“Power is where power goes”

It’s a phrase LBJ lived by. It’s not an analogy or a metaphor or anything tricky. It’s straightforward: If you want to be powerful, you go where the power is. It’s one reasoning why LBJ ultimately accepted Kennedy’s request to be the vice president on the Democratic ticket.

In my last post, I gave a rather glowing praise of LBJ, but never has a president been either completely good or completely bad. To provide a more critical eye to LBJ, I’ll post some snippets I’ve learned about him from reading The Passage of Power. I’m between a fourth and a third of the way through the book, so I might do this a couple more times, but I do highly recommend the novel. It’s a very good read about, aside from maybe Nixon, America’s most complicated president in modern history.

  • Johnson loved power, almost to a dangerous level. There’s a reason why Kennedy – smartly, as I now see it – never enlisted Johnson, though the most skillful politician of his time, for assistance in legislative matters. Johnson would have used any such opportunity to run the whole show, creating the impression that the President was following the lead of his Vice President. Additionally, right after his inauguration as Vice President, Johnson tried to expand the office’s power through two ways: First through the Senate, by trying to become the caucus leader of Senate Democrats, and secondly through the Kennedy administration, by trying to convince Kennedy that he should have an office next to his in the White House, and being able to review national security documents to advise the president. He also liked to flaunt his power whenever he had it. Once while he was Senate Majority Leader, Johnson kicked Humphrey very hard in the shin on the Senate floor for failing to carry out an order of his fast enough.
  • LBJ was a manipulative man. When he wanted something, he would use any means to get it, even if it meant toying with people’s emotions. After his ways to expand the officers of the vice president failed, Johnson would hardly talk at all in staff meetings Kennedy invited him to. Eventually he started to genuinely feel horrible and useless, for a while he faked it. In these meetings he would look very grim, his long face sunk with despair. No matter how he was really feeling, he rarely answered questions that weren’t more than one syllable replies. He would also have to be asked to repeat his answers because he was often very quiet.  This “feel sorry for me” method never worked on Kennedy, who was more annoyed with Johnson’s attitude than anything.
  • Johnson had mistresses, like Congresswoman Helen Douglas.
  • During the Cuban Missile Crises, Johnson, while not completely on the side of the warhawks during the ExComm meetings, thought Kennedy was being too weak in his dealing with the Russians, and at one point advocated bombing the missiles being built in Cuba. Most of the time, Johnson just complained about how Kennedy was handling the situation while offering no advice of his own. After reading the section about the Cuban Missile Crisis, I’m now *very* glad Kennedy was president. He, along with his brother, was one of the few people in the oval office arguing for a more pragmatic approach, and give Khrushchev to back down. He stuck to his guns. What would Johnson have done in that situation? Or Nixon? I’m a little apprehensive to think about it.

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