Thirty years have passed sine the publication of The Path to Power, the first of what Robert Caro had envisioned would be a three-volume biography of America's 36th president. This, his fourth volume, ends in the first months of Johnson's presidency, and Caro's assertion that this is the penultimate volume is a little hard to swallow given the thoroughness he has covered his subject's life even before reaching his time in the White House (with a third of this book's 700+ pages chronicling just the first four months as president). Yet Caro has sacrificed brevity for a detailed portrait of irony in his depiction of a master of political power who suddenly found himself deprived of it.
Caro begins with Johnson at the height of his success in the Senate. Still only in his second term, he had taken the weak position of Senate Majority Leader and turned it into the second most powerful office in national politics, thanks largely to his enormous personal and legislative abilities. But Johnson had his eye on an even larger prize: the presidency itself, an office he had aspired to for decades and which in 1960 seemed to many to be his for the taking. Yet Johnson hesitated to commit himself to the race, fearing the humiliation of a defeat. This created an opening that John F. Kennedy eagerly exploited. With his brother Robert collecting commitments in the west - a region critical to Johnson's chances - Kennedy outmaneuvered the Texas senator and won the nomination, demonstrating just how completely Johnson had misjudged his opponent.
Yet for Johnson a new opportunity presented itself when Kennedy offered him the vice presidential nomination during the convention. For Kennedy, the choice was an obvious one, as Johnson's presence on the ticket offered Democrats a chance to reclaim the Southern states lost to Dwight Eisenhower in the two previous elections. Johnson's reasons for accepting are less clear, though Caro notes Johnson's realistic assessment of his odds as vice president of assuming the presidency in his own right, as well as his belief that "Power is where power goes," a statement that demonstrates his conviction that he would retain his control over the Senate even as vice president.
Johnson was soon disabused of this notion. Blocked from maintaining his position in the Senate's Democratic caucus and denied any real responsibilities by the Kennedys, Johnson seemed to wither from the absence of power. For all his failings it is hard not to sympathize with the man in these chapters, who works to ingratiate himself with the Kennedy family through expensive gifts and obsequious letters. Yet flattery and jewelry did little to improve his standing in the administration, while the growing scandal surrounding his protégé Bobby Baker was exposing the vice president to increased scrutiny of his business dealings. Though Caro doesn't press his case any further than the evidence allows, his description of the mounting investigations in the autumn of 1963 suggests that Johnson's position on the ticket the next year was in jeopardy as he left with the president for a campaign trip to Texas.
All of this changed in Dallas in a matter of minutes. Caro's chapters on Kennedy's assassination and Johnson's assumption of the presidency are among the best in the book, as they convey the sense of bewilderment, tragedy, and sadness which stained that day. Here we see Johnson's abilities employed to their fullest to reassure a shocked nation of the smooth transition of power. Within days of Kennedy's funeral the new president took charge of his predecessor's stalled legislative agenda, working to pass a tax cut bill and civil rights legislation that few expected would become law. Here Caro exploits the numerous telephone conversations the president secretly recorded to depict Johnson's use of political power, as he threatened, cajoled, and wooed senators and representatives in an effort to attain his goals. The book ends in March 1964, with Johnson fully settled into his office and with the challenge before him of election in his own right, a challenge that - if successful - would complete his journey from the Texas Hill Country to the highest office in the land.
As with his previous volumes Caro has provided a meticulous study of the life and career of one of the most fascinating men ever to occupy the presidency, a book that measures up to the high standard set by his earlier works. His errors are few and are easily forgiven in a narrative that engages the reader fully and manages to make the minutiae of legislative maneuvering into entertaining reading. Given Caro's track record, it may be too much to hope that the next volume - final or not - will be published more quickly than this one, but regardless of how long it takes, if it is anywhere near as good as this one it will be well worth the wait.
