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.
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 the Great Society attracted fire from left as well as right (even before the firestorms of racial conflict and Vietnam consumed Johnson’s presidency). But it laid the ground over which the battles of modern politics are still fought: on what scale should government attempt to solve the problems of its citizens, and how much should it still do so in an age of debt?