caro … lbj


Near the end of this thick volume, the fourth in his celebrated saga of Lyndon Baines Johnson, Robert A. Caro describes the War on Poverty as the most sincere and boldest initiative of a normally cynical and utterly practical politician. It did not matter that LBJ’s advisers warned him the plan to uplift the nation’s forty to fifty million poor would gain him no additional votes in the next election. “That’s my kind of program,” the new president insisted just a day after he took office in late November 1963. “I’ll find money for it one way or another.” As was typical of the man, a personal motivation led him to take a political stand. Caro recounts how, at the age of nine, Johnson had to pick cotton in the summer heat of central Texas and wore patched clothing after his father’s ranch went bankrupt. LBJ “hated poverty and illiteracy,” a childhood friend remembered. “He hated it when a person who wanted to work could not get a job.” So passionate was Johnson about the issue that he doubled, to a billion dollars, the annual amount his budget writers had earmarked for the “unconditional” War on Poverty and made the program the centerpiece of his first State of the Union address, which he delivered in January 1964. It was, gushes Caro, “a program with goals so new and ambitious that it was necessary to go back to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to find, perhaps not an equal, but at least a comparison.”

more from Michael Kazin at Bookforum here.