This book is a stunning look at the five years between 1958 to the seven weeks after JFK’s assassination and the remarkable, masterful transition into the Presidency by LBJ. Tremendously well researched, carefully crafted, I am now going to dive back into the first three volumes of Caro’s detailed assessment of this pivotal American president. Enormously, powerfully recommended.
“President Kennedy’s eloquence was designed to make men think; President Johnson’s hammer blows are designed to make men act.”
Johnson was a man with a single mission in life, to become President. Growing up poor in rural Texas, he ascended by whatever means necessary (talk of the 200 “found” ballots all in same handwriting and alphabetical by name) first to the House of Reps and then to the Senate. He quickly took the reins there as well, becoming the Senate Leader and the most effective legislator in modern time, knowing exactly who to push and how to get legislation passed. At the height of his powers in Washington, he ran for the 1960 Democratic ticket, losing to Kennedy and being offered the VP role. Upon consideration of stats like “how many VPs became President” and “how many Presidents died in office”, he decided his best chance at becoming Prez was to accept the humble office of VP, essentially stripping away all power and being a figurehead with nothing to do, no influence. All of that changed in Dallas in Nov 1963.
The first hours, then days of his transition, were a masterstroke of command and restraint. Retaining key Kennedy staff in order to show the American people an image of continuity, convincing Warren and Russell to sit on the commission to study the assassination, beginning to get the logjam in Congress moving with the tax cut bill and the civil rights bill. When counseled not to press on the civil rights issue because it was a lost cause, Johnson wins my heart with, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”