There are very few figures in history worthy of multi-volume biographies, much less one that runs to five books, the first four of which alone total nearly 3,600 pages. However, Robert A. Caro proves conclusively that his subject, President Lyndon Johnson, is fully deserving of the attention. One of the towering figures of the 20th Century, Johnson’s extraordinarily complex personality and the indelible imprint he left on American history literally require years of intensive research and thousands of pages to unravel.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro (2012) 736 pages
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It may be difficult for one who didn’t experience the 1960s as an adult to appreciate the consequential impact of Johnson’s career, both for good and for bad.
Before his ascension to the leadership of the U.S. Senate in 1953 — just five years after his first election to the body, and still in his first term — the Senate was effectively dysfunctional from the perspective of anyone who felt that action was needed to solve the country’s most pressing social and economic problems. During Johnson’s six years as Majority Leader (1955-61), his unrivaled legislative and political skills permitted him to change that dramatically, passing the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction nearly a century earlier and guiding the legislative process as smoothly as could ever be expected of a two-century-old institution hobbled by obscure rules designed to forestall any action.
Later, as President (1963-69), Johnson achieved victories almost universally deemed impossible when he acceded to the office upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy: “his great personal victory in the 1964 election, and his great victories for legislation that are the legislative embodiment of the liberal spirit in all its nobility. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Voting Rights Act of 1965. Medicare and Medicaid; Head Start; Model Cities. Government’s hand to help people caught in ‘the tentacles of circumstance.'”
But Johnson’s tenure in the White House was equally dramatic in tragic ways as well. “‘We Shall Overcome’ were not the only words by which it will be remembered. ‘Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?'” was the other side of the coin. No one who experienced those times can possibly forget either of these emblematic statements.
The picture of Lyndon Johnson that emerges from the pages of this book is, on balance, one of greatness — but greatness alloyed with weaknesses and character flaws reminiscent of the tragedies of Sophocles or Euripides. Johnson, who grew up desperately poor, was venal to an extreme. He built a fortune over his decades in the Senate and the White House by breaking numerous laws and exercising the most heavy-handed of business tactics. His political conduct was equally heavy-handed, alternating between fawning respect for people whose support he craved and transparent scorn for others that sometimes took the form of deliberate public humiliation. Although Caro makes clear that he exercised admirable restraint during the months immediately following his swearing-in as President, Johnson typically treated his staff with extraordinary contempt, screaming at high volume, waving his arms, and subjecting them to insulting demands. He was, as Bobby Kennedy regarded him, a very “nasty man.”
The Passage of Power tells the story of Lyndon Johnson from his first explorations of a possible race for President in the mid-1950s until the middle of 1964, which saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act that confirmed his political genius. But the book focuses most tightly on the four days beginning November 22, 1963, when JFK was killed, “and the rest of the transition period — the period, forty-seven days, just short of seven weeks, between the moment . . . when [Kennedy intimate] Ken O’Donnell said ‘He’s gone’ and the State of the Union speech on January 8, 1964” — a speech that. given its almost universally exuberant reception may well have been one of the greatest (and certainly one of the most consequential) orations in history.
If, a century from now, historians are still practicing their craft, and people are still reading books, The Passage of Power will stand out as a worthy contribution to the understanding of the contradictions in the American character.
The Passage of Power is the fourth of the five projected volumes of Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson. To date, Caro has devoted thirty years of his life to the project, and his wife Ina, his principal researcher, nearly as much. He estimates that the fifth volume will require another two to three years to write.
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