Johnson, not Kennedy, was the real thing

My parents were on holiday in Mexico City in 1963 when my father, then Washington correspondent for the London Sunday Telegraph, was ordered to join President Kennedy in Texas. It didn’t look like much of  a story. My mother looked on the bright side. “You never know, darling, someone might shoot him.”

My father was strolling past the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas on November 22, 1963 when Lee Harvey Oswald did just that from a sixth floor window. Early next morning the matron at the English prep school where I’d been stashed burst into my dormitory waving the morning’s Daily Telegraph.  Dad had written most of the front and back pages.

From then until his death in 1980 we often spoke often about the assassination. We even visited the scene together. He was never entirely content with the lone gunman conclusion of the Warren Commission. From his war correspondent days, he was familiar with the rifle Oswald used, an Italian Mannlicher-Carcano “pig sticker” not renowned for its accuracy.

Among the many theories getting re-aired on the 50th anniversary is that Kennedy’s vice president and successor Lyndon Johnson was behind the hit. “The Man Who Killed Kennedy – the Case Against LBJ” by Roger Stone is currently at 63 on Amazon’s best seller list.

Stone, a veteran Republican gun-for-hire, is getting strong reviews from supermarket tabloids like the National Enquirer. Anyone interested in the truth would do better to read the monumental biography by Robert Caro.  Volume four of a planned five, The Passage of Power, was published in May last year.

Caro is no hagiographer. His Johnson sometimes makes the politicians we read about in South Africa’s press look quite angelic.  He stole his first election to the Senate in 1948. He was utterly without principle in getting what he wanted. His treatment of women was abominable even by the standards of  the time. He owed much of his wealth to wealthy friends who wanted things in his political gift.  But assassination plotter? No. Not of his own president, anyway.

Jack Kennedy and, to an even great extent, his brother Robert, despised the Texan  (as he them) but to beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 general election they needed his state. Once he had delivered it as JFK’s running mate, they shut him in the attic.  Children of wealth and privilege, they looked on Johnson, a product of hardscrabble Depression-era poverty in rural Texas, as a vulgar rube. They called him Rufus Cornpone, mocking his down home ways and magnolia-scented accent.

Kennedy had charisma and clever courtiers but by the third year of his presidency, his domestic agenda was barely less logjammed than President Obama’s is today. Civil rights legislation and an economic stimulus package were held hostage in Congress by a coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats laagering in defence of Jim Crow apartheid.

Power corrupts but, as Caro writes, it also reveals. Making it to the top in a democracy requires politicians to seduce a conflicting range of interests. Once at the pinnacle, leaders who know why they strove to get there may finally unfurl their true flags.

Johnson was such a leader. He knew. His Depression-bred empathy for Americans of colour, for the poor and dispossessed, was, Caro convincingly argues, “pure”. It was what drove him to work harder that any of his colleagues or rivals ever thought possible to master the legislative dark arts, procedural and psychological.

Senate Majority Leader between 1954 and 1960, LBJ has had no equal before or since in getting things done.  Within hours of assuming the presidency he was assembling congressional majorities for not just the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but for a slew of social reforms with names like Medicaid, Medicare and Head Start, designed to make life in America less Darwinian for those least able to compete.

Walter Heller, then a young White House aide, presented Kennedy shortly before his death with a plan to wage what he wanted to call the War on Poverty. Kennedy responded cautiously, approving a few pilot projects. Johnson, approached soon after the assassination, embraced it with both arms, exclaiming “What the hell’s the presidency for?”

Fifty years later, Americans are still debating whether to dismember, preserve or extend Johnson’s domestic legacy. For those who argue for its preservation or extension, the tragedy is that Mr Obama has scarcely a shadow of LBJ’s political skill.

As for my mother, she thought LBJ, though hardly a painting to look at, “the sexiest man I event met”. Real power has that effect.

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