wounds have never fully healed.

Caro does not disappoint with this massive, 600 plus-page volume. Volume Three, Master of the Senate, weighed in at over 1000 pages. Indeed, what started out for Caro (working with Knopf) to be a three-volume work has evolved over the decades into this eventual five-book series, and what will be, perhaps, the most intensely detailed and lavish biography of an American politician ever produced. This is fitting for a subject of such breadth and sweep, for Lyndon Johnson shares the historical limelight of the last century with the brightest luminaries—Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan—and for his on-the-ground political and legislative skills, LBJ may eclipse even those three great names.

Though this book provides in great detail and vivid color the swift ascension of the powerful senate leader to the vice-presidency, and, eventually to the presidency, at the core of this fourth volume is that first early thread of rivalry and bitterness. At the point of divergence of that great genealogical divide which separates the traditionalists and pragmatists (Hubert Humphrey, Edmund Muskie, Henry Jackson, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton) from the idealists and the reformers (Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, Bill Bradley, John Edwards) stood two men of unparalleled stubbornness and pride—Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy. And, after a long and bruising battle for the Democratic nomination in 1960, when John Kennedy sought to find the shortest possible route toward party unification—choosing his arch-rival Johnson as his running mate over the objections of Kennedy’s inner circle and especially the dark reservations of his brother Bobby—that feverish, inconsolable vendetta began in earnest.

That Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy disliked each other was well known by the time of the convention, for neither man had been subtle in the language used to disparage the other. But Caro shows us a Lyndon Johnson who, as vice president, was often cut out of the loop on some of the most critical discussions and decisions, or, in many cases, included only in cursory, grudging ways, a demotion of sorts for the man who had once been the most powerful voice in the United States Senate, and whose ability to push forward legislation, or to restrain it, was virtually unlimited. Caro shows us the Lyndon Johnson now sitting in sullen silence through long meetings, rarely, if ever, asked for advice or counsel; a vice president, when finally given an audience with JFK, likely to be interrupted frequently by Kennedy confidants Ted Sorenson, Kenny O’Donnell and Mac Bundy; a Johnson cut off from his legislative expertise, and forced to largely sever his longstanding connections to southern Democratic colleagues in Congress. Most of all, we see a Lyndon Johnson suffering the machinations and maneuvering of those who resented his presence the most—the Kennedy claque and especially Bobby.

Caro leads us inevitably and tensely to that infamous day of Kennedy’s trip to Dallas, a rare moment when a vice-president travelled alongside the president to the same city and many of the same events. At the very moment when half the cabinet was aboard a single jet airplane at the remotest point over the Pacific Ocean (on their way to a planned meeting in Japan), having just crossed the International Date Line, a young ex-marine named Lee Harvey Oswald fires his rifle several times, injuring Texas Governor John Connally and mortally wounding Kennedy. Caro takes us into Parkland Hospital, where LBJ waits in grim silence at the back of the room as the surgeons work feverishly to save the lifeless president. Lyndon Johnson must take charge.

The nastiness of the rivalry begins fresh and with indelible moments. Snubbed by a distraught and emotional Robert Kennedy upon their return to the airport in Washington when Kennedy confidants and Bobby whisk both Jackie and JFK’s body away in their entourage, leaving Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson waiting aboard the open back gate of the airplane, the rift becomes a dance of dark willpower. There are tragic miscommunications within hours of the assassination. Johnson’s people want him to take charge and show the American people—and world leaders, most especially U.S. cold war enemies—that the transition of power is swift and complete, but Johnson must delay moving into the Oval Office for nearly four days while the Kennedy clan work to remove personal files, memorabilia and effects. Instead Johnson must conduct critical business from his small vice presidential office, meeting with governors and foreign leaders in a space a fraction of the size for such business. Bobby and Lyndon struggle over funeral arrangements—times, locations—and over the timing of Johnson’s much needed address to Congress and the nation, essential to calm fears and solidify the transition. In mourning, Robert Kennedy’s blind hatred of Johnson is fueled by fear and paranoia, as over the weekend Oswald is himself killed, shot by nightclub owner Jack Ruby while some four million people watch live on television. When the new president is finally able to convene his first cabinet meeting after days of wrangling through complex schedules, Bobby Kennedy is notably late to the meeting, another act perceived by the now equally willful Johnson as a deliberate snub.

