BY MARY ANNA TOWLER
I’ve embarked on reading way too many really long books lately, but the one I just started is going to be a treasure, regardless of its 614 pages (plus source notes).
The book is Robert Caro’s highly praised “The Passage of Power,” the fourth in his “Years of Lyndon Johnson” series.
Caro’s a fantastic writer. And Johnson is a fascinating subject. And while this is pretty recent history, Caro fleshes out that history, offering new details and insight.
He also reminds us of some important principles that have been swept aside in the years since the Johnson presidency. Those reminders are good lessons for politicians today, and the lessons start right in the book’s introduction.
For instance, there’s the story of Johnson, less than a week into his presidency after John Kennedy’s assassination, listening to advisers as he discussed a speech he was preparing to give to Congress. Don’t mention civil-rights legislation, they warned, because it will upset the Southerners in Congress, and a civil rights bill had “no chance of passage anyway.”
One adviser “told him to his face that a President shouldn’t spend his time and power on lost causes,” writes Caro, “no matter how worthy those causes might be.”
Johnson’s response, says Caro: “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
In the early part of 1964, still just months into office, he introduced his plan for a War on Poverty in his State of the Union Address. His vision, Caro writes, was literally a crusade, for better schools, health care, housing, jobs, job training – “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it, and, above all, to prevent it.”
Johnson was a complicated man, to put it mildly, and his disastrous Vietnam policy led many of us to rail against him and literally drive him out of an office he had wanted nearly all his life. But he had a vision of the presidency, and a vision of the role of government and this country’s responsibility to its neediest people, that is missing in much of Washington today. And we badly need to bring that vision back.
NEWS BLOG: Lessons on government’s role from LBJ
BY MARY ANNA TOWLER