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Robert Caro's Lessons From Lyndon B. Johnson About How To Lead In A Crisis

Since 1982, historian Robert Caro has been chronicling the life of the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson. The first three volumes of the Years of Lyndon Johnson series were met with wide acclaim.

The third volume, Master of the Senate, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. Now, Caro has released volume four: The Passage of Power, which focuses on Johnson in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination in November 1963. Fast Company recently spoke with Caro, who said that one of the best ways to understand leadership is to observe leaders "during their most intense struggles, when they have to use every resource available."

"In the moments following the Kennedy assassination, every one of the resources of the presidency was not only visible, but because they were being used to the utmost, they can be observed in all their facets," Caro says.

Here, Caro helps us parse four key leadership lessons from Johnson’s actions in the days that followed the assassination.

1. Preserve Stability And Continuity

The Kennedy assassination was one of the first national crises to unfold on live television. As a result, by the time Johnson’s plane from D.C. arrived in Dallas, the vast majority of the American public already knew what had happened. Rumors of conspiracies involving Mexico and Castro were already beginning to fly.

"Johnson has to settle the country down," Caro says. "He has to create an impression of continuity and stability. He has to make clear that the government is functioning—even though its leader had been suddenly killed."

As part of this strategy, one of the first decisions Johnson made was to keep Kennedy’s staff and cabinet members in place. "That’s very hard to do, because they disliked him," Caro says. "In many cases, they actually had contempt for him."

While all of Kennedy’s men had initially agreed to stay on through the funeral, many of them were planning to leave shortly thereafter. Knowing this—and realizing the implications of a mass exodus—Johnson began a campaign to entice the staff to stay on. Johnson met with each individual and told him, "I need you more than Kennedy needed you." But instead of using that same line for each person, Johnson gave each an individual reason that appealed to their particular interests, as to why he needed them to stay.

2. Use The Crisis To Move Forward

On the night after the assassination, Johnson was at home in D.C. He couldn’t sleep. He called three of his aides to his bedroom. He talked to them for hours—without stopping—about what needed to be done, essentially outlining the agenda for the rest of his presidency.

Since he had been an extremely powerful Senate majority leader, Johnson was able to see that Kennedy’s legislative agenda was stalled, and had been stalled since before his death.

As president, Johnson wanted to move on this legislation. The first bill he took up was the Civil Rights Act. Johnson’s advisors expressed concern that taking up civil rights would erode his political capital. Johnson replied to them that if he couldn’t tackle an issue like civil rights as President, "What the hell is the presidency for?" In his first address to the country, Johnson said "Let us continue [the work of Kennedy]." In his book, Caro quotes Johnson later remarking that although Kennedy had died, "his ‘cause’ was not really clear. That was my job. I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into a martyr’s cause."

"He used the sympathy engendered by Kennedy’s death to pick up Kennedy’s causes and drive them forward," Caro tells Fast Company. Although Johnson was always conscious of fact that he was not elected president outright, he refused to let that be an obstacle to carrying out his bold legislative agenda that saw major progress on everything from civil rights to Medicare.

3. Detachment As An Asset

Johnson and Kennedy had a tense and often contentious relationship. While Caro acknowledges that we will never know what exactly Johnson felt personally about Kennedy’s death, it is possible that Johnson’s detachment from Kennedy may have made it easier to handle the crisis. In Dallas, Caro recounts that Johnson stood in the hospital for 45 minutes without any information about the president’s condition before an aide informed Johnson that Kennedy was dead.

"A moment later, another aide, Malcolm Kilduff, appears and he calls Johnson ‘Mr. President’ for the first time." Caro says, "Right then, Kilduff asks Johnson to make decisions. And Johnson starts making those decisions with great precision."

From that moment on, Johnson entered a new mode of thinking. Any personal thoughts or emotions needed to be pushed aside in order to lead the nation through a crisis and then some.

4. Big Decisions Have To Be Made Alone

In the White House, Kennedy had stripped Johnson of most of his advisors in an effort to minimize his ability to exert influence over administration affairs. As a result, when Johnson found himself faced with a crisis after the assassination, he had no one with whom to consult. In this period, Caro notes, "One of the remarkable things is how little he relies on his advisors. On the plane going back to Washington, he has just a few aides with him. He really has no staff. He does this all out of his own unparalleled knowledge of government. Johnson decides alone what has to be done. As Senate majority leader, Johnson made the Senate work. Part of that was a result of his decisiveness and his ability to think fast. Johnson had a will to act and a will to decide."

