Book review: “The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson” By Robert Caro

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Book review: “The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson” By Robert Caro

On the final page of “The Passage of Power,” Robert Caro sums up the 604 pages that have come before with a single word.

He calls Lyndon Baines Johnson “heroic.”

It is a word that has rarely, if ever, been used in American discourse about LBJ. And it is a word that, up until this moment in the book, Caro has avoided using.

Instead, he has made his case, brick by brick by brick, slowly, inexorably, pulling together many disparate stories involving sometimes world-jarring events, and laying them out in great detail and with great insight.

“The Passage of Power” is the fourth of what is now planned to be five volumes of Caro’s biography “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” — an astonishing and unprecedented in-depth look at the life of a public figure and his era, passionately researched and written, a work of great literature, among the best non-fiction works ever.

Caro has been working on LBJ since 1974, and originally, he did not envision the need for “The Passage of Power.”

As initially laid out, “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” was to comprise three volumes — one on his rise from poverty in the Hill Country of Texas; a second about his years in the U.S. Senate, particularly as the immensely powerful Majority Leader; and a third about his presidency, focusing on his triumphs for civil rights and against poverty and on his failures in Vietnam.

Yet, after researching Johnson’s successful — and successfully stolen — election to the Senate in 1948, Caro decided that the story was too good and needed too much space to be included in the volume on the Senate years. So he wrote it as a stand-alone installment in the series, covering mostly a single year in LBJ’s life.

“Heroic”

I figured that some of the same thinking was behind Caro’s decision to publish “The Passage of Power” before dealing with Johnson’s presidency, and, on the face of it, the book appeared to be a catch-all of material that needed to be addressed but didn’t quite fit into the examination of LBJ as Chief Executive:

• Johnson’s dithering about joining the presidential race in 1960.
• The drama of Johnson being offered the vice-presidential nomination by John F. Kennedy and accepting it.
• The “blood feud” between LBJ and Kennedy’s brother Robert.
• The humiliating position Johnson found himself in as vice president.
• The assassination of JFK and Johnson suddenly finding himself as president.
• The first seven weeks of LBJ’s presidency during which he used his genius for legislative maneuvering to push through a recalcitrant Congress important civil rights, budget and appropriations bills and to launch his War on Poverty.

Yet, with Caro’s use of the word “heroic” on the final page of “The Passage of Power,” everything that had gone before suddenly came into sharper focus for me:

In the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, this period stands out as different from the rest, as perhaps that life’s finest moment, as a moment not only masterful but, in its way, heroic.

“The Passage of Power” isn’t — as I had supposed — an attempt to clear out a lot of clutter before addressing the main topic of LBJ’s life, his presidency. Instead, Caro argues on that final page, it is the pinnacle of that life.

It is Johnson at his best.

And it is Johnson being his best in an almost hidden way. Caro notes how, in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, the nation’s focus was on the slain president’s widow, children and family. And it has remained that way.

The smooth transition from one president to another has been viewed as almost fore-ordained. Johnson has been seen — when considered at all — as simply a new driver behind the wheel of a well-oiled machine, helped immensely by the Kennedy-appointed officials who kept the government working without missing a beat.

“The hinge of human existence”

But Caro argues that there was much that a man in Johnson’s position could have done wrong. He might have frozen and been unsure what to do; he might have dithered (as Johnson had dithered about running for president). He might have panicked.

And the stakes were, well, the world. If Johnson had sent the wrong signals to foreign leaders, international tensions could have ratcheted up with deadly consequences. Caro writes:

No situation even remotely similar had confronted any of the seven other men who had been suddenly placed in the presidency by death. This new President, a man made President in an instant, without being elected to the presidency, held in his hands the fate of mankind. “The advent of nuclear weapons, together with the fact that another nation — another foe — also possessed nuclear weapons,” Jonathan Schell was to write, “has done nothing less than place the President in a radically new relation to the whole of human reality. He along with whoever is responsible in the Soviet Union has become the hinge of human existence.”

Few people noticed at the time, and few historians have taken note, that Johnson took charge with a sure and calm touch.

Certainly, Johnson was used to power as the former master of the Senate, but Caro makes clear that there was, as an essential part of LBJ’s character, an aspect that could have undermined him and the nation in late November, 1963 — his fear of failure and humiliation.

