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The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Robert A. Caro
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (636 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, May 2012: In the fourth volume of Caro’s ambitious, decades-long biographic exploration, Lyndon Johnson finally reaches the White House. At 600-plus pages, it’s a brick of a book, but it reads at times like a novel, and a thriller, and a Greek tragedy. Caro's version of JFK's assassination is especially chilling, and the characters—not just LBJ, but the Kennedys and the power brokers of Washington --are downright Shakespearean. --Neal Thompson

From Bookforum

Lyndon Johnson was a figure of immense gifts and horrendous flaws, and I doubt any writer will ever capture the arc of his triumphant and ultimately tragic life so well again. — Michael Kazin

Review

“Brilliant . . . Important . . . Remarkable . . . In sparking detail, Caro shows Johnson’s genius for getting to people—friends, foes, and everyone in between—and how he used it to achieve his goals . . .With this fascinating and meticulous account Robert Caro has once again done America a great service.”
—President Bill Clinton, The New York Times Book Review (front cover)


“By writing the best presidential biography the country has ever seen, Caro has forever changed the way we think, and read, American history . . . Although the amount of research Caro has done for these books is staggering, it’s his immense talent as a writer that has made his biography of Johnson one of America’s most amazing literary achievements . . . Caro’s chronicle is as absorbing as a political thriller . . . There’s not a wasted word, not a needless anecdote . . . Most impressively, Caro comes closer than any other historian could to explaining the famously complex LBJ . . . Caro’s portrayal of the president is as scrupulously fair as it is passionate and deeply felt . . . The series is a masterpiece, unlike any other work of American history published in the past. It’s true that there will never be another Lyndon B. Johnson, but there will never be another Robert A. Caro, either.” —Michael Schaub, NPR 

“A breathtakingly dramatic story about a pivotal moment in United States history [told] with consummate artistry and ardor . . . It showcases Mr. Caro’s masterly gifts as a writer: his propulsive sense of narrative, his talent for enabling readers to see and feel history in the making and his ability to situate his subjects’ actions within the context of their times . . . Caro manages to lend even much-chronicled events a punch of tactile immediacy . . . Johnson emerges as both a larger-than-life, Shakespearean personage—with epic ambition and epic flaws—and a more human-scale puzzle . . .  Mr. Caro uses his storytelling gifts to turn seemingly arcane legislative maneuvers into action-movie suspense, and he gives us unparalleled understanding of how Johnson used a crisis and his own political acumen to implement his agenda with stunning speed. Taken together the installments of Mr. Caro’s monumental life of Johnson form a revealing prism by which to view the better part of a century in American life and politics.” 
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times 
 
“A great work of history . . . A great biography . . . Caro has summoned Lyndon Johnson to vivid, intimate life.” —Newsweek
 
“Making ordinary politics and policymaking riveting and revealing is what makes Caro a genius. Combined with his penetrating insight and fanatical research, Caro’s Churchill-like prose elevates the life of a fairly influential president to stuff worthy of Shakespeare . . . Reading Caro’s books can feel like encountering the life of an American president for the first time . . . Caro’s judgment is solid, his prose inspiring, and his research breathtaking . . . Robert Caro stands alone as the unquestioned master of the contemporary American political biography.”
—Jordan Michael Smith, The Boston Globe
 
“A meditation on power as profound as Machiavelli’s.” —Lara Marlowe, Irish Times
 
“One of the most compelling political narratives of the past half-century . . . A vivid picture of how political power worked in the US during the middle of the 20th century at local, state and national level. . . This extraordinary work will remain essential reading for decades to come.” —Richard Lambert, Financial Times
 
“Unrivaled . . . Caro does not merely recount. He beckons. Single sentences turn into winding, brimming paragraphs, clauses upon clauses tugging at the reader, layering the scenery with character intrigue and the plot with historical import. The result is irresistible . . . Passage covers with all the artistry and intrigue of a great novel events that are seared in the nation’s memory. In an era defined by fragmented media markets, instantaneous communication, gadflies and chattering suits, Caro stands not merely apart, but alone.”
—William Howell, San Francisco Chronicle
 
“The greatest political biography ever written . . . The most sweeping historical tour de force since Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire . . . Caro has imprinted himself into history. His work is now the benchmark of political biography.” —Paul Sheehan, Sydney Morning Herald
 
“Riveting . . . Masterful . . . An insightful account of what it means and what it takes to occupy the Oval Office.” —Steve Paul, The Kansas City Star
 
“Robert Caro is the essential chronicler of these times: And these times should never be forgotten.” —Joel Connelly, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
 