In his book, Caro quotes Johnson’s words about those days:

Everything was in chaos. We were all spinning around and around, trying to come to grips with what had happened, but the more we tried to understand it, the more confused we got. We were like a bunch of cattle caught in the swamp. There is but one way to get the cattle out of the swamps. And that is for the man on the horse to take the lead, to assume command, to provide direction.

I was that man.

[Image: By Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office via Wikimedia]

Add New Comment


  • Robert Morrow

    I have always thought there was a lot of truth in this passage:

    From Defrauding America,
    Rodney Stich, 3rd edition 1998 p. 638-639]:


    “The Role of deep-cover CIA officer, Trenton Parker, has been
    described in earlier pages, and his function in the CIA's counter-intelligence
    unit, Pegasus. Parker had stated to
    me earlier that a CIA faction was responsible for the murder of JFK … During an
    August 21, 1993, conversation, in response to my questions, Parker said that his Pegasus group had
    tape recordings of plans to assassinate Kennedy. I asked him, "What group
    were these tapes identifying?" Parker replied: "Rockefeller, Allen
    Dulles, Johnson of Texas, George Bush, and J. Edgar Hoover." I
    asked, "What was the nature of the conversation on these tapes?"

    I don't have the tapes now, because all the tape recordings were turned over to
    [Congressman] Larry McDonald. But I listened to the tape recordings and there
    were conversations between Rockefeller, [J. Edgar] Hoover, where [Nelson] Rockefeller
    asks, "Are we going to have any problems?" And he said, "No, we
    aren't going to have any problems. I checked with Dulles. If they do their job
    we'll do our job." There are a whole bunch of tapes, because
    Hoover didn't realize that his phone has been tapped. Defrauding America,
    Rodney Stich, 3rd edition p. 638-639]

  • Robert Morrow

    Lyndon Johnson played a primary role in the JFK assassination. LBJ caused "the crisis" and the "instability" in the first place. LBJ's long history of contact with the CIA and military intelligence were critical to the JFK assassination happening in the first place. LBJ and his neighbor of 19 years and fellow confirmed Kennedy-hater J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, along with CIA Allen Dulles, were critical to the cover up.If you want to get quickly “up to
    speed” on the JFK assassination, here is what to read:


    1) LBJ: Mastermind of JFK’s Assassination by Phillip Nelson

    2) JFK and the Unspeakable:Why He Died and Why it Matters by James

    3) Brothers: the Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot

    4) The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh

    5) Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty by Russ Baker

    6) Power Beyond Reason: The
    Mental Collapse of Lyndon Johnson by Jablow Hershman

    7) Google the essay “LBJ-CIA
    Assassination of JFK” by Robert Morrow

    8) Google “National Security State
    and the Assassination of JFK by Andrew Gavin Marshall.”

    9) Google “Chip Tatum Pegasus.”
    Intimidation of Ross Perot 1992

    10) Google “Vincent Salandria False
    Mystery Speech.” Read everything Vincent Salandria ever wrote.

    11) Google "Unanswered
    Questions as Obama Annoints HW Bush" by Russ Baker

    12) Google "Did the Bushes Help
    to Kill JFK" by Wim Dankbaar

    13) Google "The Holy Grail of
    the JFK story" by Jefferson Morley

    14) Google "The CIA and the
    Media" by Carl Bernstein

    15) Google "CIA Instruction to
    Media Assets 4/1/67"

    16) Google "Limit CIA Role to
    Intelligence" Harry Truman on 12/22/63

    17) Google "Dwight Eisenhower
    Farewell Address" on 1/17/61

    18) Google "Jerry Policoff NY
    Times." Read everything Jerry Policoff ever wrote about the CIA media
    cover up of the JFK assassination.

  • Donald Malone

    Robert Caro "Lessons from LBJ..." is awesome! The article alone provides evidence of a leader being immediate in the call of duty.  Although, I was a kid when that all happen during JFK's assasination.
    I remembered how they tried throwing LBJ under a bus.  I thank God for using LBJ to calm the storm. 

  • Robert Morrow

    I suggest reading" LBJ: The Mastermind of the JFK Assassination" by Phillip Nelson, 2011 edition by Skyhorse Publishing. Caro does a good job of telling you how much LBJ and the Kennedys hated each other; Nelson tells you what really happened to enact LBJ's "Passage of Power."