For those of us who have read the previous volumes of Robert Caro's portrait of the life of Lyndon Johnson, we have all eagerly awaited this the latest installment. When the author first began writing what has become the definitive biography of the 36th President, he was basically vilified by scholars as getting it wrong. With each passing year, and volume, historians have come over to Caro's side of the story in troves. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power can either be read as part of the anthology or as a standalone story of Johnson's years during the Vice Presidency, and his ascension to the oval office upon the tragic death of John Kennedy.
Either way, you are in for a real treat. Many readers agree that writing doesn't get any better than this, and the proof is that Caro's writings have stood the test of time, and his reputation has simply gotten bigger. This is 605 pages (736 with footnotes) of detailed writing that any student of that period will cherish. The first half of the book, over 300 pages is dedicated to the last two Senate years, and the Vice Presidential years when LBJ lived the most down in the valley depressing type experience. He was ignored by the President, and castigated by young Robert Kennedy. Between the two of them Johnson's power had been castrated, and he was boxed into a small office. In a city where power was everything, Johnson now had none.
This is especially interesting in light of the heights from which he the former Senate Majority leader had fallen. Johnson as leader was considered the most powerful man in the Congress, with the White House held by the popular Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. Ike could get nothing done in the Democratic Congress without LBJ's help. Now with a potential Democratic President coming into office, he Johnson would be virtually unimportant as the new President would grasp power from both Ike, and Johnson. LBJ therefore knew that the Vice Presidency was where he wanted to be, or so he thought at the time.
As the book so poignantly points out however, Johnson also knew that seven other men had become president by simply being Vice President, and that is why he wanted the job so badly. Absolutely competent, understanding power, and desperately ambitious, Johnson would relegate himself to the job that former Vice President John Nance Gardner had described as not worth a bucket of warm spit.
For the first 300 thoroughly documented pages we feel Lyndon Johnson's pain as Vice President. It is both intense and unrelenting. The author has interviewed scores of the President's contemporaries who poured themselves into the story in order that Caro could get it right. Thousands of documents were studied as Caro once again lives in Washington DC for weeks and months at a time trying to get inside the head of his subject, moving down the same corridors that Johnson himself walked. As in previous volumes, the reader can just sense that the author has penetrated to the heart and soul of this most interesting of Presidents, and one who still remains bigger than life.
More than 60 pages of the book are devoted to the day John Kennedy dies, and then LBJ's successful attempt to reframe the nation's collective pain and use it to galvanize the Congress in coming months to pass his predecessor's agenda, something the late President was not able to get done himself. Caro and Kennedy Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. go head to head in the narrative as Caro rips to shreds Schlesinger's previously accepted belief that JFK would have passed his own agenda had he lived.
The book also deals with the hotly debated topic of whether JFK expected LBJ to accept the Vice Presidency when the offer was made. The story of Bobby Kennedy attempting to talk his brother out of it, and even telling Johnson he should withdraw his name is covered in detail. Interviews were conducted, documents studied and tape recordings of Lyndon Johnson's discussion of the matter are all covered in detail. Once again, Caro has rewritten conventional wisdom.
Readers on both sides of the discussion as to who killed JFK will be sorely disappointed if they expect Caro to shed new light on this hotly contested topic which still remains red hot some 50 years after the assassination. The author is of the opinion that the Warren Commission got it right, and he spares no attempt in his praise of the commission and its conclusions.
This latest installment of Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson is once again a first rate biography of a President that had tremendous impact on our country, our history, and what we have become. It covers a short period in the President's life, his ascension to the Vice Presidency and his coming into the Presidency itself. Basically nothing of the wrenching Viet Nam experience is covered. That will probably be left to the next installment. In the meantime we have enough to chew on in this volume to keep any fan of Caro's going until years from now, the author may shed new light on the American experience in Viet Nam. This reader urges all readers of politics, history, and fascinating biography to pick up a copy of this book and read it cover to cover.
on May 1, 2012
Caro has famously written few books in a long career as a biographer, but surely his series on Lyndon Baines Johnson, of which this is volume four, will be remembered as one of the finest in United States biography. Caro has spoken to everyone he could find, read every piece of paper he could locate, but that factual basis is not what makes this such an important biography. It is the immense depth of insight he has brought to the subject, a depth that provides a study of power in all of its guises. It is this analysis, written in clear crisp language that sets this book, and the others in the series (and Power Broker as well) apart from most biographies.