“Caro’s masterpiece of biography . . . His strength as a biographer is his ability to probe Johnson’s mind and motivations . . . Riveting . . . A roller-coaster tale.”
The Economist
 
“The latest in what is almost without question the greatest political biography in modern times . . . Nobody goes deeper, works harder or produces more penetrating insights than [Caro].” —Patrick Beach, Austin American-Statesman
 
“The politicians’ political book of choice . . . An encyclopedia of dirty tricks that would make Machiavelli seem naïve.” —Michael Burleigh, London Literary Review
 
“Majestic . . . The reporting is copious, the writing elegant and energetic, the sentences frequently rushing forward themselves like mighty rivers. Four books, and nearly four decades, into this vast project, Caro’s commitment to excellence has not wavered or even slackened; the reader can feel the sheer force of his effort on every page.” —Ronald Brownstein, Democracy
 
“By dramatizing the capacities and limitations of the most talented politician of the postwar era, Caro aims to make readers shrewder citizens . . . As a student of power, Caro is a Machiavelli for democrats, who instead of addressing the prince, addresses the people.” —Thomas Meaney, The Nation
 
“Astonishing and unprecedented . . . a work of real literature, among the best nonfiction works ever . . . His books . . . argue that things happen because certain people with power want them to happen . . . It is not inconceivable to think that, without the presence of LBJ and the influence on him of his character and his experiences, none [of the civil rights bills] would have won Congressional approval . . . More than operatic, Caro’s Johnson books deserve another adjective, one that matches his genius, his sensitivity and his ambition: Shakespearean.”
—Patrick T. Reardon
 
“The best biography I’ve ever read . . . Incredibly well-written, with the tension and drama of a compulsive thriller, and the style of an elegant novel. Caro’s books aren’t just about politics, or just about Lyndon Johnson. His books are about America, its culture, its history, and its society. Above all, Caro’s books are about power, how to achieve it and make it multiply; how to use power and how to lose it.” —Michael Crick, UK Channel 4 News
 
“My book of the year, by a landslide majority, was The Passage of Power. The adjective ‘Shakespearean’ is overused and mostly undeserved but not in this case. LBJ emerges from this biography as a fully rounded tragic hero: cowardly and brave, petty and magnificent, vindictive and noble, a man of vaunting ambition and profound insecurities. Caro marries profound psychological insight with a brilliant eye for the drama of the times.” —Robert Harris, The Guardian (London)

“Caro is a genius at delineating character, and not just that of the deliciously complicated LBJ. He investigates, among other larger-than-life figures, the Kennedy brothers, the powerful and unbending Harry Byrd of Virginia, and the clownlike but devoted Bobby Baker . . . Caro’s use of strong image and repetition, almost hypnotic in combination, is breathtakingly effective. Caro is a great historian, but if the purpose of art is to stimulate thought and arouse emotion, he is also a great artist.” —Rosemary Michaud, Charleston Post and Courier
 
“A portrait of executive leadership so evocative as to be tactile.”
—Robert Draper, Wall Street Journal
 
“The only superstar biographer in the world . . . Caro’s [books] transform biography into something new, a tour de force of structured political opinion writing . . . A single theme emerges: the insidious ways that clever politicians can gather and abuse power—sometimes for good, sometimes for evil—in a modern democratic society.”  —Levi Asher, Literary Kicks
 
“One of the greatest biographies in the history of American letters.”
—Bob Hoover, Cleveland Plain Dealer
 
“As riveting as a thriller . . . The next book will crown an achievement in presidential biography unmatched among presidential histories.”
—David Hendricks, Houston Chronicle
 
“Every page [of The Years of Lyndon Johnson] is compelling. For many politicians it is the finest book on politics . . ...

About the Author

For his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, Robert A. Caro has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, has three times won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year and for Best Biography of the Year, and has also won virtually every other major literary honor, including the National Book Award, the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that best “exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist.” In 2010, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. 
 
Caro’s first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,everywhere acclaimed as a modern classic, was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest nonfiction books of the twentieth century. Timemagazine chose it as one of the hundred top nonfiction books of all time. It is, according to David Halberstam, “Surely the greatest book ever written about a city.” And The New York Times Book Review said: “In the future, the scholar who writes the history of American cities in the twentieth century will doubtless begin with this extraordinary effort.” 
 
