on July 11, 2013
I may have been daunted by the sheer weight of previous LBJ volumes by Robert Caro, but with my arrival in the post-modern age, was pleased to tackle this one with a Kindle little more than 1/4 inch thick. Now, I'm totally hooked, so will have to reverse gears and read previous volumes. "The Passage of Power" covers the 1960 battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, the campaign, the years of LBJ's vice-presidency, the assassination, and finally Johnson's first months as President. Although I've lived through the Johnson era from the beginning, and have always paid a fair amount of attention to the man and his policies, I was overwhelmed by the range of Caro's insights into LBJ's moods, character, modes of operation, and approach to power.
Caro doesn't hesitate to give extensive treatment equally to Johnson's strengths and weaknesses, both of which seem to have been monumental. While he was devious, lying, manipulative, ruthless, driven, subject to lightening-quick mood changes; he also had a genuine liberal bent toward the less favored in our society, toward social justice, and toward promoting improvements in our nation's treatment of the individual.
I can see how citizens, based on which of LBJ's policies and actions they were exposed to, could consider him either an evil man or a hero. I've heard people speak about the fiasco of Johnson's Vietnam policy (not covered in this volume), but others praise his significant contributions toward civil rights and the welfare of the underprivileged. Although I have a tendency to rate Presidents as good, bad, or indifferent, I can't characterize Johnson as falling into any of those simplistic categories. From Caro's work, it's obvious that when Johnson was bad, he was very, very bad; and when he was good, he was superb.
Caro emphasizes how depressed Johnson was during his vice-presidency, since he was given virtually no power or attention. I can't say that I blame him for feeling jilted, given the attitudes of the Kennedy power clique, particularly Bobby. But Caro goes on to show how Johnson turned around virtually overnight into a highly effective power-wielding President, once he was in that office. The last part of this volume is indeed an amazing read, as it shows how Johnson kept his negative traits under rigid control during this period, instituted strategies for gaining his ends with Congress, and secured the overwhelming support of the nation for his goals - many of which had been stalled in the legislative process for decades. All in all, this is a splendid read, and I thoroughly enjoyed both the sometimes shocking details, and the sophisticated overall analysis.
on April 29, 2015
This monumental series has spanned my adult life. Every single volume is chock-full of not just new perspectives, but revelations about the nature of power - how to get it, how to keep it, how to use it, even how to lose it. There is wisdom, admiration, and condemnation of LBJ, all rolled into one. Beyond LBJ, there are insightful and balanced portraits of all the key players, here including JFK and RFK in wonderfully vivid depth, but also an array of lesser known politicians and Kennedy men. Most important, there is a sub-plot of how LBJ cultivated and seduced Harry Byrd (D-VA) into cooperating with his agenda, breaking a logjam similar to the one that has stymied Obama.
In this volume, LBJ achieves his life-long ambition, becoming President. The scope of the narrative covers LBJ at the height of his powers in the Senate, then a depressing hiatus as a scorned VP, culminating in his masterful takeover of the reins of power in a grieving nation. In terms of plot, the reader gets an in-depth look at the LBJ-RFK political war, Cold War maneuvering with Castro and the USSR, and of course, the assassination of JFK. Caro writes of these with his usual luminous prose not just to evoke a time, but to expose its underbelly in the most shocking and challenging ways. What makes Caro's books must-reads are the themes that he develops: his books are exercises in moralizing and assessment, getting us to question the reality of the American system of government. Along the way, there is plenty of advice relevant to the young and ambitious as they begin their careers. At its best, the quality of the writing is so outstanding that these are also literary works of absolutely the first rank.
Here are the themes as I see them. First, though many liberals were suspicious of the way that LBJ consistently subordinated his ideals to his pursuit of power, once he achieved power, LBJ used it to advance his ideals, many of which were hidden from his deep-South colleagues. At long last, he initiates his own agenda in favor of civil rights, economic opportunity, and the like. That is how "power reveals".