If you have never read Robert Caro before, take a few minutes and read the introduction to this book on your computer. Certainly many people, especially those who have no personal memory of the years covered in this book, might wonder why a slice of only a few years in the life of a not especially beloved President is worth reading. The answer is first that few US politician were as complex and bigger-than-life than LBJ. And most importantly, LBJ was, from a young age, possessed by a need for power and with a startling ability to work hard and concentrate on what he wanted, became a master of how to obtain power, Power. In doing so LBJ pushed himself further and further in and up the United States political power structure, improbably ending as President after the assassination of Kennedy. The fact that a poor, ill-educated, physically unattractive politician with a heavy Southern accent could attain the presidency says much about both the US and about LBJ.
Caro has captured that time in US culture and politics, and his subject, LBJ, with astute observations, particularly about power. He also reminds us that the assassination of Kennedy soon became a mythical event, both in the public imagination and in the recollections of those close to Kennedy. As biographer he must rip back the myths to uncover, and understand, the facts. He does an admirable job in simultaneously explaining the myth and uncovering the more complex and unattractive facets that constitute the facts.
At its core, this is a book about power. About people who weal that power, and how ugly that often is. Few people understand power as thoroughly as LBJ and Robert Caro, and Caro reminds us in this book that you can not be addicted to power as LBJ was without evidencing some truly ugly undersides to that power grab. Past volumes of the biography have shown the reader the monstrously sinister sides of LBJ, where a fixation on succeeding makes him utterly blind and immoral to the means employed. That made LBJ, for large swathes of the previous biographies, a fascinating but deeply unattractive figure.
In the present book LBJ makes a Faustian deal to relinquish his post as Senate speaker for the supposedly higher position of Vice President. But as even the reader knows, that is a largely ceremonial position, made worse by the Kennedy gang who despised him. We finally feel sorry for LBJ, after thousands of pages of Caro's biography. And then, in an instant, everything changes and improbably, LBJ obtains what he always, always wanted...he is President of the United States. And now he must find his footing, overcome an endless number of problems (his sleazy financial dealings, staff left over from Kennedy that hate him, need to battle his old buddies to enact legislation, oh the list is long). Caro describes these with such flair, brilliantly describing the forces lining up to thwart him, that when LBJ finds his footing and begins to exercise his monumental ingenuity, mental agility and simply overwhelming drive, it is as though LBJ is in the room with the reader, so well has Caro described him. And yet even as he so well fulfills that presidential destiny that he has set for himself, familiar chinks in the armor appear and we are reminded that this is a story without a fairy tale ending. But that is another volume.
For much of the book Johnson is seen as diminished, frustrated, an object of sympathy, and more often, ridicule. He underestimates Kennedy, is humiliated at the 1960 Democratic Convention, and then spends three utterly miserable years as a neutered Vice President. It is a particularly unfortunate Vice Presidency because of the unflattering comparison with the "the Harvards" as he call the young, educated, sophisticated and oh so full of themselves Kennedy advisers and aids. A favorite term for the Johnsons among this group was Uncle Cornpone and his Little Pork Chop. One of the few errands he was allowed to run while Vice President was ceremonial visits to other countries, but always on a short leash, and his lack of protocol and down-home manner appalled the Eastern establishment that filled the State Department. For those of us who have read the other volumes of Caro's biography, we are as frustrated as Johnson. We know how magnificent he is as a politician, and it is darned hard to read the first two-thirds of this book and see the man so severely reined in.
