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The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 1, 2012
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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.
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.