Reviewed in the United States on July 7, 2012
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.