Book Review of Robert Caro's THE PASSAGE OF POWER
The New York Times
April 29, 2012
A Nation’s Best and Worst, Forged in a Crucible
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
THE PASSAGE OF POWER
The Years of Lyndon Johnson
By Robert A. Caro
Illustrated. 712 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.
On Nov. 22, 1963, when he was told that John F. Kennedy was dead, and that he was now president, Lyndon B. Johnson later recalled, “I was a man in trouble, in a world that is never more than minutes away from catastrophe.”
He said he realized that “ready or not, new and immeasurable duties had been thrust upon” him and that he could not allow himself to be overwhelmed by emotion: “It was imperative that I grasp the reins of power and do so without delay. Any hesitation or wavering, any false step, any sign of self-doubt, could have been disastrous. The nation was in a state of shock and grief. The times cried out for leadership. ... The entire world was watching us through a magnifying glass. ... I had to prove myself.”
At the heart of “The Passage of Power,” the latest installment of Robert A. Caro’s magisterial biography of Johnson, is the story of how he was catapulted to the White House in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, how he steadied and reassured a shell-shocked nation, and how he used his potent political skills and the momentum generated by Kennedy’s death to push through Congress his predecessor’s stalled tax-cut bill and civil rights legislation and to lay the groundwork for his own revolutionary “war on poverty.”
It’s a breathtakingly dramatic story about a pivotal moment in United States history, and just as Johnson used his accumulated knowledge of the art of power to push the nation along the path he’d envisioned, so in these pages does Mr. Caro use the intimate knowledge of Johnson he’s acquired over 36 years to tell that story with consummate artistry and ardor, demonstrating a tirelessness — in his interviewing and dissection of voluminous archives — that rivals his subject’s.
This engrossing volume (spanning 1958 to 1964) is the fourth and presumably penultimate volume in a series that began with “The Path to Power,” published back in 1982, and it showcases Mr. Caro’s masterly gifts as a writer: his propulsive sense of narrative, his talent for enabling readers to see and feel history in the making and his ability to situate his subjects’ actions within the context of their times. Of all the chapters in Johnson’s life, this is the one most familiar to most readers, but Mr. Caro manages to lend even much-chronicled events, like the Cuban missile crisis and Kennedy’s assassination, a punch of tactile immediacy.
The first and second installments of Mr. Caro’s biography of Johnson could be gratingly Manichaean and moralistic, portraying him in judgmental and almost unremittingly negative terms as a ruthless, Machiavellian and power-hungry pol. This volume creates a more measured portrait. In these pages Johnson emerges as both a larger-than-life, Shakespearean personage — with epic ambition and epic flaws — and a more human-scale puzzle: needy, deceitful, brilliant, cruel, vulgar, idealistic, boastful, self-pitying and blessed with such titanic energy that Abe Fortas once remarked, “The guy’s just got extra glands.”
He was a man driven by a colossal ego and a genuine sense of compassion for the powerless and the poor: a man who, in the weeks and months after the assassination, was able, in Mr. Caro’s opinion, to overcome his own weaknesses and baser instincts — not for long but “long enough” — to act in a fashion that was “a triumph not only of genius but of will.”
As he did in the third volume, “Master of the Senate,” Mr. Caro finds much to admire in the legislative ends to which Johnson used power, and he employs his insights into Johnson’s personality — his insecurities, his fear of failure, his need to ingratiate himself with those above him and dominate those below — to examine the role that character plays in politics and policy making and hence in history.
Taken together the installments of Mr. Caro’s monumental life of Johnson so far not only create a minutely detailed picture of an immensely complicated and conflicted individual, but they also form a revealing prism by which to view the better part of a century in American life and politics during which the country experienced tumultuous and divisive social change. Even as Johnson journeyed from the isolation and poverty of the Texas Hill Country to the corridors of power in Washington, the country evolved, in the course of his lifetime, from an isolationist nation with segregated schools and lunch counters into a cold war power that had landed a man on the Moon and was deep in the throes of a cultural revolution.
