AKIE BERMISS: I feel like I should begin with a disclaimer: do not be daunted by the sheer weight and length of the book — it is very much worth reading. I’ve been carrying around Robert A. Caro’s most recent installment of the LBJ years for just about a month now. The Passage Of Power is a whopping 600 pages of pure American history and another 100 pages of indices and reference material. Its rough-hewn pages and imperious black hardcover make it seem like a religious tome and more often than I care to admit I’ve been asked if I was reading the Bible. Of course, when ti comes to political biographies, this may indeed be paramount to a sacred text. The Passage of Power is the third installment in Caro’s exhaustive biographical series of Lyndon Baines Johnson and it covers, at long last, the part with which most of us think we are familiar — his time as Vice President under John F. Kennedy and the catastrophic events which lead to his having to assume the Presidency. Of course, what one realizes when reading the book is that we didn’t really know much about this at all.
First of all, there are two previous books that Caro wrote on LBJ and I have read exactly none of them. While I’ve always found LBJ an interesting character, I have yet to find myself wanting to claw my way through an extensive account of his childhood in Texas or his early years as a Congressman in the 40s. It has seemed simply too tedious. Now, book three is a much sexier proposition: this is about the Presidency. It has all the stuff of high opera: LBJ’s ardent desire to be President in 1960 seems all but assured when it is completely shaken up by a young upstart Senator with barely any governmental experience and certainly nothing in the way of executive experience (does this sound familiar to anyone?); and LBJ accepting the number 2 spot thinking he’d some how be close to the action but being summarily marginalized by the John-Robert Kennedy machine for a full three years — a forgotten man who used to be a Washington DC powerhouse; and, finally, when everything seems darkest for LBJ there is the tragic shooting of JFK (in Texas) and the sudden 11 month uphill sprint to gather the reigns, push through the Kennedy plans, and run for re-election. The passage of power, indeed. I will admit that after finishingPassage I feel like it would behoove me to go back and read the previous two books (there really is a great deal to understand about 1950s and 60s politics in the wake of FDR’s death) — and perhaps to keep my eye out for Caro’s next installment in the series, the fourth and last. For it would seem that Caro has really hit upon something: namely that LBJ is important. He was not simply Kennedy’s VP, not simply the hapless Texan thrust into the Presidential arena, and not just a power-hungry career politician who was always trying to accrue more power to himself. Not justthose things. But something altogether different politics before and after LBJ are very different and it takes a very close look to see just how pivotal that period may’ve been in American history.
So sure, we know all the bullet points of why LBJ is a person we know, how he became President, some of us even know that he was not an entirely unsuccessful President, but what else do we know? Its all about context and Caro’s book is practically an orgy of historical context. Caro goes to great lengths to show us these mundane, widely-known facts as they would have been considered with all the pressures of the time being in place. He is masterful as creating suspense with a story where we all know that, yes, the President gets show and, yes, we know its November 1963 and, yes, we know who takes over. If this were a Tom Clancy novel and we knew all this going in, there’d be no point in reading it. But look now at LBJ as he would have been known for the majority of the 50 — as the Senate Majority Leader, as the de facto power in DC, and a southern Democrat with ties directly to Franklin Roosevelt (with whom he hung out a bit as a junior congressman). Even as we are all familiar with Kennedy’s meteoric rise to popularity and power, we are unfamiliar with just what powers he toppled in doing so. Read Caro’s book and one will discover LBJ’s dismay over Kennedy’s rampage through Washington DC and the country. Johnson had become accustomed to being the law-giver among Democrats and yet he had no power over Kennedy. And that 1960 Presidential primary race comes right down to the wire with Johnson pulling out all the stops as they went into the convention only to lose in the actual voting form the delegates.
The next large chunk of the book is actually dedicated to the day after the Kennedy nomination when, apparently, it took all of a few hours to get Johnson to agree to come on as Vice President. There were a handful of literal back-room meetings, meetings in stairwells, through bathroom doors, and anxious phone calls made back and forth between the Johnson and Kennedy camps. And how Johnson brought the South to Kennedy in 1960. How the election was won and then on to the Kennedy Whitehouse where Johnson could not have been a more awkwardly lustful for a seat at the table — nor more lustily put down by the Kennedys et al.
