There’ve been — whatever — a hundred, a thousand books on the assassination and they all tell the story of the assassination from Jack Kennedy’s point of view, but in that motorcade, that assassination made Lyndon Johnson president, so he’s a crucial figure in it. … In the front [of Johnson’s car], next to the driver, is a secret service agent named Rufus Youngblood. When the first shot rings out, people think it’s a motorcycle backfiring or they think someone burst a balloon. …
As the shot sounds, Youngblood … looks forward and sees Kennedy sort of falling to the left. He whirls around, and in an instant, he grabs Johnson’s right shoulder and just pushes him down on the back floor of the back seat of the car, jumps over the back of the front seat and lays on top of Lyndon Johnson and Johnson can hear over Youngblood’s radio that connected to the other secret service agents words like, ‘He’s hit! He’s hit!’ ‘Let’s get out of here!’ ‘Hospital!’ and the three cars – Kennedy’s, the secret service agents’ and Johnson’s — roar up a ramp to an expressway, roar down the expressway and then off and into the emergency bay of Parkland Hospital. Youngblood says to Johnson, ‘When we get to that hospital, don’t look around, don’t stop. We’re going to get you to a secure place.”
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.”
In sparkling detail, Caro shows the new president’s genius for getting to people — friends, foes and everyone in between — and how he used it to achieve his goals. We’ve all seen the iconic photos of L.B.J. leaning into a conversation, poking his thick finger into a confidant’s chest or wrapping his long arm around a shoulder. At 6 foot 4, he towered over most men, but even seated Johnson commanded from on high. Caro relates how during a conversation about civil rights, he placed Roy Wilkins and his N.A.A.C.P. entourage on one of the couches in the Oval Office, yet still towered over them as he sat up close in his rocking chair. And he didn’t need to be in the same room — he was great at manipulating, cajoling and even bullying over the phone.
He knew just how to get to you, and he was relentless in doing it.
If you were a partisan, he’d call on your patriotism; if a traditionalist, he’d make his proposal seem to be the Establishment choice. His flattery was minutely detailed, finely tuned and perfectly modulated. So was his bombast — whatever worked. L.B.J. didn’t kiss Sam Rayburn’s ring, but his lips did press against his bald head. Harry Byrd received deference and attention. When L.B.J. became president, he finally had the power to match his political skills.
Nov. 23, 1968: The Times wrote about the White House photographer Yoichi Robert Okamoto, right, who produced most of the 250,000 photos of President Lyndon B. Johnson housed at the time in a laboratory in Georgetown. The reporter, Nan Robertson, called the collection the “greatest album of candid pictures ever made of an American president.” She continued: “Some persons are appalled by the size and expense of Mr. Johnson’s picture operation. Others believe the price is little enough to pay for pictures that will be priceless to historians.” Photo: George Tames/The New York Times