Second, to effect a smooth transition, LBJ was able for a time to suppress his worst flaws - vindictiveness, anger, meanness, inability to listen, and ruthlessness - in favor of inclusiveness and compromise, always in appearance if not in reality. This was accomplished at great personal cost, in particular toadying up to RFK and others.
Third, he continued to rely on the core skills and instincts that he developed over his entire career. Here, we see LBJ snap back with his undeniable political genius, enabling him to recognize the perfect time to get something done, to cultivate the right people to do so, to maintain the right public image, etc. Yet at the same time, he was secretive, misleading, and manipulative, relying on lies and intimidation when necessary. Whatever you think about it, LBJ succeeded, where JFK failed, to get a balking Congress to act in the most productive legislative sessions since FDR's first term. This is relevant to the debate about Obama's presidency: LBJ may have had a democratic majority, but Southern Democrats were blocking everything, much as the GOP is doing today. LBJ figured out how to change that dynamic - it is an amazing story.
Fourth, and this is new, LBJ made a series of self-destructive political misjudgments, each of which threatened to derail his career. They included: 1) waiting too long to seek the nomination in 1960 out of fear, assuming instead that the party would turn to him in a deadlock; 2) misunderstanding how, with TV, the power base was shifting from backroom dealing to celebrity, which explains how JFK blindsided him so completely; 3) his assumption that as VP he could still function as majority leader in the Senate. Combining such misjudgments with his suppressed character flaws, Caro hints, will explain his catastrophic failure in Vietnam once he wins the presidency in his own right.
All that being said, there is no question that volume 4 is not as good as vols 1 & 3 (which rank as perhaps the greatest American political bios ever written). I do not know if it is because Caro's powers are waning as he enters his late 70s, but somehow there is less energy to the prose. As many have remarked, he also refers to earlier volumes, which he never did before. We can only hope that his energy will return in the final volume, which so many of us anticipate eagerly.
on May 5, 2013
Johnson, as vice president, is shown at his worst, characterless and
filled with rage and jealousy. Amazingly, those attributes are all but missing from
him as president, and he remains one of our great presidents of social causes
and among the worst in understanding foreign policy. Not worse than our very
worst, however. With all his misadventures, Johnson doesn't come close to
George W. Bush and his fraternity-cowboy presidency.
Caro paints a detailed portrait of Johnson, covering everything from the furniture and lighting in his Senate hideaway office - "The Taj Mahal" -- to the way he walked and the way his hands moved during Kennedy administration meetings. He also adds new information on the Texas vote in the 1960 presidential election, suggesting possible fraud. And he has a thoughtful and careful reconstruction of Robert Kennedy's attempt to allow Johnson a chance to back out of the vice presidential nomination after JFK offered it to him at Los Angeles in 1960.
That said, those who aren't Caro devotees may find themselves frustrated by the book's detours away from Johnson and into other areas (two pages are devoted to retelling the PT-109 story), by what can seem at times to be long-windedness, and by the author's self-referential tendencies. "As I wrote," he will write, then going on to quote an earlier book of his about Johnson. If you have the time, don't recall the other books or haven't read them, and want to sit back and let yourself be entertained by Caro's prose style and storytelling ability, then you may love this. If you are just looking for a direct, straightforward factual account of the major highlights of Johnson's career or of the Kennedy period, reading this book may not be be the most time-efficient path. The New Yorker magazine had an excerpt of the section of this book that covers the assassination in Dallas and the immediate aftermath; that gives a pretty good sample of what you will get in this book.
It's a great feeling knowing I have lived long enough to read another of Robert A. Caro's celebrated biographical series: "The Years Of LBJ." Here's to enough life in both of us for another!
Short review first: This is a very readable, often exciting continuation of Caro's ongoing series examining the life and career of Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States. Now, 30 years after publishing the first (and to my lights, still best) volume, Caro brings us to LBJ's presidency at last. Johnson struggles for significance as the oft-ignored vice president to John F. Kennedy, but finds new life in the wake of Kennedy's tragic assassination, going forward to lead the administration to triumphs beyond Kennedy's reach.
