LBJ, Fulbright and McClellan

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Including preface, acknowledgements, footnotes and index, the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s epic study of Lyndon B. Johnson, The Passage of Power, runs to 736 pages. To my thinking Caro should have done the job in no more than 450 pages, 500 tops. And perhaps worked in a little more Arkansas.

Caro’s books, all save one a doorstop, are a political junkie’s dream, even if the dream has its disquieting scenes. When word arrived that Vol. 4 of LBJ would arrive in bookshops in spring, I made certain to have my copy shipped here, far from my office and my home, the better to avoid the temptation of picking it up and spending hours I couldn’t spare engrossed in events of almost (could it be? Yes.) a half-century ago when today’s politics demanded attention.

I could envision myself pawing through Caro’s pages in search of members of Arkansas’s storied 1960s delegation: John McClellan and J. William Fulbright in the Senate; Wilbur Mills, Took Gathings, Oren Harris and Jim Trimble in the House — and their roles in the early months of LBJ’s presidency. And Gov. Orval Faubus, still in the statehouse, still mischievous (a gentle description) if fading. Disappointment, then, for the very few references to those Arkansas legends in Passage. Disappointing but understandable: the book begins with LBJ dithering over a presidential bid in the late 1950s, finally if belatedly launching a curiously amateurish campaign; moves on to the vice presidency in which he, stripped of the enormous power he had held as Senate majority leader, sidelined by John F. Kennedy (“turned…out to pasture,” Mills is quoted) and serially humiliated by brother Bobby, was openly miserable — then Dallas.

Severe thunderstorms prompted Air Force One’s pilot to soar high above Arkansas when it returned President Johnson and the body of his predecessor to Washington, where the first person the new chief executive reached out to (here Caro’s account reaffirms earlier versions) was his old Senate friend from Arkansas, J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “Foreign worries were (LBJ’s) first priority,” in Caro’s telling.

The “hard-bitten” and “tough, very shrewd” McClellan is the Arkansan most at play in [Passage], for it was McClellan, a friend of the Kennedy patriarch, who launched Bobby in Washington, making him chief counsel of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. (Older brother John, then a senator, was a member). McClellan, however, could also be “subtle.” A priceless anecdote: Caro recounts a young aide reporting back to Majority Leader Johnson that a meeting to resolve an issue with McClellan had gone well. “‘Unzip your fly and take a look,’ Johnson had told him. ‘There’s nothing there.’ McClellan, he said, ‘just cut it off” with a razor so sharp ‘you didn’t even notice it.’”

Having been “Master of the Senate,” Johnson noticed things. Thus President Johnson, in 1964, recognized that inaction on the budgets of the State, Justice and Commerce departments, idling in a McClellan Appropriations subcommittee, had nothing to do with the State, Justice and Commerce departments and everything to do with the civil rights bill he had vowed to secure. How LBJ’s legislative genius and iron constitution enabled him to prevail over McClellan and the other southern barons who controlled the Senate (and much of the House) is fascinating, at times gripping, reading.

So, too, the chapter detailing JFK’s decision to offer the vice presidential nomination to Johnson, and LBJ’s vacillation. And, as we all know, Bobby’s utter revulsion (no other word suffices) to having Johnson on the ticket; we didn’t know (at least I didn’t) of the extraordinary — and unauthorized — steps RFK took to scuttle the arrangement. The hatred Johnson and Bobby felt for one another is, however, is underscored time and again, needlessly. Similarly, and to no effective purpose, Caro is determined to demonstrate that he has examined every piece of paper that crossed Johnson’s desk from childhood forward and interviewed every Johnson assistant and acquaintance who would speak with him; and the result smothers the reader and sandbags the narrative. Still, Passage is invaluable to an understanding of Johnson and his times, and one could do worse in a presidential election year to take it up.

The fifth and final volume — who knows when? Each of Caro’s four LBJ tomes has required a decade, on average, to gestate. But we’ll be in line when it arrives. And certainly there will be a lot more Arkansas included, for it will center on Vietnam, and taxes; and Arkansans Fulbright and Mills were dominant players.

One final quibble, not a small one: the book’s photographs include a gathering of senators at an LBJ birthday party, one of them, despite the vaunted research skills of Caro, his editors and his publisher, identified as “unidentified.”

I’m happy to help. It’s John L. McClellan of Arkansas.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.