Often when one is about to read the umpteenth biography of a prominent figure there is the temptation to think of the phrase "everything that can be said has been, though not everyone has said it.'' That's definitely not the case with the fourth volume (out of a projected five) of Robert A. Caro's brilliant, if at times overwritten, biography of Lyndon Johnson.
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which covers Johnson's life from 1958 to mid-1964, depicts him as a powerful Senate majority leader transformed into a powerless vice president who was transformed into a powerful president. The overriding theme of Caro's books (including an earlier one on New York's master builder Robert Moses) is how people accumulate and use power. Caro has read everything ever written about his subject and talked to many of Johnson's friends and foes.
Those efforts, which started with the launch of this project in 1976, have helped Caro masterfully distill the essence of LBJ's ability to get his way. Many of the events have been written about extensively, but Caro looks at them with a fresh set of eyes and sometimes seems to have the literary equivalent of X-ray vision.
As majority leader, Johnson reinvigorated the Senate and made that chamber once again relevant to the governing process. By engineering the passage of civil rights legislation and other key measures, while running things with an iron fist, Johnson was in his element.
Caro writes that the role was one "he was born to play. As he stood at the Leader's commanding front-row center desk in the Senate Chamber directing the Senate's actions with the surest of hands, as he strode the aisles of the Chamber and Capitol with colleagues addressing him by title . . . he was completely in charge, a man at home in his job."
Though Caro admires Johnson's skills, he doesn't neglect the bullying, meanness and arrogance that came along with them. One comes away with the impression that Caro respects, but doesn't really like, his subject.
If Caro were just writing about Johnson, he could have covered the subject in far fewer words. However, he greatly enriches the narrative with his verbal portraits of key players with whom Johnson interacted. These profiles sometimes drag on a bit and the editing could have been tighter. While Caro clearly doesn't believe that less is more, political junkies will feel that they are truly getting their fix.
In this volume, much of that ink is devoted to John and Robert Kennedy. Johnson and JFK tolerated each other, though there was considerable mistrust. The relationship between LBJ and Robert is best described in a book titled Mutual Contempt.
Among the most riveting parts of Caro's latest is when he takes us behind the scenes of JFK's selection of LBJ as his running mate in 1960. Jack Kennedy saw the political benefits of such a matchup, while Robert and others went apoplectic. Caro doesn't buy the argument made by some at the time that JFK's offer was pro forma and one that he expected LBJ to reject.
Caro contends it is quite possible that Kennedy had for years planned to persuade LBJ to join his ticket because it would help him win the election. Caro writes that this suggests "cold calculation'' and that there was a "deep reservoir of calculation and reserve beneath Jack Kennedy's easy charm.''
Given JFK's single-minded focus on becoming president -- and his ideological flexibility -- that is, at least to this writer, the most plausible reason he picked LBJ.
Once LBJ became vice president, he was marginalized. Administration officials made little use of his political skills in general and knowledge of the Senate in particular.
Caro notes that LBJ's frustration was apparent in his physical demeanor. The author observes that when walking, "the old, long imperious Texas lope was gone; he walked more deliberately with shorter steps."
On Nov. 22, 1963, everything changed.
After Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson picked up the mantle of power quickly and made the presidency his own. He pushed several measures through Congress (including bills that expanded civil rights laws and cut taxes) that his predecessor hadn't been able to. Though he achieved his lifelong goal through awful circumstances, LBJ rose to the occasion. He calmed a saddened nation and showed his true political acumen.
Caro argues that Johnson's actions from that day in Dallas through the middle of 1964 (when he showed more self discipline and diplomacy than usual) were the high point of his tenure in the Oval Office. He contends that by "overcoming forces within him that were difficult to overcome, he not only held the country steady during a difficult time but had set it on a new course, a new course toward social justice."
When you combine a larger-than-life figure with a seminal period in American history and have the story told by a masterful writer, the result is a literary treat. That's an apt description of The Passage of Power.
Claude R. Marx, an award-winning journalist, regularly reviews books for publications such as the Boston Globe and the Weekly Standard.