The Texan Gambler Who Bet His Life on JFK’s Death – and Won

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The Years of Lyndon Johnson., Volume 4: The Passage of Power by Robert Caro

An alternative title to this tome might have been: ‘Succeeding Kennedy’. It’s difficult to imagine a harder act to follow given the national trauma of JFK’s televised assassination before the eyes of his whole devastated country.

Remember the Kennedy charisma, his good looks, his debonair glamour. Then look at the cover photograph of Lyndon Johnson. In any competition for grim, unmerciful mouths, he would take some beating. Also for uncomfortable eyes – black, shrewd, crafty.

LBJ was a big man – almost 6 ft 4in, with a big nose, ears, chin and hands to match. He was Texas personified. But a warm, welcoming personality he was not. Every signal said: ‘Do not cross this man.’ For 12 years, he dominated the U.S. Senate as its Democratic Majority Leader. He was a champion at fixing a vote. He would target his man, get up close to him, clasp his hand in those enormous mitts, put an arm round his shoulder and coax, wheedle and flatter in a soft voice making the receiver bask in his esteem. If there was no response, the bonhomie snapped off with a strong hint that ruin would follow.

But this power-broker had a surprising weakness. He was scared of humiliation. He had known it as a boy when his father, who ran a ranch of sorts and – ruined by drought – lost it, went bankrupt and rapidly slid down to the bottom of the heap, taking his family with him, in a tiny hick town called grandly Johnson City.

In his teens, Lyndon learnt what it was like to build roads, clear cedar, or pick cotton; to live in a home threatened by eviction, only surviving on handouts of money and food from relatives and neighbours.

Yet, though he had only a scratch education, he was convinced that some day he would be president because he was meant to be.

His father, before his crash, had been a Representative in Austin, the state capital. Lyndon made it as Representative of Texas to Washington, and later as king of the Senate. In 1960 he lost the Democratic nomination to Kennedy but Kennedy, needing Southern Democrat support, reluctantly asked him to run as his vice-president.

Vice-presidents, or ‘Veeps’, are the also-rans in Washington politics, their duties mainly ceremonial. Should Johnson give up his immense power in the Senate to become Number Two to a man he saw as a rich playboy and dismissed as ‘sickly, pallid, not a man’s man’?

He looked up the history of the office. Seven VPs had become president through the death of the man in office – five among the last 18 presidents. The odds were better than four to one. He took the offer. ‘I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’,’ he said to his companion on the way to the new president’s inaugural ball.

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