David Frum on Obama Lessons in Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Johnson was the first president to deliver the State of the Union Address in prime time, transforming the event into the giant spectacle it has become. AP

A great work of history is never only about the past.

The fourth volume of Robert Caro's great biography of Lyndon Johnson—The Passage of Power—tells a story from seemingly long ago. Page after page conjures up a vanished world: a world in which labor unions had clout and lunch counters were segregated. Yet it's also a world deeply familiar to us: a world in which urgent national problems go unaddressed year after year, and Americans despair over the paralysis of their government.

This fourth volume spotlights a moment when suddenly that government moved, fast and decisively. For three years under President John F. Kennedy, the cause of civil rights inched forward, if it moved at all. Then, suddenly, Kennedy was dead—and seven months later, so too was legal segregation.

To this day, the mystique of John F. Kennedy lingers. One third of Americans rate Kennedy a great president, and professional historians typically bestow generous accolades on him as well. And yet on the day he was murdered, President Kennedy had accomplished astonishingly little of his domestic program. He could plausibly claim to have prevailed over the Soviets in Cuba and Berlin. Yet in Congress, it was his opponents who had bested him—and his most effective opponents were found inside his own party, the conservative Southern Democrats who controlled the switching points of power in the House and Senate.

It was the graceful Kennedy's ungainly successor who transformed Kennedy's soaring rhetoric into legal reality. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who pushed through Congress the laws that overthrew legal segregation in the South. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who gained Southern blacks the right to vote. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who created Medicaid and Medicare. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who protected wild rivers. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who passed the great tax cut that carries Kennedy's name to this day.

For nobody, perhaps, is this turn of history more challenging than for Robert Caro himself. Over more than 2,500 pages of powerful prose, Caro has summoned Lyndon Johnson to vivid, intimate life. We come to know him better, thanks to Caro's remorseless research, than almost any of Johnson's contemporaries could have hoped to do. It's not an attractive picture. Caro's Johnson is a bully and braggart, a wheedler and manipulator, a man of bad personal morals and worse business ethics.

And it is this, frankly, monstrous character who realized more of Caro's liberal ideals than any politician in modern times, Franklin Delano Roosevelt very much included—and vastly more than the charming, winning, but domestically ineffectual JFK.

In a story already rich with drama, this tension between author and subject—between Caro's loathing of Johnson and his reverence for Johnson's accomplishments—is the tensest drama of all.

How did Johnson do it?

Here is Caro's disconcerting message: Johnson didn't do it by inspiring or exhorting. He did it by mobilizing political power, on a scale and with a ruthlessness that arguably surpassed all other presidents, before or since.

To intensify this message, Caro narrows his focus. The fourth volume covers an unexpected range of years—the period from the spring of 1959 to the spring of 1964: from Johnson's fitful and bungled run for the 1960 Democratic nomination to his triumphant passage of Kennedy's domestic program—stopping just before Johnson launched his own reelection campaign in 1964, and leaving for a future Caro book the largest part of the Johnson presidency.

The book gives equal space to the three humiliating years of the Johnson vice presidency—years in which Johnson was isolated, belittled, and ultimately threatened (as Caro convincingly argues) with exclusion from the 1964 ticket—and the seven months in which Johnson passed the 1964 Civil Rights Bill and the "Kennedy" tax cut. In those seven months, Johnson wielded power in a way that few presidents ever have, and that John F. Kennedy never did.

As Caro tells it, Johnson instantly understood how to put to maximum political use the public grief over the Kennedy assassination. Johnson was not reckless enough to say aloud, "Never let a good crisis go to waste." But he certainly acted on that maxim.

Johnson led the nation in its mourning for Kennedy, opening his first speech to Congress: "All I have I would have gladly given not to be standing here today." Then he picked one out the late president's many fitfully advanced causes and seized on that cause as the one and only fitting memorial. Johnson chose civil rights—his passion much more than it had ever been Kennedy's. "[No] eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil-rights bill for which he fought so long." Unsaid: Kennedy had to fight so long for that bill because he did not fight anywhere near so effectively as the man who followed him.

Caro quotes Johnson's own words, spoken years later to Doris Kearns Goodwin: "Everything I had ever learned in the history books taught me that martyrs have to die for causes. John Kennedy had died. But his 'cause' was not really clear. That was my job. I had to take the dead man's program and turn it into a martyr's cause."

The tension between Caro’s loathing of Johnson and reverence for his accomplishments is the tensest drama in the book. Jake Chessum for Newsweek

Having chosen his cause, Johnson started to assert his authority. The conservative Democrats who dominated Congress in the early 1960s had perceived Kennedy as weak. They pushed against him—and usually won. Within days of taking office, Johnson went looking for a way to push back. He found his opportunity in a battle over grain exports to the Soviet Union. Conservatives in Congress had introduced an amendment limiting presidential authority to permit such sales.

As Caro writes: "'I hope that [bill] gets murdered,' Johnson snarled, and, sitting in the Oval Office, he kept telephoning senator after senator, cajoling, bullying, threatening, charming, long after he had the majority, to make the vote overwhelming." Why? To teach Congress the lesson that Johnson could not be rolled.

The lesson was learned.

And so Johnson went to work building his own personal coalition in Congress. Since the elections of 1938, Congress had sometimes had a Republican majority and sometimes a Democratic majority, but it was always a conservative majority. Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans worked together, against northern and Californian members of their own parties.

To enact civil-rights legislation, Johnson assembled a new majority of Republicans and liberal Democrats—proportionally more Republicans than Democrats. That arithmetic made the Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen, indispensable to Johnson, and Johnson willingly paid the price for Dirksen's support. As Johnson told the civil-rights bill's Senate manager Hubert Humphrey in a tape-recorded phone conversation, "You've to let him have a piece of the action. He's got to look good all the time."