Mr. Caro shows how Johnson’s impoverished childhood and modest education fueled his sense of inferiority and class resentment vis-à-vis the Kennedys and how it stoked his rage for social justice. He also explores how the enmity between Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy — which he goes so far as to call “perhaps the greatest blood feud of American politics in the 20th century” — informed Johnson’s relationship with President Kennedy and cast a shadow over his own presidency, causing him to worry that Robert Kennedy might run against him in 1968 or even contest his right to the Democratic nomination in 1964.
Other historians, like Robert Dallek, the author of a two-volume biography of Johnson, have suggested that Johnson’s tendency to regard Vietnam as a personal test of his judgment — combined with his perennial need to win and reluctance to become “the first American president to lose a war” — contributed to his tragic mishandling of that conflict. Mr. Caro largely defers such assessments to what will be the next installment of his biography, which will deal with the escalation of the war and the ways in which the quagmire in Southeast Asia would undermine Johnson’s presidency and his dreams of building a Great Society.
What Mr. Caro does say in these pages about Johnson and his early decisions on Vietnam (like not implementing a planned draw-down of forces) is that “the steps he took had, as their unifying principle, an objective dictated largely by domestic — indeed, personal — political concerns.”
Although the account here of Johnson’s tortured relationship with Robert Kennedy owes a decided debt to Jeff Shesol’s compelling 1997 book “Mutual Contempt,” Mr. Caro does a gripping (if still hole-ridden) job of recreating the much-debated events of July 14, 1960, when Robert Kennedy tried to maneuver Johnson out of the vice presidential slot on his brother’s ticket. And while Mr. Caro’s depiction of the miserable three years Johnson spent as vice president sometimes pales next to the bravura portrait of his years in the Senate, which left us with a vivid sense of his powers of prestidigitation in that intimate political arena, he deftly communicates how humiliating this experience was for the former majority leader, now cast to the sidelines by the Kennedys.
Mr. Caro’s descriptions of Johnson — and those of John and Robert Kennedy — have a novelistic depth and amplitude. He gives us a rich sense here of how past experiences shaped their interactions, how one encounter or misunderstanding often snowballed into another, and how Johnson and Robert Kennedy evinced a capacity to grow and change.
Even more impressive in these pages is Mr. Caro’s ability to convey, on a visceral level, how daunting the challenges were facing Johnson upon his assumption of the presidency and the magnitude of his accomplishments in the months after Kennedy’s assassination.
Johnson had to instill confidence in a confused and aching nation, and he needed to give the world — in the midst of a cold war that had turned dangerously hot with the Cuban missile crisis — a sense of continuity. To do so he had to persuade key Kennedy administration members (some of whom had mocked him as “Rufus Cornpone” behind his back) to stay on and to rally behind him. He had to take on his many doubters, including skeptical Kennedy courtiers, liberals who questioned his commitment to civil rights and Southerners who sought to block his social initiatives. On top of that he had to prepare a detailed budget and a State of the Union address, laying out his own vision for the United States within two months.
Johnson’s knowledge of Congress and the tactical and strategic levers he could press; his personal relationships with power brokers like Harry Byrd and Everett Dirksen; and his bare-knuckled willingness to bully, flatter, cajole, horse-trade, whatever it took to get what he wanted — these were the qualities, Mr. Caro observes, that enabled him to overcome “congressional resistance and the power of the South” that had stood “in the path of social justice for a century.”
Mr. Caro uses his storytelling gifts to turn seemingly arcane legislative maneuvers into action-movie suspense, and he gives us an unparalleled understanding — step by step, sometimes minute by minute — of how Johnson used a crisis and his own political acumen to implement his agenda with stunning speed: a test of leadership and governance that political addicts and more casual readers alike will find fascinating, given the gridlock in Washington today.