Caro's complex take on Johnson as a viciously cruel man with real sensitivity for the needs of others, particularly the poor and non-white, really comes over here in a way it didn't before. Prior volumes spelled out much of the cruelty and little of the sensitivity. Here you get much more of the latter, which had its roots in the same hardscrabble upbringing that coarsened his character. He genuinely cared for the underdog, being one himself.
"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," Caro notes near the end. "Yet he subdued them, overcame them, in a triumph not only of genius but of will."
While "Passage Of Power" is surprisingly readable despite its heftiness in size and scope, and thus very much a continuation of the high bar set by "LBJ Years", it suffers from two serious issues.
One is a tendency toward self-importance which may be well-earned but is still distracting. Caro often quotes from his earlier works and even raises points to be answered in his yet-unwritten fifth volume on the remainder of LBJ's presidency. One must wade through constant repetition of choice quotes and phrases, and even a tendency at times to drift off into Peggy Noonan-ish perorations and temporizing.
"Guns of August?" Caro writes elliptically in praising LBJ's formation of the Warren Commission that investigated Kennedy's murder and concluded it was not a conspiracy, Soviet or otherwise. "In weighing the motivations, mixed as always with Johnson, for establishing the Warren Commission, the possibility of November bombs should be allowed at least a small place on the scales." I think the Warren Commission was on the money, and even I had trouble swallowing that one.
This leads to the second point, which is more wooliness in the narrative than I remember from Caro's prior, sharper volumes. Several key story points are laid out with more conjecture than detail. For example, Caro points out we cannot know what really passed between LBJ and Kennedy's brother Bobby, who hated him, when John asked LBJ to be his running mate, yet Caro spends a long time detailing the bare facts that LBJ and Bobby met three times the night before Johnson's nomination as indicative of some deeper, unknowable thing worth harping upon. Caro also comes up largely empty on the question of whether Johnson was in danger of being pulled from the ticket just before Kennedy's murder, though he spends much time pushing his theories and that of a Kennedy associate who says she heard JFK say "he's in trouble" even as he notes a lack of needed context. You can't know everything, and Caro like any good historian doesn't pretend otherwise, but his prior volumes didn't lean so much on weaker data points.
Caro's most impressive revelations here are presented in a matter-of-fact way. He details a congressional investigation into LBJ satrap Bobby Baker that threatened to shed light on Johnson's corrupt financial dealings, only to be snuffed out by the fact the hearings began on the same day as Kennedy's murder. LBJ leans on the Houston Chronicle for its "lung," i. e. editorial support, by threatening as President to harm its publisher's financial interests, one of several times Johnson's telephone recordings shed a gruesome light on the depths of his character.
Most masterfully, Caro synthesizes his material to give a thorough accounting of Johnson's finest hour of public service, his passage of various Kennedy bills left languishing in Congress, particularly the Civil Rights Act as well as a tax relief bill and anti-poverty legislation, all accomplished within a budget lower than the prior year's.
Johnson's presidency would be one of bureaucratic and conceptual bloat, not to mention the awful, wasteful carnage of the Vietnam War, yet Caro underlines how it started out with surprising grace. LBJ, however nasty, functioned at his indomitable best and showed he really cared about the downtrodden, even beyond the fact such concerns were in his own best political interests. "Passage" isn't perfect, but it's a fascinating, detailed account of and about flawed greatness.
on June 21, 2012
For those of us who grew up in Lyndon Johnson's time, Robert Caro's "The Passage of Power" is a stunning achievement for historical retrospect. On every page one can hear LBJ speaking...whether it be the "cornpone" voice his critics liked to ridicule or the serious and measured voice of a new president addressing a nation deep in mourning for the first time. Caro helps to capture it beautifully.