The first volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power, was cited byThe Washington Post as “proof that we live in a great age of biography . . . [a book] of radiant excellence . . . Caro’s evocation of the Texas Hill Country, his elaboration of Johnson’s unsleeping ambition, his understanding of how politics actually work, are—let it be said flat out—at the summit of American historical writing.” Professor Henry F. Graff of Columbia University called the second volume,Means of Ascent, “brilliant. No review does justice to the drama of the story Caro is telling, which is nothing less than how present-day politics was born.” The London Times hailed volume three, Master of the Senate, as “a masterpiece . . . Robert Caro has written one of the truly great political biographies of the modern age.” The Passage of Power, volume four, has been called “Shakespearean . . . A breathtakingly dramatic story [told] with consummate artistry and ardor” (The New York Times) and “as absorbing as a political thriller . . . By writing the best presidential biography the country has ever seen, Caro has forever changed the way we think about, and read, American history” (NPR). On the cover of The New York Times Book Review, President Bill Clinton praised it as “Brilliant . . . Important . . . Remarkable. With this fascinating and meticulous account Robert Caro has once again done America a great service.” 
 
“Caro has a unique place among American political biographers,” The Boston Globe said . . . “He has become, in many ways, the standard by which his fellows are measured.” And Nicholas von Hoffman wrote: “Caro has changed the art of political biography.” 
 
Born and raised in New York City, Caro graduated from Princeton University, was later a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, and worked for six years as an investigative reporter for Newsday. He lives in New York City with his wife, Ina, the historian and writer.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

The Prediction

When he was young—seventeen and eighteen years old—Lyndon Johnson worked on a road gang that was building a highway (an unpaved highway: roads in the isolated, impoverished Texas Hill Country weren’t paved in the 1920s) between Johnson City and Austin.

With little mechanical equipment available, the road was being built almost entirely by hand, and his job, when he wasn’t half of a pick-and-shovel team with Ben Crider, a burly friend—six years older—from Johnson City, was “driving” a “fresno,” a heavy two-handled metal scoop with a sharpened front edge, that was pulled by four mules. Standing behind the scoop, between its handles, as the mules strained forward to force the scoop through the hard Hill Country caliche soil, he would push as they pulled. Since he needed a hand for each handle, the reins were tied together and wrapped around his back, so for this work—hard even for older men; for a tall, skinny, awkward teenager, it was, the other men recall, “backbreaking labor,” “too heavy” for Lyndon—Lyndon Johnson was, really, in harness with the mules. But at lunch hour each day, as the gang sat eating—in summer in whatever shade they could find as protection from the blazing Hill Country sun, in winter huddled around a fire (it would get so cold, Crider recalls, that “you had to build a fire to thaw your hands before you could handle a pick and shovel . . . build us a fire and thaw and work all day”)—Lyndon would, in the words of another member of the gang, “talk big” to the older men. “He had big ideas. . . . He wanted to do something big with his life.” And he was quite specific about what he wanted to do: “I’m going to be President of the United States one day,” he predicted.

Poverty and backbreaking work—clearing cedar on other men’s farms for two dollars a day, or chopping and picking cotton: on your hands and knees all day beneath that searing sun—were woven deep in the fabric of Lyndon Johnson’s youth, as were humiliation and fear: he was coming home at night to a house to which other Johnson City families brought charity in the form of cooked dishes because there was no money in that house to buy food; to a house on which, moreover, his family was having such difficulty paying the taxes and mortgage that they were afraid it might not be theirs much longer. But woven into it also was that prediction.

In many ways, his whole life would be built around that prediction: around a climb toward that single, far-off goal. As a young congressman in Washington, he was careful not to mention that ambition to the rising young New Dealers with whom he was allying himself, but they were aware of it anyway. James H. Rowe Jr., Franklin Roosevelt’s aide, who spent more time with Johnson than the others, says, “From the day he got here, he wanted to be President.” When old friends from Texas visited him, sometimes his determination burst out of him despite himself, as if he could not contain it. “By God, I’ll be President someday!” he exclaimed one evening when he was alone with Welly Hopkins. And an incident in 1940 showed the Texans how much he wanted the prize he sought, how much he was willing to sacrifice to attain it.