Commentators who have questioned the sincerity of Johnson’s commitment to civil rights, Mr. Caro says, do not understand how deeply he identified with “the dispossessed of the earth.” He had worked on a road gang as a kid in the isolated Texas Hill Country and had known the humiliation of his father’s failure (a drought and fall in the cotton market left Sam Johnson, who had been a member of the Texas House of Representatives, in debt and a figure of local ridicule). Those experiences would shape Lyndon Johnson’s ferocious determination to win “the passage of long-dreamed-of liberal legislation whose purposes,” in Mr. Caro’s view, “went far beyond any embodied in Kennedy legislation.”
Advisers had warned Johnson against antagonizing the Southerners who controlled Congress, Mr. Caro reports in this revealing book, but when one aide told him to his face that a president shouldn’t spend his time and power on lost causes, Johnson was quick to reply, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
Seat of Power by Bill Clinton - A Review of Robert Caro's THE PASSAGE OF POWER, NY Times
May 2, 2012
Seat of Power
By BILL CLINTON
THE PASSAGE OF POWER
The Years of Lyndon Johnson
By Robert A. Caro
Illustrated. 712 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.
"Hero, villain, liberal, conservative, civil rights champion and racist, nobody can captivate like Lyndon..."
Connecticut Yankee, Middlesex County, CT Read Full Comment »
“The Passage of Power,” the fourth installment of Robert Caro’s brilliant series on Lyndon Johnson, spans roughly five years, beginning shortly before the 1960 presidential contest, including the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis and other seminal events of the Kennedy years, and ending a few months after the awful afternoon in Dallas that elevated L.B.J. to the presidency.
Among the most interesting and important episodes Caro chronicles are those involving the new president’s ability to maneuver bills out of legislative committees and onto the floor of the House and Senate for a vote. One of those bills would later become the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
You don’t have to be a policy wonk to marvel at the political skill L.B.J. wielded to resuscitate a bill that seemed doomed to never get a vote on the floor of either chamber. Southern Democrats were masters at bottling up legislation they hated, particularly bills expanding civil rights for black Americans. Their skills at obstruction were so admired that the newly sworn-in Johnson was firmly counseled by an ally against using the political capital he’d inherited as a result of the assassination on such a hopeless cause.
According to Caro, Johnson responded, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
This is the question every president must ask and answer. For Lyndon Johnson in the final weeks of 1963, the presidency was for two things: passing a civil rights bill with teeth, to replace the much weaker 1957 law he’d helped to pass as Senate majority leader, and launching the War on Poverty. That neither of these causes was in fact hopeless was clear possibly only to him, as few Americans in our history have matched Johnson’s knowledge of how to move legislation, and legislators.
It’s wonderful to watch Johnson’s confidence catch fire and spread to the shellshocked survivors of the Kennedy administration as it dawned on them that the man who was once Master of the Senate would now be a chief executive with more ability to move legislation through the House and Senate than just about any other president in history. Johnson’s fire spread outward until it touched the entire country during his first State of the Union address. The words were written by Kennedy’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen, but their impact would be felt in the magic L.B.J. worked over the next seven weeks.
Exactly how L.B.J. did it was perfectly captured later by Hubert Humphrey — the man the president chose as his vote counter for the civil rights bill and his Senate proxy to carve its passage.
Humphrey said Johnson “knew just how to get to me.”
In sparkling detail, Caro shows the new president’s genius for getting to people — friends, foes and everyone in between — and how he used it to achieve his goals. We’ve all seen the iconic photos of L.B.J. leaning into a conversation, poking his thick finger into a confidant’s chest or wrapping his long arm around a shoulder. At 6 foot 4, he towered over most men, but even seated Johnson commanded from on high. Caro relates how during a conversation about civil rights, he placed Roy Wilkins and his N.A.A.C.P. entourage on one of the couches in the Oval Office, yet still towered over them as he sat up close in his rocking chair. And he didn’t need to be in the same room — he was great at manipulating, cajoling and even bullying over the phone.
