History remembers that much, even if most Americans forget. But what the great Robert Caro has revealed is the role L.B.J. played in civil rights during the Kennedy years. Ignored and humiliated by both brothers, convinced that his political life—that is, his whole life—was over, Johnson only showed signs of his old vitality when it came to civil rights. Kennedy hardly bothered to ask for the advice of the one American politician who had managed to get a civil-rights bill passed in the twentieth century (as Senate majority leader, in 1957, the climax of Caro’s previous book, “Master of the Senate”). But given the chance, on June 3, 1963, Johnson weighed in with the full passion and shrewdness of which he was capable.
First, tactically, he urged Kennedy to wait on a civil-rights bill, since the Southerners who controlled the key Senate committees would block every other Kennedy bill in order to defeat it. He explained how Kennedy could hold up other bills that every senator wanted—appropriations bills for dams and other public works—as he slowly built enough support for civil rights to defeat a filibuster. Johnson had to give Kennedy’s alter-ego, Ted Sorensen, a primer in the workings of the Senate, one that the Kennedy White House appeared to need badly. And in terms of the principle of civil rights, Johnson was clear. “I think that I know one thing,” he told Sorensen, according to Caro, “that the Negroes are tired of this patient stuff and tired of this piecemeal stuff and what they want more than anything else is not an executive order or legislation, they want a moral commitment that he’s behind them.”
The irony about this controversy—as with any “there Biden goes again” flap in Washington, which is a constant storyline—is White House officials gave the story oxygen by essentially freaking out about the VP supposedly committing a huge gaffe, calling attention to the subtle differences between how Biden has spoken about the issue vs. Obama. But does anyone really believe Obama’s position is that different from Biden’s?
The West Wing has always been a little snooty about Biden—my last cover story for Newsweek was on this very topic. That’s largely because the VP’s propensity to speak off the cuff is something they still haven’t quite learned how to control. But maybe they should stop trying to control it—or at least stop acting like Biden is SO embarrassing. As any reporter who has covered Biden will tell you, the VP’s willingness to speak his mind is refreshing and, unfortunately, very rare in Washington. Since when is being candid a bad thing for the public? (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)