In an instant, with the death of Kennedy, everything changes, and Johnson must, without any preparation at all, perform a thousand tasks virtually simultaneously. And here Johnson, and Caro, absolutely soar. We immediately see the Johnson so fully described in the previous volumes reemerge. All of the Kennedy entourage are shocked at the transformation. Long time Caro readers aren't.
One aspect of power that has particularly interested Caro throughout his career is the details of political power. The skills required to pass legislation, enact a budget, win an election. Political junkies love that stuff, the endless details that accumulate to victory or defeat. But for the rest of the world, the whole thing seems mysterious, boring and somewhat sleazy. Nope. It is fascinating, but Caro is one of the only authors who can really explain the art of politics, and Robert Moses, and particularly Johnson, were masters of that art. Kennedy may have had good political instincts, a brilliant brain trust, and substantial charisma, but he had zero success in passing important legislation. It took Johnson and his masterly knowledge of congress to gets anything passed. And dealing with foreign leaders? Not any different than dealing with East Texas farmers when you needed their vote. The answer is the human connection, and that is a universal. Seeing the old Johnson, the Johnson he had known during his years as Senate leader, aid Reedy "was very proud; others were finally seeing what the Senate cloakroom had seen."
on May 27, 2012
I've now read all four volumes of Caro's LBJ biography, each one as soon as it came out. I recall even writing him a letter after the first one (who had e-mail in '83?) The Passage of Power was as readable as the three earlier ones, full of fascinating anecdotes and good comparisons of how LBJ understood and used power compared to the Kennedys. Caro is able to weave his tale over familiar ground in such a way as to make the reader see RFK as rude, spoiled, ruthless, possessing almost no redeeming qualities, then generate some appreciation for his apparent concern for those less fortunate. He is able to present LBJ alternately as a contempible figure and as a wholly sympathetic person. My major complaint about the book (and I would give it 3 1/2 stars if it were possible) is that Caro seems to rehash too much from his earlier volumes, often referring the reader to particular pages to read more detail of a particular incident. He quotes himself frequently. I sometimes wondered while reading if he was running out of steam, proceeding with this book out of a sense of obligation to his readers and to his subject.
on June 24, 2012
This review was originally written for my blog: [...]
ROBERT CARO'S "THE PASSAGE OF POWER"
Numerous reviewers have already had their say on Robert A. Caro's book about Lyndon Johnson's ascension to the presidency by way of his controversial choice as John F. Kennedy's running mate in 1960 and JFK's assassination in November 1963.
I don't intend to add to that number. I plan to confine myself to a few points which, I believe, deserve greater attention than they've gotten. Most of my comments concern (a) Caro's interpretation of the immediate consequences of LBJ's elevation to the Presidency or (b) the book's several revelations, which I found fascinating. A couple comments at the end will address Mr. Caro's writing style which I consider to be very good in some places and -- frankly -- abominable in others.
My first point is that Caro is entirely right in arguing that the Kennedy tax bill and the civil rights legislation JFK sponsored would never have passed in 1964 if Lyndon Johnson had not become President. No doubt the legislation got an immense, though tragic, boost from JFK's assassination and the memorial ceremonies that followed. Most Americans watched the killing happen again and again in their own living rooms and spent hours in front of their television sets following the solemn events that accompanied the display of his coffin and his eventual burial.
I believe Caro is quite correct in describing the emotional impact of those few days in November as the most powerful in history. If you were an adult then, as I was, a surprising number images leap to mind unbidden, even though you might have been engulfed in an emotional fog as most of us were.
However, whatever the claims of Kennedy advocates, the facts are undeniable. Johnson grasped the essentials of the legislative process far better than JFK or anyone on his team. More important, LBJ knew better than any man living or dead how to use power in a legislative context and how to move members to do his bidding, not always willingly. He foresaw the strategies that would be employed on the civil rights (and tax) bills by the immensely powerful members of the Southern contingent on both sides of the Capitol, and he frustrated those strategies at every step of the way.
