Book review: Robert A. Caro’s ‘The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson’

May 1, 2012

When Robert A. Caro published “Master of the Senate” (2002), the third volume of his voluminous multi-part life of Lyndon B. Johnson, he said he would finish his labors with just one more installment. But clearly he wasn’t being realistic.

“Master of the Senate” concluded in 1958. It left untouched the 1960 campaign, the vice presidential years and the whole of Johnson’s presidency — the Civil Rights Act, the Great Society, Vietnam. Moreover, Caro is not exactly partial to verbal economy. His books are famous, or infamous, for running on profusely — not just because of the sheer mass of his research but also because of his overflowing literary style.

Caro strives for the epic. He will make a book, or chapter, or anecdote as long as it has to be to achieve his desired effect — elongating even a single sentence, if necessary, and then stitching it together with a passel of colons, semicolons and dashes, as if scooped by the handful from his handyman’s belt. (No wonder he and his longtime editor are known to fight over punctuation.) Given all this, if the 1957 civil rights bill consumed more than 150 pages of Volume 3, how could the historic 1964 bill weigh in at anything less?

Sure enough, Caro’s fourth volume, “The Passage of Power,” doesn’t complete the tale of Johnson’s presidency. On the contrary, it barely begins it. The book opens in the rump years of the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, with our hero — or should that be antihero? — contemplating a presidential run. It chugs through the grand detour of John F. Kennedy’s reign, with LBJ sulking on the sidelines. And it ends in the first weeks of Johnson’s presidency, which has been thrust upon him by JFK’s assassination.

Although these are, for Johnson, years of relative inaction, Caro infuses his pages with suspense, pathos, bitter rivalry and historic import — with Robert F. Kennedy in particular emerging as a nearly co-equal, second lead in the psychodrama, always looming offstage and threatening frequently to steal the spotlight from his arch rival.


‘The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson’ by Robert A. Caro. (Knopf)

In Caro’s account, LBJ comes across by turns as insecure, canny, bighearted, self-defeating, petty, brilliant, cruel and, of course, domineering. In the opening pages, he longingly eyes the presidency but, psychologically paralyzed, can’t bring himself to declare his candidacy or enter even a few primaries. Instead, he rages at the upstart Kennedy, who shows unforeseen proficiency in the old game of locking down governors and state Democratic Party leaders for the convention and in the new game of winning over the masses via television.

When Kennedy claims the party’s mantle in Los Angeles and searches for a running mate, a different Johnson suddenly appears: calculating, cagey, capable of subsuming his contempt for Kennedy to a steely desire to place himself next in line for the presidency. LBJ has staff members look up how many presidents had died in office and then does the cruel math, admitting in many conversations — and Caro recounts several of them — that such a route is his best hope of becoming president himself.

With the vice presidential years, Caro unveils still another LBJ: ill-tempered, self-pitying and feckless even in his old Senate back yard. JFK cuts him out of major decisions, and RFK regularly humiliates him (sometimes, Caro suggests, at his brother’s bidding). At one party, he sticks pins into an LBJ voodoo doll to much laughter. The young, urbane White House staff members ridicule the folksy Texan as “Rufus Cornpone.”

For a while, Johnson seems determined to dutifully play his thankless part. But the slights and frustrations mount, and his skin is just too thin. One poignant scene features Johnson, in his bathrobe, interrupting the foreman of his Texas ranch, who is milking a cow, to play dominoes at 4 a.m. By mid-1963, what is clearly clinical depression takes a physical toll. Johnson’s “belly [had become] enormous,” recalled his aide Harry McPherson. “He looked absolutely gross.” Caro goes so far as to suggest that Kennedy was planning to drop Johnson from the ticket in 1964, although he has only one unsubstantiated recollection, from Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s secretary, to support that claim, against a preponderance of evidence on the other side.

But one more change is yet to come. When Kennedy is shot in the Dallas motorcade, Johnson is transformed again — in an instant, according to Caro. Facedown on the floor of his car, a Secret Service member’s foot planted in his back, Johnson is magically possessed by self-assured calm. Rising to the immense challenges before him, he guides the country with a strong hand through the dark days of November using Kennedy’s martyrdom to realize his slain predecessor’s unfulfilled agenda, although not without exacerbating already-miserable relations with Robert Kennedy.