With all that he had achieved it's a wonder that Lyndon Johnson waited so long to decide about running for president in 1960, as the author points out in the first chapters of the book. By the time he had decided to go for it, it was too late. Caro digs deep into Johnson's psyche and one almost feels for Johnson as he grinds out the speculation, only to lose to the son of fame and fortune. But with a turn of luck he is suddenly thrust on the ticket as VP and the story heats up again. (In this book, the story is always heating up when Robert Kennedy is around and the blood feud between the two men is examined in depth throughout)
As vice president, LBJ was in the background as was the custom of vice presidents in those days. While President Kennedy valued his judgment and opinions, this was not a close collaboration and it's fascinating to note that Johnson had virtually no role in the decisions made about the Cuban Missile Crisis...he actually opposed the president's plan. But after November 22, 1963, things changed rapidly for the new president and much of the time it was all for the better for the country and Caro gives Johnson a highly generous amount of the credit.
What's fun to read in "The Passage of Power" is LBJ's stroking of men like Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia, whose opposition to civil rights was about as firm as it gets. But Johnson worked him over and in the end, the civil rights bill was passed. This was a bill that no one thought would ever be put into law and because of President Johnson, it all happened by July, 1964.
Perhaps the best part of the book is the time period between the assassination and the State of the Union message...less than seven weeks. In those weeks Lyndon Johnson found the power and wielded it and Caro is at his finest in describing the events here. These pages are rich in detail.
"The Passage of Power" is an extraordinary look at a man whose sudden ascent to the presidency was handled with firmness, direction and meaning. I highly recommend this book and congratulate Robert Caro on his work.
on June 27, 2013
While this is not the best of Caro's work on LBJ, it provides more interesting facets of his personality that impacted his later involvement with Civil Rights, Medicare and Viet Nam. Depending on your politics, this might serve to confirm your worst suspicions as to LBJ's later motivations in the areas above as we ponder the future of his achievements. This volume provided me with much clearer insight into the personalities of men like Sam Rayburn, Richard Russell, RFK and JFK along with several others. The picture is not an inspiring one.
Mr. Caro works at getting the facts but in this book repeats them so much that one feels he was getting paid by the page. That said the author knows his subject and those who are interested in LBJ, JFK and the sixties should have this on their reading list.
on January 21, 2013
One has to wonder if publishers demand minimum page counts. The third book in Robert Caro's series on Lyndon Johnson contains numerous surprising and wonderful nuggets of history--especially November 1963 through Kennedy's assassination. Having witnessed the tragedy via television and news broadcasts and following the Warren Commission and subsequent investigations I didn't expect to learn more from this book. But he sets everything up beautifully by introducing associated issues that sustain a level of suspense despite knowing the outcome. This is why I give it five stars. However, Caro tends to take a point and bury it with facts and redundancies causing one to sometimes cry out: "I got it, move on." But you risk skipping a neat factoid if you do. Next to the assassination his description of Congress holding up legislation to stop a civil rights bill from coming up for a vote and how Johnson maneuvered to get it passed within a few months after becoming President sounds eerily like what is going on in Congress today with the deficit. The book ends before the 1964 election with Vietnam just an infrequent agenda item on the President's calendar. One more volume to come, and it should be a good one.
on February 23, 2013
The Passage of Power is a terrific book in its own right and a worthy entry into the best multi-volume political biography in decades. For those who are new to the series, this is the latest addition to The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro's legendary and powerful look at LBJ's life and legacy.
Caro's writing, in some ways, is closer to opera than it is to pure history. The book is thoroughly researched and meticulously crafted, but its real strength lies in Caro's ability to weave the facts into a compelling narrative full of colorful characters. Above all, Caro's goal is to tell a story. As a result, it doesn't read like most "serious" history. But make no mistake: this is historical writing of the highest order. Caro is simply able to keep his reader in mind more than other authors.
There are pros and cons to this approach. Readers who start The Passage of Power immediately after finishing Master of the Senate will notice, for example, that Caro frequently returns to particular episodes from LBJ's past. This may come off as repetitive, but keep in mind that it's been nearly a decade since Master of the Senate was released. Personally, I found it was helpful for Caro to return to his main themes, especially for readers who haven't picked up one of his books in many years.
Two aspects of the book left an indelible impression in my mind. First is how Caro handles RFK, weighing the different aspects of his character--from vicious and stubborn to compassionate and devoted--and how RFK changed after his brother's assassination. The second is the transformation of LBJ immediately after learning of JFK's death. These themes will keep you turning pages quickly.