I worked in the Senate for a time while LBJ was Majority Leader. I knew many of his people and I'd watched him operate from a reasonably good position. Although I was no longer in government in 1964, my work required me to be very attentive to what was happening at the White House and on Capital Hill. I had very good sources, colleagues who knew at least as much as I did. And I cared for personal as well as professional reaons.
Without taking anything away from John F. Kennedy, whom I worked for in 1960 and enthusiastically supported, no one but Lyndon Johnson could have done what Johnson did in 1964. And that he accomplished it without the help of Sam Rayburn, who had passed away, verges on the miraculous.
Kennedy was surrounded by some very smart people while he was in Senate and by a lot more of them once he became President. But JFK hadn't been an especially attentive legislator. His understanding of Congressional politics was among the least of his skills, and the very ablest of his legislative lieutenants did not know collectively
what Lyndon Johnson grasped intuitively and understood in detail at a single glance. Unwisely, though for reasons that Caro explains in depth, the Kennedy Administration made no use of Johnson's legislative talents, rarely asked his advice and almost never listened.
Once Johnson took over as President, he effectively deployed some of Kennedy's legislative aides but it was LBJ who determined the strategy and, in a number of cases,
it was Johnson who did the work that mattered most. Anyone who believes that what
happened in 1964 would have happened any way might as well confess openly that he
or she knows nothing about Congress.
Second, Caro establishes, far better than I understood at the time, that Lyndon Johnson was ruthless, corrupt and willing to cross just about any moral, ethical or legal line to achieve what he wanted.
Lyndon Johnson gained a lot of approbation for putting his financial assets in "a blind trust" when he became Vice President. But who knew that Johnson installed secret telephones, not connected through the White House switchboard, over which he talked regularly to his chosen trustees, often late at night or early in the morning, to tell them exactly what he wanted done? "Blind?" LBJ's trust didn't even bother with sun shades.
Caro doesn't say how or if Johnson used inside knowledge to further his financial interests as President. But we certainly know from previous, authoritative accounts that the family fortune -- "Lady Bird's money" -- came because of favorable rulings on her television interests that were extracted, a better word might be "coerced," from the Federal Communications Commission. At the time, the FCC exerted virtually absolute control over commercial television and the broadcast spectrum. The family's money came gross abuse of power. Caro doesn't say -- perhaps no one can -- if Lyndon Johnson misused his power as President for personal enrichment. But what he did was scandalous and would have produced an enormous public outcry if known at the time.
Caro also tells his readers at considerable length how Johnson bribed -- there is no other word for it -- the owners of the Houston Chronicle into promising him support throughout his term of office by extracting a written promise from the Chronicle's owner in exchange for approving the merger of two major Houston banks. The "public interest'' in approving or denying the merger wasn't carefully weighed. In the end, it wasn't even considered. Johnson demanded a letter from the Chronicle promising unequivocal support, and he got what he wanted. While the letter carefully avoided naming the quo for which the quid was given, that was precisely the nature of the transaction. Having been paid what he demanded, Johnson blessed the merger. And that was that.
No doubt, Lyndon Johnson was a great president before the escalation of the war in Viet Nam. But he was also deeply flawed and, I would contend, based on the evidence Caro has presented, a man of, shall we say, flexible moral character.
Having made these points, let me move on to Caro's writing style. Despite the praise he has attracted, the Pulitzer prizes and the National Book Awards, Caro needs an editor as capable and ruthless as Max Perkins, who transformed the self-indulgent and incoherent prose of Thomas Wolfe into his masterpiece, Look Homeward, Angel.
