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Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power

John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, 1961

John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, 1961, photo from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Tomorrow, May 1st, Robert A. Caro's fourth volume on Lyndon B. Johnson will be released. The Passage of Power chronicles Johnson from 1958 until 1964, when he went from being Senate Majority Leader to Vice President to President of the United States. Michael Nelson examines Caro's take on the 1964 vice presidential spot.

In every year divisible by four, the political community spends a good bit of the Winter and Spring speculating on the likelihood of a “brokered convention.” And in every such year in which a president is running for reelection, it (we, to be honest) spends almost as much time speculating about whether he will change his vice presidential running mate—Spiro Agnew in 1972, Dan Quayle in 1992, Richard Cheney in 2004, and even Joseph Biden earlier this year.

Neither of these eventualities has come to pass in many years. The last convention that went past a single ballot was sixty years ago, in 1952, when the Democrats took three votes to nominate Adlai Stevenson. And the last time a president running for another term replaced his running mate was in 1944, when Franklin Roosevelt acquiesced to Democratic Party demands to drop Vice President Henry A. Wallace in favor of Senator Harry S. Truman.

In The Passage of Power, the newly-published fourth volume of his monumental The Years of Lyndon Johnson series, Robert A. Caro suggests that things might have gone differently in 1964 if John F. Kennedy had lived, at least as far as LBJ’s place on the ticket was concerned.

Caro’s new book covers the years 1958 to early 1964—that, is the period in which JFK tapped Johnson for vice president in 1960 and then, two-and-one-half years into his term, began planning the 1964 reelection campaign. 

Caro has little doubt that Kennedy placed Johnson on the ticket in 1960 for sound reasons of politics and governance. Politically, Kennedy needed to carry the South and, in particular, Johnson’s home state of Texas if he was going win the election. This was going to be even harder for a Roman Catholic from Massachusetts to pull off than it had been for Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956. In terms of governance, Kennedy dreaded the prospect of having to deal with the independently powerful Johnson if he remained in the Senate as majority leader.

As Caro describes the lead-up to 1964, these reasons no longer applied—but Kennedy’s coolly calculating approach to the vice presidential nomination still did. Politically, Kennedy calculated, his administration’s first-term support for civil rights meant that carrying the South would be impossible. The new challenge would be to win instead large states such as Ohio and California that he had lost to Richard Nixon in 1960. Johnson couldn’t help him there; indeed, as vice president he had even become unpopular and devoid of clout with many Democrats in Texas. 

As for governance, Johnson had been neutered as vice president, a condition that would not change if he became an ex-vice president. Kennedy no longer needed to worry about keeping Johnson inside the tent as he had in 1960.

Further, Caro shows, Life magazine was preparing a series of embarrassing articles about how LBJ had improperly used political influence during his Senate years to become wealthy.  A Senate investigation seemed likely, which along with the planned articles threatened to tarnish Johnson’s reputation.  

Add to these liabilities Robert F. Kennedy’s visceral hatred for LBJ and his desire to deny him a political power base to run for president at the end of his brother’s second term and . . .well, Caro doesn’t actually say. But The Passage of Power certainly gives readers ample evidence to draw their own conclusion that if Kennedy had lived, Johnson’s political career would have ended in 1964.

Michael Nelson is the Fulmer Professor of Political Science at Rhodes College and Senior Fellow in the Miller Center's Presidential Oral History Program.

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