Even as Robert Kennedy grieves, we see Lyndon Johnson in desperate need of the resources and talents of Kennedy’s men—arguably the greatest concentration of Yale, Harvard and Columbia graduates ever to be packed into the White House at one time—a cadre of thinkers and speechwriters and strategists as essential to Johnson as they had been to Kennedy. Johnson needs their help, and wants them to stay aboard to see through the legislative business still pending—budget bills, tax bills, additional monies for a space program behind schedule, spending on programs to address poverty and education for minorities.

Caro also shows us Lyndon Johnson making the single most significant personal transition in his long political life. No longer able to rage theatrically and ramble incessantly, no longer free to gesture wildly and engage in tantrums, the new president must immediately complete his metamorphosis into a disciplined, self-controlled world leader. Johnson must meet with world leaders—at once—who have gathered from every continent to attend Kennedy’s funeral. How will this new president be judged by Charles de Gaulle? How will the Soviet Union measure this man from his first meetings with Mikoyan or Gromyko? Not yet able to rule out international conspiracy in the assassination, will the first impressions made by Johnson cause world events to escalate, or to cool.

Robert Kennedy’s unbearable grief becomes a subtext for the middle stages of this chapter, and ultimately sets the stage for what will become Kennedy’s challenge to LBJ in 1968 (though we can expect Caro’s lights to turn toward that subject in Book Five, presumably a work already in progress). First, Johnson must direct his attention to the legislative business at hand, and after a remarkable address to Congress and the nation—for which he receives universal high marks even from many hostile press quarters—there is, of course, the business of investigating JFK’s murder. Here we see Johnson at his very best, the skillful persuader of reluctant men, creating what would become known as the Warren Commission—named for Chief Justice Earl Warren—to conduct an unprecedented exhaustive study of the assassination. Eventually, despite what some regard as a flawed process, the Commission completes its work and its mission, and most Americans find themselves at ease with the finding that Oswald acted alone. The sanctity of the Warren Commission’s findings would come under attack, sooner rather than later, and by the mid-1970s a new House investigation would conclude that there was strong evidence of a conspiracy. But at the time, Johnson had set in motion the process of closure most badly needed by Americans still in shock by the loss of a popular president.

Part of what makes Caro’s writing so successful is his exhaustive research, and his access to the thousands of papers, diaries and journals needed to make the storytelling complete. By the time he reached the research phase for this fourth volume, much of Johnson’s own verbiage was available on audio tape. It had first been Kennedy, then, later Johnson, who had installed and expanded the recording systems in the White House—the same systems that would eventually prove to be the undoing of Richard Nixon a decade later. Caro is able to find the gems from this treasure trove of recorded conversation—in offices, conference rooms, phone calls. In addition, Caro has reached—chronologically—the age of television’s omnipresence. There are thousands of film and videotape recordings of this period, and Caro uses those images and those words to effectively bring us both the substance as well as the atmosphere of these momentous events.

Caro’s writing is sometimes less than elegant, and he is neither magisterial in the style of the late Theodore White, nor eloquent like historian Stephen Ambrose. Caro is, above all else, a storyteller of great skill. As with his earlier books in his Johnson series, the reader quickly accepts the elaborate run-on sentences, the semi-colons and double-quotations within the same sentence, and the multiple fragments patched together to create a single variegated sentence. In this way, Caro more closely resembles David Halberstam, and in some of his most memorable descriptive passages he reminds one of Tom Wolfe’s colorful and atmospheric recreations in The Right Stuff or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Caro is also an expert at triangulating his scenes—no important moment is illuminated without two and three recollections of the same event. Example: Caro uses a multitude of sources to take us aboard a parked Air Force One as it sits, engines still whining at Love Field, while over forty people jam into the single central room for Johnson’s swearing-in as president and that historic and iconic photograph is taken.

Caro has set us up, as it were, for the grand finale: that tragic confluence of circumstances that entraps Lyndon Johnson in the unwinnable conflict in Vietnam, with its escalations and violence and unbearable costs, depriving him strategically of his legislative leverage in the war on poverty, inviting the insurgent candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, and thus setting the stage for Robert Kennedy’s challenge to a sitting President of his own party. That epic fight in 1968 very nearly destroyed the Democratic Party, and set in motion the long, arguably endless feud, a family quarrel which still resonates half a century later.

Book Four in this epic series is highly readable, and, highly recommended for anyone who loves contemporary history.