The Passage of Power

On the evening of November 26, the advisers gathered around the dining room table in his home to draft the speech he was to deliver the following day to a joint session of Congress were arguing about the amount of emphasis to be given to civil rights in that speech, his first major address as President. As Johnson sat silently listening, most of these advisers were warning that he must not emphasize the subject because it would antagonize the southerners who controlled Congress, and whose support he would need for the rest of his presidency — and because a civil rights bill had no chance of passage anyway. And then, in the early hours of the morning, as one of those advisers re-calls, “one of the wise, practical people around the table” told him to his face that a President shouldn’t spend his time and power on lost causes, no matter how worthy those causes might be.

“Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” Lyndon Johnson replied.

This excerpt is from the beginning of The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s masterful biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Volume 3, Master of the Senate, is the most insightful study of the acquisition and use of political power in the American government I’ve ever read. If history or politics interests you at all, I can’t recommend these books enough.