He knew just how to get to you, and he was relentless in doing it.
If you were a partisan, he’d call on your patriotism; if a traditionalist, he’d make his proposal seem to be the Establishment choice. His flattery was minutely detailed, finely tuned and perfectly modulated. So was his bombast — whatever worked. L.B.J. didn’t kiss Sam Rayburn’s ring, but his lips did press against his bald head. Harry Byrd received deference and attention. When L.B.J. became president, he finally had the power to match his political skills.
The other remarkable part of this volume covers the tribulation before the triumphs: the lost campaign and the interminable years as vice president, in which L.B.J.’s skills were stymied and his power was negligible. He had little to do, less to say, and no defense against the indignities the Kennedys’ inner circle heaped on him. The Master of the Senate may have become its president, but in title only. He might have agreed with his fellow Texan John Nance Garner, F.D.R.’s vice president, who famously described the office as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”
Caro paints a vivid picture of L.B.J.’s misery. We can feel Johnson’s ambition ebb, and believe with him that his political life was over, as he was shut out of meetings, unwelcome on Air Force One, mistrusted and despised by Robert Kennedy. While in Congress he may not have been universally admired among the Washington elite, and was even mocked by them as a bit of a rube. But he had certainly never been pitied. In the White House, he invented reasons to come to the outskirts of the Oval Office in the mornings, where he was rarely welcome, and made sure his presence was noted by Kennedy’s staff. Even if they did not respect him, he wasn’t going to let anyone forget him.
Then tragedy changed everything. Within hours of President Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson was sworn in as president, without the pomp of an inauguration, but with all the powers of the office. At first he was careful in wielding them. He didn’t move into the Oval Office for days, running the executive branch from Room 274 in the Executive Office Building. The family didn’t move into the White House residence until Dec. 7. But soon enough, it would become clear that the power Johnson had grasped for his entire life was finally his.
As Caro shows in this and his preceding volumes, power ultimately reveals character. For L.B.J., becoming president freed him to embrace parts of his past that, for political or other reasons, had remained under wraps. Suddenly there was no longer a reason to dissociate himself from the poverty and failure of his childhood. Power released the source of Johnson’s humanity.
Last year I was privileged to speak at the funeral of Sargent Shriver — a man who served L.B.J. but who in many ways was his temperamental opposite. I said then that too many of us spend too much time worrying about advancement or personal gain at the expense of effort. We might fail, but we need to get caught trying. That was Shriver’s great virtue. With Johnson’s election he actually had the chance to try and to win.
Even as Barry Goldwater was midwifing the antigovernment movement that would grow to such dominance decades later, L.B.J., Shriver and other giants of the civil rights and anti*poverty movements seemed to rise all around me as I was beginning my political involvement. They believed government had an essential part to play in expanding civil rights and reducing poverty and inequality. It soon became clear that hearts needed to be changed, along with laws. Not just Congress, but the American people themselves needed to be got to.
It was hard to do, absent a crisis like the losses of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. By the late 1960s, America’s increasing involvement and frustration in Vietnam, the rise of more militant civil rights leaders and riots in many cities, and the end of broad-based economic growth that had indeed “lifted all boats” in the early ’60s, made it harder and harder to win more converts to the civil rights and anti*poverty causes.
But for a few brief years, Lyndon Johnson, once a fairly conventional Southern Democrat, constrained by his constituents and his overriding hunger for power, rose above his political past and personal limitations, to embrace and promote his boyhood dreams of opportunity and equality for all Americans. After all the years of striving for power, once he had it, he said to the American people, “I’ll let you in on a secret — I mean to use it.” And use it he did to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the open housing law, the antipoverty legislation, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start and much more.
He knew what the presidency was for: to get to people — to members of Congress, often with tricks up his sleeve; to the American people, by wearing his heart on his sleeve.
