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.
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.