It's been reported that Caro is a ferocious defender of his own prose -- of every word, of every punctuation mark, of every stylistic vagary. But he is as self-indulgent as any hack writer in several respects. Most importantly, he packs warehouses of information and trainloads of verbiage into many sentences, filling them after the noun and verb with dependent clauses, colons and semi-colons, parenthetical interpolations, thoughts separated by dashes, digressions and assorted other grammatical paraphernalia before he gets around eventually to recording the predicate to complete the beginning element of the sentence. Not only is it often as difficult a line to follow as any ascent in the Himalayas, but I found several occasions on which I believe the grammar was simply incorrect. The end of the sentence did not agree grammatically with the beginning. Unlike Colonel Nicholson, Robert Caro does not require outside intervention to blow up the grammatical equivalent of the Bridge Over the River Kwai. He proves quite capable of doing so himself.
Caro's hubris in dealing with editors is unjustified, and I'm astounded that critics have supinely accepted as "brilliant" a style which is unnecessarily complicated and, at times, self-defeating. I'm not asking Caro to write like Ernest Hemingway. But if I remember my Thomas Macaulay and Edward Gibbon, both of them managed to write long, complicated sentences, packed with information, without losing track of how they'd begun a sentence before coming to the end. More important, while readers of Macaulay or Gibbon might have needed to pay close attention to absorb the flow of the narrative styles, they were unlikely to become lost en route.
In Caro's case, it's difficult at times to follow him without a GPS. Despite his brillance as an historian, no self-respecting editor or publisher should have permitted that kind of self-indulgence. Letting him pitch a few fits would have done his work a world of good.
At the same time, It's necessary to say that when he lets the narrative flow, unimpeded by barriers inserted for no useful reason, Caro is capable of conveying the drama of
events without gross artifice. The events surrounding the assassination, the actions that followed, the accumulation of emotions while the nation mourned are executed with a precision and mastery that any historian might admire.
Caro has a second fault which is far less significant but which I occasionally found deeply annoying. The old saw about telling the reader what your going to tell him, then telling him, then telling him what you've told him sometimes achieves astronomical dimensions in Caro's writing. In some cases he seems to find it necessary to impart the same information, adding a morsel or two each time, quoting someone and then another someone and several more someones until he's pounded the point into the ground deep enough to have produced a gusher of oil.
His initial chapter on the hatred between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson is like that. In brief, the long, long chapter says that Bobby Kennedy detested Lyndon Johnson, and the feeling was reciprocated. Many of the examples cited are both fascinating and enlightening. Quotations from a wide variety of observers, friends of one, enemies of the other, co-workers and acquaintances of both, add quite a bit of color. But the essence is the same. Enough should be enough, and there comes a point when every writer ought to conclude that he or she has proved his or her point. Caro, however, seems unable to stop until he has used every bit of every interview he conducted and every scrap of research he or his wife collected from the many libraries they visited and the correspondence or diaries they read.
I'd like to assure Mr. Caro that I got the point of his book that I persevered (sometimes reluctantly) through his endless sentences, entangled like the statue of Laocoon and his sons in the grasp of the serpents, and that I learned a great deal more about developments i thought I already understood pretty well, having lived through them.
He's produced a fine and fascinating book about a crucial moment in American history.
But I think Mr. Caro might finish his next, and presumably final volume, in The Years of Lyndon Johnson, much more quickly if he allowed a sympathetic editor to suggest a few modest improvements in his draft. It's not necessary to throw out the baby with the bathwater, Mr. Caro, but drowning the baby in too much bathwater is not a recommended procedure.
Norman I. Gelman
Caro's series on Johnson is the best biography I've ever read because Caro knows his man, captures him in all his complexity, and uses his subject to explore the larger issue of how political power is wielded in the U.S.