Even when we parted company over the Vietnam War, I never hated L.B.J. the way many young people of my generation came to. I couldn’t. What he did to advance civil rights and equal opportunity was too important. I remain grateful to him. L.B.J. got to me, and after all these years, he still does. With this fascinating and meticulous account of how and why he did it, Robert Caro has once again done America a great service.
Bill Clinton was the 42nd president of the United States.
You know what VietNam War is a euphemism for in that last paragraph (I'll give you a hint, Nixon referred to it as "that Bay Of Pigs thing").
Are you serious or making with the joke? And how did you come to that conclusion? (Yes indeedy, I know what "that Bay Of Pigs thing" refers to.)
Originally Posted by Albert Doyle
"But for a few brief years, Lyndon Johnson, once a fairly conventional Southern Democrat, constrained by his constituents and his overriding hunger for power, rose above his political past and personal limitations, to embrace and promote his boyhood dreams of opportunity and equality for all Americans. After all the years of striving for power, once he had it, he said to the American people, “I’ll let you in on a secret — I mean to use it.” And use it he did to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the open housing law, the antipoverty legislation, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start and much more."
None of which has done anything to limit or even address the imbalance of power between the have-nots and the haves -- let alone the existence of LBJ's (and just about every other president's) string-pullers.
Ask Trayvon Martin about civil rights. Ask American voters in the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 about voting rights. Ask the working poor about anti-poverty legislation. Ask those without health insurance about health care. Ask the Idiot Class about Head Start. And much more.
Ahh, boyhood dreams ...
Like being in a position (so to speak) to ejaculate on employees ...
Bill Clinton is full of shit. He's too smart not to know it.
Bill Clinton took John Kennedy's hand in peace ... much as Caesar's hand was taken and held on the Ides of March.
Shame on you, Bill Clinton.
See unrelated previous post.
Originally Posted by Albert Doyle
As for this one:
Class, Billy has something to say (classlessly)
Two reviewers spewing unmitigated crap.
Johnson was an accessory to the murder of John F. Kennedy. Fried or Shake ‘n’ Bake, he hepped. I don’t see that in there.
Without his contrivance vis-à-vis the Tonkin Gulf nonhappening we’d not have been stained and cursed by a decade of unmitigated murder in Asia.
Civil Rights? Ask Martin Luther King about his civil rights. On Johnson’s watch.
His tortured relationship with the Kennedys?
He was present when the unspeakable came for them.
An unspeakable which told him to get his lame ass off the stage March, 1968.
The terra cotta Texan takes his place between Hoover’s heart attack in 1972 and Nixon’s effective-noon-tomorrow-courtesy-of-Helms in 1974.
Not worth four volumes.
terra cotta warriors.jpg
I read those reviews too. Why is it that the first qualification of leaders like Bill Clinton is their willingness to tolerate government evils? Johnson's promotion of civil rights was the permanent government's reward to America for tolerating their fascist coup and nothing more. The political instability it would cause, like VietNam, would be enough to throw the American public off their feet as far as doing justice in the matter of JFK.
Originally Posted by Charles Drago
I don't see that shown in the previous post. I believe Clinton's referring to VietNam that way incorporates his knowledge of what VietNam meant as far as how it came to be. You must admit Clinton is smart enough to know the connotation of VietNam in the context of Johnson.
Bill Clinton HAS to know about the assassination. One of his inner circle was one Sid Blumenthal who contributed to "Government by Gunplay: Conspiracies from Dallas to Today" Harvey Yazijian, eidted by Sid Blumenthal, who also wrote the foreward, as well as well as two of the chapters. In the Clinton White House Sid's nickname was "GK" for Grassy Knoll. So there is no doubt in my mind that Bill Clinton knows all about the truth of the assassination of JFK. He could have avoided writing a review of this book. One has to wonder if he's look at any of the books published by the people he choose for The Assassination Records Review Board. I would like to hear his thoughts on that work. But I won't hold my breath.