When Dirksen went lukewarm on civil rights in the spring of 1964 under pressure from conservatives in his own party, Johnson and Humphrey did not turn on him. On the contrary, Humphrey worked even harder to woo Dirksen. Appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, Humphrey insisted: "He [Dirksen] is a man who thinks of his country before he thinks of his party...and I sincerely believe that when Senator Dirksen has to face the moment of decision...he will not be found wanting."

In a phone call to Humphrey after the show, Johnson said: "Boy, that was right?...You're doing just right now. You just keep at that...You get in there to see Dirksen! You drink with Dirksen! You talk to Dirksen! You listen to Dirksen!"

At the same time as Johnson wooed Republican opponents, he also gained the support of refractory Democrats. The liberal Keynesians in the Kennedy administration wanted to spur economic growth with a big tax cut. But the Southern conservatives who chaired the relevant Senate committees did not believe in Keynes. Plus they preferred tax loopholes for favored constituencies over tax cuts that would benefit everybody, Republicans as well as Democrats.

The most obdurate of those Southern conservatives was Virginia's Harry Byrd, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Byrd never said "no." He just did not act. The Kennedy people convinced themselves that they were gradually moving Byrd—that he might finally get around to acting sometime before November 1964. Johnson knew they were kidding themselves.

Johnson had cultivated Byrd for years when they served in the Senate together. He flattered Byrd outrageously. He attended the funeral of Byrd's beloved daughter—one of only two senators to do so. And he learned Byrd's demand: deliver a budget that cut spending below $100 billion, and Byrd would relent on the tax cut.

The liberal Keynesians disdained Byrd's insistence on budget cutting. But Byrd's demand was the price of the tax cut, from the one man with the power to deliver the tax cut—and so Johnson made it happen.

Harry Byrd was the first senator invited to eat with the new president at the White House. Byrd arrived in the White House car that had been sent to fetch him. And when the budget number demanded by Byrd was finally reached, here's how Johnson delivered the news: "I've got a surprise for you, Harry. I've got the damn thing down under one hundred billion...way under. It's only 97.9 billion. Now you can tell your friends that you forced the President of the United States to reduce the budget before you let him have his tax cut."

If the price of being the winner was to look like the loser, Johnson would pay. As Caro writes, Johnson's "grasp in an instant of the reality that underlay the haggling over the budget, that Byrd had to be given what he wanted...and most important, his ability to take advantage of the affection and trust of an older man, to 'get' the ungettable Harry Byrd—these were the crucial elements in breaking a deadlock that, before November 22, had seemed all but unbreakable."

The Kennedy's threatened to exclude Johnson from the ticket in 1964, but after the assassination, he led the nation in mourning. Corbis

That kind of human knowing is a rare gift. Johnson's great enemy, Bobby Kennedy, who possessed a very different form of the gift, disdainfully said of Johnson: he "does not know how to use people's talents, to find the very best in them and put the best to work. But more than any other man, he knows how to ferret out and use people's weaknesses."

Caro repudiates the first sentence of that quote. But he amply confirms the second. Johnson knew people. He also knew the rules—knew them and knew how to use them.

And there is one more lesson encoded in Caro's story, a lesson not adumbrated in this volume but that waits for readers in the promised and indispensable fifth—and it is this last lesson that is perhaps most relevant of all to the politics of our own day.

Johnson scored his very greatest successes by infuriating ideological opponents into self-destructive fury. He scored big legislative wins in 1963–64. But those wins were dwarfed by the score he put on the board in 1965–66. It was the 1965–66 Congress that would pass the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and the other programs of the Great Society.

What made the difference between 1963–64 and 1965–66? Short answer: the calamitous miscalculations of Johnson's conservative opponents.

The 1964 civil-rights bill finally escaped imprisonment inside the House Rules Committee (chaired by a segregationist Southerner), and departed for the House floor in early February 1964. As of that date, the leading contender for the 1964 Republican nomination was New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Party conservatives had vested their hopes in Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. Those hopes seemed forlorn, however. In every election since the coming of the New Deal, the Republican Party had rejected the preferred candidate of its conservative wing. By every ordinary calculation of politics, Goldwater was a hopeless, even reckless, candidate.

But the stunning progress of the Civil Rights Act upset the ordinary calculations of politics. While Rockefeller and Scranton strongly supported the '64 act, Goldwater opposed it. In fact Goldwater would be one of only six Republican senators to join the 21 Southern Democrats to vote "no" until the very end—and he would ride that "no" all the way to the Republican nomination for president.

The result was total disaster, of course, and not only for Goldwater. (Although, in a portent of things to come, Goldwater became the first Republican in history to carry the Deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.) Democrats swept races down the ballot, adding 32 new representatives and two senators to their already large majorities in both houses. The defeated Republicans mostly represented moderate suburban districts in the North and Midwest. They were replaced by liberal Democrats—so many liberal Democrats that they could run Congress with a free hand for the first time since the New Deal.

It's hard not to detect in these pages an unspoken critique of Barack Obama. Yes, certainly, Obama shares Lyndon Johnson's gift for driving opponents crazy, if it is a gift. But the use of power Caro so vividly describes is not something that comes naturally to our current president. The constant searching for opportunities; the shameless love-bombing of opponents; the endless wooing of supporters; the deft deployment of inducements and threats—these are the low arts that led to Johnson's high success. You can see why a high-minded leader like Barack Obama would recoil from the Johnson style and embrace Kennedyesque rhetorical grandeur instead. Such presidents contribute great phrases to quotation books, but they tend not to add lasting laws to the statute books—or enduring change to the history books.