Once Lyndon Johnson became president, a remarkable historical resource became available: His recording of all his phone calls at the White House and at his ranch. This allows Robert Caro to describe with an extraordinary vividness events from early December of 1963 on.
One remarkable example of Johnson hardball had to do with his demand for a written assurance of favorable coverage for the duration from the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle had endorsed Nixon in 1960, and was not much favorably disposed to Johnson. The Chronicle’s president, John Jones, was also the president of Houston’s National Bank of Commerce, which was attempting a merger with another Houston bank, Texas National. Jones was also the president of a major charity that owned 2.75 million shares in the National Bank of Commerce and had other major Houston business interests.
Both the Federal Reserve and the Justice Department’s Anti-Trust Division had come out against the merger, and the president was to make the final decision.
Johnson’s reaction? He called Jones and demanded a letter explicitly stating that Johnson would have the paper’s support as long as he was president, and that the paper send its managing editor, who was a long time Johnson associate, to Washington to assure favorable coverage. After some backing and forthing, that included Jack Valenti and George Brown (of Brown and Root Construction) communicating clearly to Jones that Johnson meant the price he was setting, Johnson got his letter and got the managing editor sent to Washington, and the next day, Jones got his approval.
In the course of Caro’s telling this, you get vivid tellings of the phone calls where Johnson, to use my father’s phrase, tells Jones how the cow ate the cabbage: they were going to have to deal in Johnson’s terms to get their approval. In Latin, there was to be a quid pro quo.
This is all around 523-527 of Caro’s The Passage of Power. So far– I’ve less than a hundred pages left– this is an intense and compelling book that is obviously covering what Caro has building up to since the beginning of the first book. The repetition, while still frustrating, drops off enormously when the book hits November of 1963, although at the pace its going, it’s hard to imagine Caro finishing this. The first 274 pages cover from the 1960 election to early October of 1963. The next 250 pages, which have far less of overwriting and repetition (and are much more compelling) take the reader from October to December of 1963. Yes, that’s a critical period, but it’s hard to imagine Caro finishing Johnson’s presidency in one book, and he’s taken like 35 years to do the four books already out.