Lack of money had been the cause of so many of the insecurities of his youth, and his election to Congress, far from soothing those fears, had seemed only to intensify them: he talked incessantly about how his father, who had been an elected official himself—a six-term member of the Texas House of Representatives—had ended up as a state bus inspector, and had died penniless; he didn’t want to end up like his father, he said. He talked about how he kept seeing around Washington former congressmen who had lost their seats—as, he said, he would inevitably one day lose his—and were working in low-paying, demeaning jobs; over and over again he related how once, while he was riding in an elevator in the Capitol, the elevator operator had told him that he had been a congressman. Hungry for money, he had already started accepting, indeed soliciting, financial favors from businessmen who wanted favors from him, and had been pleading with two important businessmen—George R. Brown of the Texas contracting firm of Brown & Root and the immensely wealthy Austin publisher, real estate magnate and oilman Charles Marsh—to “find” him a business in which he could make a little money of his own. So when, one autumn day in 1940, the three men—Johnson, Brown and Marsh—were vacationing together at the luxurious Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, lying on a blanket in front of their adjoining cottages, and Marsh offered Lyndon Johnson a business in which he could make a lot of money, the two businessmen were sure the congressman would accept it. Marsh, who, in Brown’s words, “loved Lyndon like a son,” told him he could have his share in a lucrative oilfield partnership, a share worth three-quarters of a million dollars, without even putting up any money; he could “pay for it out of his profits each year.” To the surprise of both men, however, Johnson said that he would have to think about the offer—and after a week he turned it down. “I can’t be an oilman,” he said; if the public knew he had oil interests, “it would kill me politically.”

Believing they understood Johnson’s political ambitions—Lyndon was always telling them about how he wanted to stay in the House until a Senate seat opened up, and then run for the Senate, about how the Senate seat was his ultimate goal in politics; never had he mentioned any other office, nor did he mention one during his week at the Greenbrier—Marsh and Brown were shocked by his refusal. Being known as an oilman couldn’t hurt him in his congressional district, or in a Senate race in oil-dominated Texas. But then they realized that there was in fact one office for which he would be “killed” by being an “oilman.” And then they understood that while Lyndon Johnson might hunger for money, that hunger was as nothing beside his hunger for something else.

And unlike others—the many, many others—in Washington who wanted the same thing he did, who had set their sights on the same goal, Lyndon Baines Johnson, born August 27, 1908, had mapped out a path to that goal, and he refused to be diverted from it.

The path ran only through Washington—it was paved with national, not state power—and it had only three steps: House of Representatives, Senate, presidency. And after he had fought his way onto it—winning a seat in the House in 1937 in a desperate, seemingly hopeless campaign—he could not be persuaded by anyone, not even Franklin Roosevelt, to turn off it. In 1939, the President offered to appoint him director of the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration. The directorship of a nationwide agency, particularly one as fast-growing, and politically important, as the REA, was not the kind of job offered to many men only thirty years old, but Johnson turned the offer down; he was afraid, he said, of being “sidetracked.” In 1946, he was urged by his party to run for the governorship of Texas. If he did, he knew, his election was all but assured, and at the time his path seemed to have reached a dead end in Washington: stuck in the House now for almost a decade, with little chance of any imminent advancement to its hierarchy, he seemed to have no chance of stepping into a Senate seat. In the 435-member House, he was still only one of the crowd of junior congressmen, and, as a woman who worked with him when he was young put it, he “couldn’t stand not being somebody—just could not stand it.” But he still wouldn’t leave the road he had chosen as the best road to the prize he wanted so badly. The governorship, he explained to aides, could never be more than a “detour” on his “route,” a detour that might turn into a “dead end.” (Some years later, when his longtime assistant John Connally decided to run for the governorship, Johnson told him he was making a mistake in leaving Washington. “Here’s where the power is,” he said.) In 1948, still stuck in the House, he was about to turn forty, and a new assistant, Horace Busby, saw that “He believed, and he believed it really quite sincerely . . . that when a man reached forty, it was all over. And there was no bill ever passed by Congress that bore his name; he had done very little in his life.” Hopeless though his ambition might seem, however, Lyndon Johnson still clung to it. Instructing Busby to refer to him in press releases as “LBJ,” he explained: “FDR–LBJ, FDR–LBJ. Do you get it? What I want is for them to start thinking of me in terms of initials.” It was only presidents whom headline writers and the American people referred to by their initials; “he was just so determined that someday he would be known as LBJ,” Busby recalls.

That year, frantic to escape from the trap that the House had become for him, he entered a Senate race he seemed to have no chance of winning; during the campaign, and during post-campaign vote-counting, he went beyond even the notoriously elastic boundaries of Texas politics, and won.

But the Senate, into which he was sworn in January, 1949, was also only a step toward his goal, only the second rung on a three-rung ladder.

It was a rung on which he seemed very much at home. Lyndon Johnson was, as I have written, a reader of men. He had promulgated guidelines for such reading, which he tried to teach his young staff members. “Watch their hands, watch their eyes,” he told them. “Read eyes. No matter what a man is saying to you, it&r...
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