There could be no better confirmation of the indignities of the office of vice president of the United States than those endured by Lyndon B Johnson. His tireless biographer, Robert Caro, in another instalment of his immense project, records his humiliations as John F Kennedy’s understudy: to be ignored in discussions of subjects on which he was expert; forced to lean forward to catch the president’s attention like “a schoolboy trying to win a teacher’s favour”; and to plead for a place at White House banquets (see Sam Tanenhaus, p44).
Yet after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson, as president, forged the shape of modern America. His Great Society programmes were, as Caro puts it, “the legislative embodiment of the liberal spirit in all its nobility,” the last time a president tried with revolutionary ambition to extend “government’s hand to help people caught in the ‘tentacles of circumstance.’”
It is worth remembering that