Campus & Community

Panel probes power, personality of LBJ

6 min read

Biographer Robert Caro assesses the man and his legacy

Robert Caro at the KSG’s Theodore H. White Seminar: ‘The power of the presidency is a moral power, it’s a bully pulpit. Johnson was really unsuited for that.’ (Staff photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office)

The complex personality and power of President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his legacy to today’s political and media landscape were the topics of the Theodore H. White Seminar Wednesday morning (Oct. 29) at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG). Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Johnson, Robert Caro, joined a panel of prominent media figures for a lively discussion that probed Johnson’s ascent from the U.S. Senate to the vice presidency to president and his engineering of successful policies, such as his “Great Society” and the Civil Rights Act, and disastrous ones like the country’s involvement in Vietnam.

Taking as its point of departure Caro’s Tuesday night (Oct. 28) Theodore H. White Lecture in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the KSG, the seminar looked closely at Johnson’s leadership of the U.S. Senate, the subject of Caro’s third volume on Johnson, called “Master of the Senate.”

“When he was in the Senate, the Senate became as important as the executive branch,” said panelist Daniel Schorr, senior news analyst for National Public Radio. “Where Johnson was, the power tended to reside.”

More information on the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy

In addition to Schorr, the panel, moderated by Alex Jones, lecturer in public policy and director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at the Kennedy School, included Ernest R. May, Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard, and veteran journalists David Broder, The Washington Post national political correspondent, and The New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson ’76.

A lifelong politician whose national career began during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, Johnson led the U.S. Senate from 1955 until he became vice president in 1960. “He was such a really dominating figure” in the Senate, May said, adding that when he compiled an index of a history of the United States he had written just after Kennedy died, he found his text had more entries for Johnson than for Kennedy.

More recently, reviewing tapes of Johnson’s presidency, May glimpsed the way Johnson brought his senatorial power into the White House with him, describing Johnson making phone call after phone call for up to eight hours a day. “You don’t get much evidence in these tapes that Johnson is consulting anyone. He’s concerned with getting things done. He’s an operator, an actor, somebody who’s using power,” he said.

Caro, a former Nieman Fellow, argued that Johnson wielded his power far more effectively in the Senate than in the White House, in part because of the different demands of the two positions.

“You saw in the Senate a guy who felt he was really in control,” said Caro, adding that Johnson was likely at his happiest as leader of the Senate. “You never had that sense of security as president.” Further, Caro noted that the job of the Senate – to get things done, largely behind closed doors – matched Johnson’s leadership style better than the demands of the White House.

“The power of the presidency is a moral power, it’s a bully pulpit,” said Caro. “Johnson was really unsuited for that.”

Legacy of the credibility gap

With the Shorenstein Center as a sponsor of Caro’s visit, the seminar examined the media implications of Johnson’s leadership. He was press savvy, realizing that Senate hearings could attract media attention, said Abramson, yet both Schorr and Caro added that he was ill at ease on television, to his detriment. “One of the transforming events that’s changed politics so much is the role of television and the burgeoning power of the press as another player in the power game in Washington,” said Abramson.

“Television is not only a medium of information for reporters, it is much more so a medium through which our leaders can transmit what they want to,” Schorr added. “Johnson was never terribly good at that.”

The panelists explored the legacy of Johnson’s dealings with the media. The Johnson presidency originated the credibility gap in our leaders that persists today, said Abramson. Before that, she said, “most people in the public and even the media gave the president the benefit of the doubt. The idea that lies would purposely be told was something very new and quite shocking.” By the time Nixon resigned, she said, that trust was replaced in the media by skepticism and even cynicism.

“The lies about Vietnam, the publishing of the Pentagon papers, changed journalism and its acceptance of official pronouncements from Washington in a forever kind of sense,” she said.

Panelists also drew cautious parallels between Johnson’s public portrayal of Vietnam and President Bush’s dealings in Iraq.

“The performance of the [Bush] administration in stressing the good side of signing on in Iraq is eerily like the Johnson administration’s handling of Vietnam,” said May.

Great compassion, great ruthlessness

Caro also lent insight into Johnson’s complex personality, noting the deep-seated insecurity that lurked beneath the power he commanded.

“The insecurity that Johnson had is such a dominant thing in his life,” said Caro. “He always felt he had to boast about his power, and everything seems to go back to that boyhood.” Johnson’s father, a legislator, was a poor businessman and the family lost their ranch, instilling in Johnson fear of further bankruptcy but also a compassion for poor people and people of color that he would later enact into policy. Although Johnson created a myth around his boyhood that glossed over some of his hardships, it was the root of his insecurity, said Caro.

Panelists also probed the complex duality of Johnson as a leader: his success at socially progressive domestic policies and the disastrous consequences of his foreign policies, chiefly his decision to escalate the war in Vietnam.

Schorr noted that even as the war demanded increasing attention and resources, Johnson remained committed to his domestic agenda. “At every point, where Johnson felt he had to compromise great social problems, it hurt him,” said Schorr. He understood that helping people and sending troops into Vietnam were “two incompatible things that he carried around and they destroyed him,” added Schorr.

Caro echoed Schorr’s analysis of the conflicting forces that tugged at Johnson’s political leadership. “Throughout his life you have these moments of great compassion and of great ruthlessness,” he said.