Anyone interested in politics and American history, or looking for an incredible story, should look no further than The Passage of Power.
on November 30, 2013
Caro is an engaging writer and its easy to get drawn into the book. But this book and his previous one has caused disillusionment on my part. I no longer find him entirely credible.
The biggest fault lies in Caro's account of the Cuban missile crisis. He relies primarily on the after-the-fact accounts of the participants, political operatives, like Bobby Kennedy (RFK) and Ted Sorenson, who had many reasons to create a mythology about the event. What Caro inexcusably did was rely on these memoirs even though they are directly contradicted by tapes recording the very meetings and deliberations he writes about in his book. Almost all the Cuban missile crisis meetings were taped and these tapes and transcripts have been available to historians for many years. One historian who has written about the tapes is Sheldon Stern and among the books he has written about them is The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory. The tapes show that Caro's account is very inaccurate and misleading.
On page 221 of Passage of Power, for example, Caro reports that everyone agreed with Dean Rusk's proposal to resolve the crisis by offering a private trade of Soviet withdrawal of missiles in Cuba in exchange for US removal of missiles in Turkey. Yet the transcripts show that RFK opposed this offer, even after he was forced to make it by his brother. On page 210 Caro portrays RFK as measured, moderate, and someone who was focused on the moral questions at stake. Caro says that RFK was concerned with the moral implications of a strike against Cuba being a Pearl Harbor in reverse. All of this is untrue. RFK (along with Curtis Le May) was the most hawkish of the Presidents advisers; in the beginning, RFK advocated a full scale invasion of Cuba immediate after Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell Taylor warned against such an invasion. Even after the President and the majority had agreed on a blockade rather than an invasion or air strike, RFK pressed for an invasion as "the last chance we will have to destroy Castro." RFK carelessly insisted that the Soviet's would not retaliate with nuclear weapons and argued "we should just get into it, and get it over with and take our losses if [Kruschev] wants to get into a war over this...." There is nothing in the tapes of anyone except the President expressly being influenced in choices by civilian casualties. The President acknowledged that the Cuban missiles had no more technical ability to kill Americans than other Soviet missiles placed around the world. RFK's expressed reference to Pearl Harbor was not a moral concern but a concern of how an invasion might be perceived by the rest of the world. To solve this problem of perception, the tapes reveal RFK repeatedly as having advocated the creation of a false pretext to justify an invasion. In the beginning RFK advocated using a Berlin crisis as an excuse to invade Cuba. Later, after the embargo had been agreed to, RFK suggested using the Guantanamo base to stage an incident that would be a pretext for invasion, in his words: "You know, sink the Maine again or something.!" As the crisis was close to resolution, RFK lamented: "I'd like to take Cuba back. That would be nice." The central fact that RFK, the President, LBJ and other decision-makers were willing to risk nuclear war and catastrophic civilian losses in efforts to stop the Soviets from protecting their ally Cuba against a US invasion goes unrecognized by Caro for the sociopathic imperialism that it was. The tapes show President Kennedy as the sole voice of morality and reason, saying the following: "It doesn't make any difference if you get blown up by an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union or one that was ninety miles away. Geography doesn't mean that much . . . . After all this is a political struggle as much as military."
This kind of error is inexcusable. There are other errors of neglect that perhaps are more excusable but to me also detract from Caro's credibility. Caro fails to describe the full extent of Johnson corruption. There is no mention of Mac Wallace, who with premeditation killed the boyfriend of LBJ's sister in broad daylight, was defended gratis by LBJ's personal lawyer, and who was convicted of the murder but walked away a free man with a suspended sentence. Wallace has also been a suspect in the murder of an Agriculture Department official in Texas who was investigating a web of corruption that involved LBJ. Caro gives no mention to Billy Sol Estes, even though Estes was a friend of LBJ and Estes later claimed that LBJ was behind the Ag official's murder. Author and former Republican operative Roger Stone (who has his own credibility issues) writes of the violent response he got from Caro when he mentioned Mac Wallace's name to Caro.