THE PASSAGE OF POWER
By Robert A. Caro
To many Americans, Lyndon Johnson was an unctuous, slow-talking president from Texas who saddled the country with the Great Society’s welfare programs and the Vietnam War.
In any survey about great presidents, Johnson finishes out of the top 10 — and perhaps he should. His disastrous Vietnam record alone earns him a spot in the presidential hall of shame alongside Richard Nixon, Warren G. Harding and James Buchanan.
But for at least one year, and maybe even one week (in the days following John Kennedy’s assassination), Johnson’s actions may qualify him for provisional status as a truly great president.
If Johnson’s calm and decisive leadership upon assuming the presidency in November 1963 — not to mention his historic legislative accomplishments — ever earns the affection of the broad general public, he will likely have biographer Robert A. Caro to thank.
Caro has devoted almost 40 of his 76 years to chronicling Johnson’s life and times and has published The Passage of Power, the penultimate edition in his five-volume series on the 36th president. His previous volume on Johnson, Master of the Senate, published in 2002, earned Caro his second Pulitzer Prize for biography.
Caro’s first two books focused on Johnson’s ruthless accumulation of power (he devoted the second almost entirely to Johnson’s 1948 U.S. Senate race). In the third volume, and now in this new one, Caro explores Johnson’s adroit exercise of power — first as the Senate leader and now as a new president.
Like Master of the Senate, Caro’s The Passage of Power is a triumph in the study of political power. In Caro’s hands, Johnson’s life becomes Shakespearean. Massive insecurities, bitter feuds and power struggles, and exploitation of personal and professional weakness — Johnson’s fascinating life had them all.
First, there is Johnson’s inept campaign for president in 1960, in which he is defeated by Kennedy for the Democratic nomination and then becomes a powerless and ignored vice president, seething at the slights and outright hostility from Kennedy’s staff and Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Part of Caro’s appeal is his skill of imbuing his stories with generous, vivid detail that allows the reader not simply to learn about the event, but to experience it. So it is that we share Johnson’s despair during those three humiliating years in the political wilderness in Kennedy’s White House. When a rifle shot in Dallas makes Johnson president — suddenly back in power — we experience the entire day in its overwhelming detail through Johnson’s eyes.
Then, as Caro describes Johnson’s forceful actions in those first hours of his presidency, we see just how important it is to have a chief executive not simply comfortable with power but skilled in its exercise.
In Johnson’s case that means not simply having the conviction that passage of Kennedy’s moribund civil rights bill was necessary, but (unlike Kennedy) the knowledge, experience, judgment and ruthless determination to make it happen.
This is where Caro’s narrative excels. We see a president assuming office in a time of danger and extraordinary national anxiety. At a moment when some worried if the assassination was an act of foreign aggression that might bring down the U.S. government, Johnson takes the reins with astounding poise and sense of purpose and makes key decisions that result in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Wisely, Caro devotes almost one-third of the book to Johnson’s first week in office and in the process, produces a riveting story that not only allows us to experience the drama of that remarkable period in American history, but suggests that the most consequential event of Nov. 22, 1963, might not have been the death of John F. Kennedy, but rather the ascension to the White House of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Robert Mann holds the Manship Chair at LSU’s Manship School of Communications and is director of the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at LSU. He is author of Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater and the Ad that Changed American Politics. (LSU Press, 2011), Wartime Dissent in America: A History and Anthology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), When Freedom Would Triumph: The Civil Rights Struggle in Congress, 1945-1968 (LSU Press, 2007), A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam (Basic Books, 2001), The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell and the Struggle for Civil Rights (Harcourt Brace, 1996), The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Cold War (Alpha Books, 2002) and Legacy to Power: Senator Russell Long of Louisiana (Paragon House, 1992).