Some critics have claimed that Caro oscillates between portraying the "good" Johnson and the "bad" Johnson -- and that in the current volume the "good" Johnson takes over. This is not a fair reading of the book. Caro is simply willing to give Johnson his due when he uses power for worthy causes. Johnson's self control and consolidation of power after the Kennedy assassination and his skill in passing Kennedy's tax cut and civil rights act -- which Kennedy probably would not have been able to pass -- are admirable. Johnson's motivation is explained in part by self interest -- the man loves power, and doing great things makes one even more powerful. The whole idea of separation of powers and checks and balances is to let ambitious men make their mark without consolidating too much power. The public can benefit from such ambitious leaders. Part of Johnson's motives were personal and moral -- he identified with the dispossessed given his upbringing and history. These very different kinds of motivations can and do coexist in the same individual.
The "good" Johnson and the "bad" Johnson are two sides of the same coin. Johnson's compulsion for power brought rural electrification and civil rights reform -- but it also brought lying, corruption, and Vietnam.
Caro does an excellent job of explaining why Johnson ran such a poor campaign for President (fear of failure that became self-fulfilling); why he would take the Vice Presidency (life-long lust for the Presidency and knowledge that his identification with the South would ultimately make him unelectable and would even ultimately undercut him as majority leader); and his humiliation as Vice President. Johnson thought he could breathe life into the moribund office, but ultimately that would require a cession of power by the President or by the Senate, over whom the Vice President was nominal leader. Neither institution would voluntary cede power. And neither would cede power to Johnson, whom they knew to be overbearing and untrustworthy in his exercise of power. While Kennedy was nominally respectful of Johnson, it is clear that Johnson was hated and was unnecessarily humiliated by many in Kennedy's Administration. Kennedy's failure to use and manage Johnson (and his legislative skills) and to gain his loyalty --like Lincoln did with Seward -- showed JFK's limitations as a leader. On the other hand, Seward lacked Johnson's insane lust for power.
Caro's discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis is excellent. Johnson was an extreme hawk throughout -- which shows his narrow, power-obsessed perspective. Short term power realities counseled toward slapping the weaker Russians down, and such aggressive action would be politically popular and would protect the domestic flank. Kennedy was the more subtle thinker -- sensing, rightly, that the confrontation could escalate out of control (as it turns out the local generals had small nuclear weapons in place that probably would have been fired off in the event of an attack)and that the Russians just had to be given a little room to back down diplomatically. All of this foreshadows Johnson's later hawkishness in Vietnam. One suspects that Kennedy would never have put 500,000 troops in Vietnam and would have found a way around the conflict.
The Johnson/RFK feud is portrayed in compelling terms. I've listened to some tapes of their conversations, and they are civil enough. But the out-sized nature of their personalities and their rivalry for power made this a great hate affair. Johnson knew that RFK had grown in office and was the true heir of JFK, not him. And RFK was gratuitous and small-minded in his humiliation of Johnson -- and in his refusal to accept him as President thereafter. On the other hand, Caro thinks that RFK was the larger man and that what really explained the personal rivalry was that RFK was a statesman who understood Johnson's dangerous narrow-mindedness, lying, and lust for power.
On the down side, Caro has a very irritating habit of citing himself and repeating some of his earlier books. But this does allow this book to stand on its own. Another nit to pick is that Caro has done so much research that to use all of it tempts him into speculation. On the basis of an interview with a secretary who he concedes to be "flighty" (and some other information), he speculates that Kennedy really might have dropped Johnson from the 1964 ticket. This was more a Johnson fear than it was a reality. And Caro speculates that RFK's grief over JFK may have been owing in part to guilt he had for his own involvement in assassination plots against other leaders, and that Johnson (the master, mean-spirited manipulator) stoked that guilt. Very interesting stuff, but not a lot of facts to back it up.
But these negative concerns are minor. Caro's research and powerful writing style allow him to bring to life a man and the nature of political power in compelling terms and in all their complexity. This is a masterpiece.
on May 25, 2012
Its hard to imagine a more absorbing, detail rich, thorough and compelling work of biography and history. Robert Caro takes his time in getting his writing out but it is well worth the wait. The examination of Lyndon Johnson as a politician and complex human being and the impact of his earlier life experiences on his decision making and relationships with other major political figures, particularly Robert Kennedy is masterly. I was inspired to re-read his earlier books in this series. I noticed some one star ratings for this book and can't imagine how that could have happened. I can't wait for the final installment in this series. It doesn't get any better.
