Monday, July 16, 2012

A Great Book: Robert Caro's The Passage of Power

I don't think that I call a book "great" too often, although I usually find those that I am quite enthusiastic about (if I finish it, it's held me). But for this book, the combination of the author and the subject (LBJ) is a perfect storm of a biography. In this volume, the fourth in the "Years of Lyndon Johnson", Caro follows his subject  from 1958 to about mid-1964. During this time, Johnson went from serving as the dominant figure in the Senate as the Senate majority leader, to a failed presidential candidate (and a reluctant and belated one at that, despite his longing to reach the presidency). Then, out of nowhere seemingly--and much to the chagrin of his brother Bobby--John Kennedy chose Johnson as his veep. While John Kennedy seemed to respect Johnson, Bobby Kennedy hated and despised him. Johnson knew this, and he reciprocated the feeling. As Garry Wills noted in his review of the book, this hatred brought out the worst in both men.

As vice-president, Johnson languished, excluded from the Kennedy inner-circle and ignored even in congressional matters, where his knowledge and experience could not be matched. LBJ could only watch as Kennedy's legislative program went nowhere. By 1963, the Bobby Baker scandal was brewing, while former Johnson protege John Connelly was governor of Texas and feeling his own oats. Things looked bleak for Johnson, he'd even lost his clout in Texas. Then, as he rode through the streets of Dallas behind John Kennedy, shots cracked and Johnson was shoved the floor of his car. Not long after, Kennedy aide Ken O'Donnell came into a room where Johnson has been secluded by the Secret Service, and told him, "he's gone". With this Johnson became president, and a changed man.

Caro, from this point forward, details the steps that Johnson took to make his succession work. From the swearing in with the blood-stained Jackie Kennedy at this side to his wooing of Kennedy aides, Johnson orchestrated the passage. Through talks with governors, congressman, and others in government, Johnson worked to keep the power of the presidency in tack and working. While the nation grieved and watched the spectacle of the Kennedy last rites, Johnson worked.

After this immediate time of abrupt change, Johnson realized that he could now accomplish things, that he was no longer a bystander, no longer another Southern senator. As Caro describes it, Johnson's passions now matched his ambitions, and one of his passions was justice for the poor and downtrodden, including those black and brown. Johnson immediately began to work to get the Kennedy tax cut through Congress (by making a deal with Harry Byrd, the budget watchdog from Virginia), and Johnson, despite warnings to the contrary, pushed the civil rights bill--and got it passed. It was an amazing and under-appreciated display of political mastery that left the nation better off.

Caro foreshadows the fall that Lyndon Johnson would suffer after his election later in 1964. Many of the traits that marred him, which he'd suppressed during this transition, came back to the forefront. Vietnam, of course, lurks as a monster that we know comes to devour Johnson and the peace of the nation. But for now, we have this amazing portrait of redemption and success, one brief shining moment, if you will, when in the dark time of mourning, Lyndon Johnson did the right things. Happily, this extraordinary biographer, who maps the arc of Johnson's life, has proven equal to the task. Pray that Caro enjoys long life so that we can read the next chapter, the tragedy, that we know befalls our protagonist.