“A terrible kind of pain”

The people who knew Johnson as he was growing up, Caro writes, felt that the roots of his fear of failure and humiliation

lay in the little house — a shanty, really, a typical Texas Hill Country “dog run”: two box-like rooms, each about twelve feet square, on either side of a breezeway, two smaller “shed rooms” and a kitchen; all connected by a sagging roof — where Lyndon Johnson had lived from the age of eleven until just after his fourteenth birthday, for it was there that his father had failed…

His father’s fall [as a businessman and politician which sent his family into poverty] had shown him that failure could mean not merely failure but terror, the terror of living in a house that, month by month, you were afraid would be taken away from you by the bank; that failure could mean not merely terror but ruin, permanent ruin; that failure — defeat — might be something from which you would never recover. And failure in public — failing in a way that was visible: having to move off your ranch; having your credit cut off at stores you had to walk past every day; no longer holding your public office — could mean a different, but also terrible kind of pain: embarrassment, disgrace, humiliation.

Yet, at a time of great peril for the nation, of greatest peril for himself in terms of the danger of public failure on the international stage, Johnson overcame his fears.

Accomplishing what was needed required him to subdue and to conceal elements of his nature that he had never before concealed or subdued — elements so basic to his personality that they had, in fact, governed his behavior during all of his previous life.

Yet he subdued them, overcame them, in a triumph not only of genius but of will.

And then there was Bobby.

The wellsprings of power

Among the many joys of reading “The Passage of Power” are the mini-biographies of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. After all the books that built up and knocked the reputations of the two men, Caro takes a new look which, with the benefit of 40 years perspective, seems to crystalize the essence of each man.

He brings to his descriptions of the two men the same hard-edge compassion that he had given to Johnson in a work that, as of now, totals 2,825 pages of text, exclusive of notes and ancillary material.

Caro has said his work on Johnson is, at its heart, an examination of power and the use of power. But just as important to him is the character of Johnson — and, in this volume, the characters of JFK and RFK.

For Caro, power isn’t only action — making something happen, or stopping something from happening. It is about the wellsprings of power: Why do some men lust for power? Why do they use power in the ways they do?

Essentially, Caro’s vision of history runs counter to the idea, growing in intellectual popularity, that individuals matter little in the sweep of human existence. Social movements, economic trends, weather patterns, epidemics, scientific inventions — these are what shape our lives, according to these thinkers.

To this, Caro says an emphatic “No!”

Shakespearean

His books on Johnson — and his first book “The Power Broker” about city-shaper Robert Moses of New York — argue, in essence, that things happen because certain people with power want them to happen.

Of course, intellectual arguments and political policies come into play as do social movements and all the rest. But, after Caro has shown how Johnson had to use every element of his legislative genius to win passage of a series of civil rights bills, it is not inconceivable to think that, without the presence of LBJ and the influence on him of his character and his experiences, none would ever have won Congressional approval.

Similarly, Johnson succeeded in the first months of his presidency despite the “blood feud” that he and Bobby Kennedy had long been engaged in, one that was exacerbated and heightened by the killing of JFK.

Indeed, the situation was so deeply human and also so deeply related to power and to the relationships of one person to another that, Caro writes, it deserved a Shakespeare:

The President, the King, was dead, murdered, but the King had a brother, a brother who hated the new King. The dead King’s men — the Kennedy men, the Camelot men — made up, in Shakespearean terms, a faction. And it was a faction that had a leader.

The arc of the Johnson biography

After four volumes, the arc of Caro’s Johnson biography is now apparent.

From the beginning, it has been about the rise and fall of a public figure. Yet, much more, it is about the rise and fall of a person.

It is not a pro-Johnson or anti-Johnson work. It is a nuanced look at a human being.

Descriptions of Caro’s books often talk about how he portrays LBJ as a complicated politician. Well, aren’t we all complicated? The genius of Caro is his ability through immensely painstaking research to understand Johnson as a fellow person.

He portrays Johnson as one of us.

LBJ is one of us the same way King Lear is, and Romeo, Juliet, Hamlet, Shylock, Othello…

Caro’s huge paragraphs and sentences of hundreds of words in massive books are operatic in their larger-than-life quality. Yet, like the music of opera, they hint at the music of our lives, the complexities, the sorrows, the pleasures, the rises and the falls.

And, more than operatic, Caro’s Johnson books deserve another adjective, one that matches his genius, his sensitivity and his ambition.

They are Shakespearean.

Patrick T. Reardon
8.16.12

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