The centerpiece of this fourth volume of Robert Caro's continuing LBJ saga is, as you'd expect, November 22, 1963. And while most of the tale is told as straight history, familiar to readers of the previous books in this series, maybe you'll be surprised to see that centerpiece presented as a bizarre fugue. As the motorcade snakes through Dallas, LBJ is slouched in his limo, alongside a Texas Senator who had to be cajoled into riding with him, while at the same moment, the Senate that LBJ had ruled with an iron hand for so many years was investigating a scandal involving his protégé Bobby Baker, while LIFE magazine was having conferences about running a major investigative report on that scandal.
It had all gone wrong. JFK and LBJ had arranged for the president to go to on a quick speaking tour in Texas precisely to try to resolve a feud between Sen. Yarborough, who didn't want to ride with him, and Governor Connally, who had once been an LBJ assistant. LBJ, fearful of being dumped from the 1964 ticket, was trying to show he could keep Texas (and his place on the ticket) for JFK despite the rising popularity of Barry Goldwater, the expected GOP nominee. And here he was, surrounded by scandal caused by his own creature, his political career hanging in the balance. And then in a moment shots rang out and everything changed.
And Mr. Caro presents this as a if it were a spy novel, cutting back and forth between the Baker thread--the LIFE meeting and the Senate hearing--and the events in Dallas. It begins slowly, suspensefully, but turns into frenzy and finally a dirge, as LBJ, his body covered by a secret service agent, is sped to a safe cubicle in the hospital where JFK would die, standing there, waiting for the news he knew would come, a carnation from the earlier celebrations still somehow pinned to his lapel. From the dustbin of history to the top of the greasy poll in less than an hour, the 36th President of the United States quickly took charge, and got the government (and the shattered survivors) back on course--back to the plane and the swearing-in ceremony presided over by Federal Judge Sara Hughes, a friend of LBJ's who the Kennedy administration had refused to appoint to the bench until legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, already terminally ill, intervened.
It's history as Shakespeare--with LBJ's tragic flaws--his impatience, his desperate need to win and fear of losing that had kept him from declaring his candidacy in 1960 soon enough--kept in check. If not for long, as Mr. Caro concludes, "long enough."
on May 26, 2012
Robert Caro is not just one of our great historians and biographers. He is one of our great writers. He tells a story with an old-fashioned attention to action and detail. He explores each event he recounts, providing the reader with the background and environment the reader needs to "be there." And we are there: as Lyndon Johnson morphs from bumbling, self-defeating Veep to Mr. President in less than 90 days, does it by rising to the challenge of national crisis, does it through a combination of attitudes and approaches idealistic and ethical and those that simply are not. Lyndon was a complex guy.
Robert Caro is this Johnson's Boswell, and his now four volumes of Lyndon biography have redefined the genre. He makes Lyndon Johnson live again. Yet, Caro's life study is always in pursuit of a higher purpose. This is the study of power, the use of power, its transfer and mutability. Caro's favorite Shakespeare must be Macbeth because his Lyndon Johnson is a study in power as much as the Bard's Scottish play is. I love this book.
on January 28, 2014
Loved the first three volumes, but this one disappointed. Quite repetitive. Seemed to be a lot of fill in attempt to justify a separate volume on the transition. Did not address the theory that Johnson's Texas political buddies arranged the assassination of JFK beyond the statement that Caro did not find any convincing evidence of that. He states this three times without going into any detail at all. No discussion at all of the evidence presented elsewhere, even to refute it. Thus, a glaring hole is left in the treatment of the transition that otherwise is covered in painful and repetitive detail. Hope Caro is able to put it together again for the next (fifth) volume. Otherwise, this series will end on a very flat note.