What follows there after is, for a short time, a dull three years of Johnson’s life. Caro is great at describing all the momentous goings-on and yet how small a role LBJ played in most of it. The book threatens to lose its focus in this period because Kennedy is doing all the hot stuff and Johnson is spending most of his time sulking in his office across the street. Caro never loses sight of the goal however. Every Kennedy escapade is meant to show another aspect of how dull and impotent Johnson was to become in the VP seat. Indeed, by the time they get to Texas in November of 1963, Johnson is all but sure that he’s getting kicked off the ticket in 1964. He’s lost all his juice in Texas, he is perceived of as weak in Washington, and Kennedy, for all his legislative ineffectiveness, is still the rising star of a hopeful nation. By then Johnson’s star has been completely eclipsed by Bobby Kennedy who is JFKs right-hand man and the Attorney General.
And so, when Kennedy is shot we see just how immense a reversal LBJ has to make. He was already begun to decline in his personal ambitions. There was an investigation looming regarding his unethical practices as Majority Leader. He was not only weak, he was about to become toxic. And then suddenly, he is President. And though the passage of power was done violently and without choice and without a vote and suddenly — it could not have been passed to a more ready man. Johnson had been waiting to be President and, by God, he intended to run things.
And this brings us to an excellent example of what is perhaps Caro’s most brilliant ability — that of being able to illustrate not only the crucial context surrounding decisions and events but also the sheer tonnage of decisions and events that were happening at any given time and how they played off of each other. And how that makes politics.
This is done most impressively when when describing the three days of funereal services that went on for John F. Kennedy. Caro describes the events in great detail, from the flight home to the final burial. He describes how the television set was crucial at the time as everyone spent all their free time glued to the set to know about the assassination, the funeral, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, and so on. And at all these events, there are Johnson and Ladybird — right behind the Kennedys. Respectful and dutiful. Caro gives you all this in great detail (eg, Monday morning was this at 10am, then they walked for 40 minutes to this places, etc). Then, we go back and get the skinny on everything else that was going on at the same time. You’ve got Johnson taking meeting after meeting, getting up to date on Kennedy’s stalled legislative agenda, Johnson making personal phone calls to Kennedy’s men to get them to stay. He alternates between complete self-deprecation and submissiveness and commanding folks to serve their country. He has to meet with the droves of dignitaries and heads of state who’ve come in to Washington to attend the funeral. And he has to address Congress directly after the funeral proceedings are over. All of this he does on 3 and 4 hour nights, while still operating out of his office in the E.O.B. and with a rag-tag Vice Presidential staff that has never had to deal with the pressures of the Presidency. And in those first few days, he falters not one step. And that’s incredible.
And Caro’s ability to convey in incredibility is also, in itself, incredible. Caro truly understands the character of the man. One of the biggest issues with accounts of LBJ is that was such a deft politician that most folks only know one or two sides of him. There is the power-hungry master of the Senate, the conniving backroom wheeler and dealer, the tall and imperious big tempered grandiloquator, and there is humble and sometimes crass Texas country boy. The accounts of him from various sources in the book all draw a sort of two-dimensional picture of LBJ. Even the Kennedy cabinet, where he certainly should have at least been known reduced him down to a “Rufus Cornpone” (they actually called him this behind his back) character. A nuisance. But here is the same person who years before could make impossible legislation pass and who, upon picking up the reigns of power, managed to get a Tax Cut bill through as well as a comprehensive Civil Rights bill. Not only that, he was running for President as well. If he was just some lucky simpleton or gutsy cowboy, then he was both very lucky and very gutsy. if you ask me, we’re talking about one of the most talented and influential politicians of our modern times. Herald FDR, if you liken, or sing Reagan’s praises. Both did transform America, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it was a wild free-for-all from 1945 to 1980, right in the middle there you’ve got LBJ running the senate for most of the 1950s, basically in quiet (but fuming) observation for three years, and then running things again from 1964 to 1968 — but as President. Then you get into what might be called the modern age, the names any high school student should be able to rattle off with out much trouble. Near history: Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama.
Assuredly, Johnson’s legacy is not is good works but rather his failings. But one has to wonder if, as Caro points out at the end of the book, it was Johnson who began the damage of to the office of the President that so diminished it reverence and respect among Americans. Or if it was the changing times and the nature of the men who would follow. And, indeed, the extra-political figures who began gaining more power as they began to have more avenues for demagoguery. There is one more book left in the series and it will cover the somewhat tragic days after LBJs amazing transition months. So, this is not *the* story, simply *a* story. The great long story of Lyndon Baines Johnson is still being crafted. And there is no more masterful hand to push that pen than Mr. Robert A. Caro — from whom i’d now be happy to read a heavily annotate phonebook. Do not be daunted by the sheer weight and length of The Passage of Power – be daunted, instead, by what you do not know, and start reading.