December 8, 2012
Book Review: Robert A. Caro’s ‘The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson’
by David Greenberg (05-01-12)–The Washington Post
When Robert A. Caro published “Master of the Senate” (2002), the third volume of his voluminous multi-part life of Lyndon B. Johnson, he said he would finish his labors with just one more installment. But clearly he wasn’t being realistic.
“Master of the Senate” concluded in 1958. It left untouched the 1960 campaign, the vice presidential years and the whole of Johnson’s presidency — the Civil Rights Act, the Great Society, Vietnam. Moreover, Caro is not exactly partial to verbal economy. His books are famous, or infamous, for running on profusely — not just because of the sheer mass of his research but also because of his overflowing literary style.
Caro strives for the epic. He will make a book, or chapter, or anecdote as long as it has to be to achieve his desired effect — elongating even a single sentence, if necessary, and then stitching it together with a passel of colons, semicolons and dashes, as if scooped by the handful from his handyman’s belt. (No wonder he and his longtime editor are known to fight over punctuation.) Given all this, if the 1957 civil rights bill consumed more than 150 pages of Volume 3, how could the historic 1964 bill weigh in at anything less?
Sure enough, Caro’s fourth volume, “The Passage of Power,” doesn’t complete the tale of Johnson’s presidency. On the contrary, it barely begins it. The book opens in the rump years of the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, with our hero — or should that be antihero? — contemplating a presidential run. It chugs through the grand detour of John F. Kennedy’s reign, with LBJ sulking on the sidelines. And it ends in the first weeks of Johnson’s presidency, which has been thrust upon him by JFK’s assassination.
Although these are, for Johnson, years of relative inaction, Caro infuses his pages with suspense, pathos, bitter rivalry and historic import — with Robert F. Kennedy in particular emerging as a nearly co-equal, second lead in the psychodrama, always looming offstage and threatening frequently to steal the spotlight from his arch rival.
In Caro’s account, LBJ comes across by turns as insecure, canny, bighearted, self-defeating, petty, brilliant, cruel and, of course, domineering. In the opening pages, he longingly eyes the presidency but, psychologically paralyzed, can’t bring himself to declare his candidacy or enter even a few primaries. Instead, he rages at the upstart Kennedy, who shows unforeseen proficiency in the old game of locking down governors and state Democratic Party leaders for the convention and in the new game of winning over the masses via television.
When Kennedy claims the party’s mantle in Los Angeles and searches for a running mate, a different Johnson suddenly appears: calculating, cagey, capable of subsuming his contempt for Kennedy to a steely desire to place himself next in line for the presidency. LBJ has staff members look up how many presidents had died in office and then does the cruel math, admitting in many conversations — and Caro recounts several of them — that such a route is his best hope of becoming president himself.
With the vice presidential years, Caro unveils still another LBJ: ill-tempered, self-pitying and feckless even in his old Senate back yard. JFK cuts him out of major decisions, and RFK (left) regularly humiliates him (sometimes, Caro suggests, at his brother’s bidding). At one party, he sticks pins into an LBJ voodoo doll to much laughter. The young, urbane White House staff members ridicule the folksy Texan as “Rufus Cornpone.”
For a while, Johnson seems determined to dutifully play his thankless part. But the slights and frustrations mount, and his skin is just too thin. One poignant scene features Johnson, in his bathrobe, interrupting the foreman of his Texas ranch, who is milking a cow, to play dominoes at 4 a.m. By mid-1963, what is clearly clinical depression takes a physical toll. Johnson’s “belly [had become] enormous,” recalled his aide Harry McPherson. “He looked absolutely gross.” Caro goes so far as to suggest that Kennedy was planning to drop Johnson from the ticket in 1964, although he has only one unsubstantiated recollection, from Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s secretary, to support that claim, against a preponderance of evidence on the other side.
But one more change is yet to come. When Kennedy is shot in the Dallas motorcade, Johnson is transformed again — in an instant, according to Caro. Facedown on the floor of his car, a Secret Service member’s foot planted in his back, Johnson is magically possessed by self-assured calm. Rising to the immense challenges before him, he guides the country with a strong hand through the dark days of November using Kennedy’s martyrdom to realize his slain predecessor’s unfulfilled agenda, although not without exacerbating already-miserable relations with Robert Kennedy.