What was going on between Lyndon Johnson's incredibly huge ears?
Lyndon Johnson's life and times get revisited in Robert Caro's new book "Passage Of Power"--his latest lengthy tome about the 36th President of the United States covers his final years as Senate Majority Leader, his ill-fated run for the 1960 nomination, his abrupt rise to the oval office with JFK's assassination and what he did with his new-found power immediately after.
Johnson always fascinated me. As a kid, I remember the relatives arguing about the job LBJ was doing, our nation's growing involvement in Vietnam and the draft which was plucking more and more teens out of Sheboygan and putting them in Southeast Asian jungles. Johnson was a polarizing figure--adults, at least at first, thought he was doing the right thing in standing up to communism but the kids were were fighting the war or seeing their friends go overseas believed otherwise.
I've only finished 140 or so of Caro's 1000 plus pages on my Nook (wow, do I like my Nook but that's a blog for another time) and I'm hooked. There's political intrigue, to be sure, but Caro also goes under the hood on LBJ, talking to friends, aides, enemies and reporters to find out what made him tick.
What is obvious, only 10% of the way into "Passage Of Power" is the fact Johnson had a HUGE fear of failure dating back to his childhood when his once-prosperous dad literally lost the family ranch. The Johnsons became laughingstocks in their tiny Texas town, and young LBJ's takeaway was this: life's too short to take chances, and that risk can lead to life-altering failure, the kind of defeat that lingers forever. It's why Johnson handled his 1960 White House bid so poorly--he refused to announce his candidacy, hoping instead that the other Democrats would falter during the primaries, that none would get the required number of delegates and that a frustrated party would come to him, serving up the nomination on a silver platter.
It didn't happen that way.
John Kennedy, who Johnson completely and thoroughly underestimated, would breeze to a first-ballot win in Los Angeles that summer. Johnson would give up his Senate power for the second spot on the ticket. The Vice Presidency was a powerless prison for LBJ who was ignored by JFK and despised by his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Without reading ahead, it now becomes clear why Johnson wouldn't give up on Vietnam, even when it appeared to be more and more of a lost cause. The fear of failure Caro so vividly described, combined with Johnson's inability to absorb advice he didn't agree with helped set his Southeast Asian plan of attack. Johnson often said he didn't want to be the first President to lose a war--and, he didn't want to look weak to the remaining Kennedy staffers in his White House, the "best and the brightest" as they were called, or "The Harvards" as LBJ derisively labeled them.
What an incredibly complex, fascinating man. The country still can see the footprint of his five years in the White House.
Can't wait to dig into the next 900 or so pages. Better re-charge the Nook.