Johnson a towering presence but not a president to mess with


AMERICA:The latest in a series of biographies of Lyndon Johnson has sparked unfavourable comparisons between him and Barack Obama

HISTORIAN ROBERT Caro has devoted 36 years and a million and a half words to the first four volumes of his biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson. “He’s given over so much of his life to another guy,” Caro’s publisher Sonny Mehta told Esquire magazine.

The result is a meditation on power as profound as Machiavelli’s.

Each volume’s publication has been a political and literary event. Ten years have passed since Master of the Senate won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Now The Passage of Power is receiving similar acclaim. It recounts Johnson’s miserable years as John F Kennedy’s vice-president, his ascent to the office he’d hungered for his whole life on the day of Kennedy’s assassination, and Johnson’s dogged pursuit of civil rights legislation, his greatest achievement.

PJ Mara, who was Charles Haughey’s press secretary, devoured the first three Johnson books and is eager to purchase the fourth on an upcoming visit to New York.

When he dined with Caro a few years ago, Mara was struck by the historian’s ambivalence. “He admired Johnson in some ways and abhorred him in others. He vacillated between admiration and loathing. That comes across in the books.”

One of Johnson’s most famous traits was his ability to bully or cajole politicians and newspaper editors into doing his bidding. On a rainy night this week, Caro spoke to 1,000 people at a standing room only lecture in Washington. He told how Johnson forced the publisher of the Houston Chronicle to put in writing that he would not criticise him. Johnson said he’d close down an Air Force base in Fort Worth if the Star Telegram didn’t fire a reporter he disliked. A White House staffer from the Johnson era told me Johnson threatened to make public a senator’s extra-marital affair if the legislator didn’t vote for the Civil Rights Act.

Jack Valenti, Johnson’s assistant, who went on to head the Motion Picture Association, told PJ Mara how Johnson sent him to Capitol Hill to sway the southern Democrats who’d blocked progressive legislation for a century. “Johnson said, ‘Just tell them the president says if they vote for this legislation, he will always remember them. And if they don’t, he’ll never forget them,’” Valenti told Mara.

One senator replied, “That old buzzard means it.”

Johnson’s impoverished childhood in the hill country of Texas left him with a lifelong empathy for the poor, especially African Americans. “Whenever compassion came in conflict with ambition, ambition won,” Caro says. “But when Johnson’s compassion and ambition pointed in the same direction, he was irresistible.”

Advisers told Johnson not to waste political capital on the hopeless cause of racial equality. “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” he responded.

Reviewing the book for the New York Times, former president Bill Clinton recalls Johnson’s ability to “get to” people with what is known as the Johnson Treatment. “We’ve all seen the iconic photos of LBJ leaning into a conversation, poking his thick finger into a confidant’s chest or wrapping his long arm around a shoulder,” Clinton writes. “At 6 foot 4, he towered over most men, but even seated Johnson commanded from on high.”

PJ Mara claims “a certain resemblance” between Johnson and Charles Haughey. “Johnson had that desire to control,” he says. “Johnson had it in spades. I suppose Haughey had it in spades as well.” And although Haughey was a smaller man than Johnson, “he had a presence. If he entered a room, people turned to look at him. He had that ability to dominate. It’s innate, I suspect.”

Volume four has sparked unfavourable comparisons between Johnson and Barack Obama. Columnist Richard Cohen this week advised Obama to read the 712 page book immediately. “It will teach him how to be president,” Cohen wrote, criticising Obama’s “insularity and distance” and his failure to engage “in the sort of face-to-face politicking that Johnson so favoured”.

Caro is irked by reports, started by Newsweek, that his book is an unspoken criticism of Obama. “It is unspoken, unwritten, unthought,” he says. “In my opinion, this is a book about Lyndon Johnson, and I’m the guy who knows.”

On the contrary, Caro adds. “Obama really is Lyndon Johnson’s legacy.” He believes Obama might not have been elected without Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, Bills whose passage he calls “an act of political genius”.

Caro (76) has outlined, but not started writing, his fifth – and he hopes final – volume of the biography, which will cover Johnson’s triumph over Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the way he was “swallowed up” by the Vietnam War.

Johnson was determined not to go down in history as the first US president to lose a war. “Vietnam was a terrible thing . . . a real stain,” Caro says. “The loss of faith in the presidency started with LBJ. The Johnson presidency was a watershed in US history – for both good and bad.”