Like Popeye after a can of spinach, the once-impotent Johnson finds his legislative powers revived. The previous summer, as Kennedy was preparing to introduce at long last a civil rights bill, Johnson had advised Ted Sorensen, JFK’s close aide, to wait until he passed other key legislation first, because Southern senators would hold it hostage. “I’d move my children [the other bills] on through the line and get them down in the storm cellar and get it locked and key[ed],” he urged, but to no avail. In December, however, Johnson, now president, undertakes a series of brilliant legislative maneuvers, which Caro deliciously recounts, to pick the locks of the congressional committees that had been caging up Kennedy’s controversial civil rights and tax bills and set them free.

Caro’s ability to show these many sides of Johnson — good, bad, ugly — rebuts the rap that he paints his characters only in black and white. But if Caro’s personalities are multidimensional, they’re nonetheless overdrawn in a way that sows a nagging distrust. At any moment, he showcases only one element of Johnson (or of RFK, or of other characters); typically, it is a portrait of an extreme. The young Bobby Kennedy is not portrayed just as ruthless; one instance of ruthlessness after another is recounted, amid countless repetitions of the word “ruthless.” It’s not enough to suggest JFK was an undistinguished lawmaker; we see Kennedy smugly tossing a football around his office, trying to shirk service on a new Senate subcommittee, squiring movie stars around Washington and so on. Johnson, too, for all his complexity, is usually shown in one persona or another, heroic or demonic.

Caro’s prose, likewise, is marked by extremes. At his best, his long, winding sentences, many of them dotted with trademark repetitions of words and quotes and phrases, sweep the reader in a linguistic cascade, creating an immersive experience. Consider his description of the conservative Virginia senator Harry Byrd, whom Johnson wheedled into accepting his budget bill: “Short and slight, seventy-six-year-old Harry Flood Byrd walked softly (in recent years, as he grew older, in scuffed crepe-soled shoes and often with cane), with a pigeon-toed, mincing gait, and talked softly, in a voice so whispery that his speeches could barely be heard in the high-ceilinged Senate Chamber in which he had sat for three decades.”

But at other times, the tics and echoes become ponderous, if not pretentious. One sentence I flagged, which is atypical but not unique, contains 153 words, 12 commas, two dashes, one set of parentheses, one set of brackets, three sets of quotation marks, one colon and two semicolons. It would confound the most skilled fifth-grade teacher attempting to diagram it. Like Johnson, Caro is capable of magnificence but inconsistent in its application, often wondrous to behold but also maddening.

In the end, the thought occurs that Caro, in all these volumes, is at some level writing about himself — working out on the canvas of Johnson’s life the questions and themes of power, greatness and tragedy that have long occupied him. The LBJ that Caro gives us is not an inaccurate portrait, but it’s certainly a subjective one — an idiosyncratic expression of Caro’s own sensibility. The Rabelaisian Johnson, the man of extremes and excess, finds his correlative in the biographer who works in a torrential style, capturing as few writers can the richness and magnitude of his subject but also sliding at times into melodrama and belabored points.

There is both triumph and tragedy in the work of Caro. For all his prodigious research, painstaking reconstructions and carefully placed semicolons, he hasn’t given us a life of Johnson that will garner those verbal laurels “authoritative” and “definitive” that many biographers crave. But it is precisely because of Caro’s marvelously distinctive, proudly personalized method that he cannot give us such a work. (For that purpose, Robert Dallek’s two volumes will continue to best serve scholars.) Caro’s sprawling, sparkling, theatrical opus, rather, calls to mind a work such as Carl Sandburg’s six-volume life of Abraham Lincoln, which also took years of prodigious labor and displayed, as the historian James G. Randall wrote, “a poet’s sense of language . . . and an ability to combine realistic detail with emotional appreciation.” Today, Sandburg’s work is read more for literary pleasure than historical authority. The same might perhaps be said one day, neither as insult nor compliment but simply as description, of “The Passage of Power,” which, for all its abundant virtues and inescapable flaws, is unmistakably the work of the singular Robert Caro.

Greenberg is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image,” among other works of political history.

THE PASSAGE OF POWER

The Years of Lyndon Johnson

By Robert A. Caro

Knopf.

712 pp. $35

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