The fourth volume of Robert Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson has arrived with all the fanfare befitting a major publication coming ten years after 2002’s volume three, “Master of the Senate,” and a full 30 years after volume one, “The Path to Power.” Readers of all four volumes who got started upon publication of the first can use the books to trace the arc of their own lives just as Caro traces the grand arc of Johnson’s career. I, for one, read volume one as a vacationing college student on the sandy beaches of Cape Cod in 1982. I devoured volume two in 1990, reading much of it while patronizing various locations of the now departed Hamburger Hamlet restaurants of Los Angeles. By 2002, when volume three entered my reading life, I was working as an assistant United States Attorney at the Department of Justice.
Each volume has been a milestone—for me, and for American literature. Volume four is entitled “Passage of Power” and that is precisely what it recounts, but in two distinct senses. In the beginning of the book, Caro documents LBJ’s initial passage from power in 1959-60; he then shifts to describing Johnson’s dramatic passage back to power in 1963-64. Caro painstakingly narrates LBJ’s near complete loss of power upon becoming John Kennedy’s vice-president, a 3-year odyssey in the wilderness for Johnson who was—and still is—a prime exhibit for anyone wishing to demonstrate the emptiness of the role of the American Vice-Presidency. When Caro eventually shifts gears to tell the breathtaking story of Johnson’s ascension to the Presidency in the immediate wake of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas it becomes a “passage of power” in the sense of moving “to” rather than “from” a position of strength and action.
And it is power that primarily interests Caro. Lyndon Johnson is the subject of these wonderful books—indeed, Caro’s portrait of Johnson’s portrait is rich in substance and overflowing in telling detail. But it is power that is the true, and, I think, the enduring, subject of Caro’s grand work—power in all its guises and forms, illusions and apparitions. Caro examines people getting power, losing power, exercising power, and abusing power. These movements stir the deepest currents of Caro’s narrative, and those deep currents are what LBJ swam in and swam against. Ultimately, in Caro’s view, they are also what swept Johnson away. In the new volume’s introduction, referring obliquely to Lord Acton’s famous dictum, Caro writes that, “although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but is equally true, is that power always reveals.”
“Power reveals.” Call that Caro’s dictum. Because in his “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” saga, as in his award-winning biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, he uses narrative and fact to prove that observation to a fare-thee-well. In these books, power reveals everything, from character and intention to principles and values. Indeed, if there is another living author who writes with more insight on this subject, I would like to know her name.
Caro’s narrative skills are so strong that immersion really is an apt description of the reading experience. In volume 4, the reader it transported to Los Angeles in 1960 and attends the wild and dramatic Democratic Convention where JFK selected—and then Bobby Kennedy tried, unsuccessfully, to deselect—Lyndon Johnson for his running mate. This power shift happened not in the back rooms of the Convention, but rather, as Caro puts it, on the “back stairs,” of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles where both Kennedys, and their allies, and Johnson, and his allies, including Sam Rayburn, who was the Speaker of the House, and John Connolly, who was soon to be the Governor of Texas, all had their suites.
Each man plays a pivotal role in what was, in essence, a political bedroom farce that resulted with a national ticket of Kennedy-Johnson. That decision, in turn, ultimately resulted in Johnson being, as he would privately observe, “a heartbeat away” from presidential power.
The gravity of that observation becomes apparent over several fateful hours in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Caro transports the reader to Love Field in Dallas, to observe—on nearly a minute-by-minute basis—the swearing-in of LBJ and the literal passage to the power of the Presidency that LBJ had been openly seeking since his early days in the West Texas Hill Country.
After the swearing-in, Caro documents what he describes, quite persuasively, as one of the most dramatic short stretches in all of American history; the seven-week ascent of LBJ from November 22, which he began as VP, on the outside—distrusted, disrespected, and even detested by many of JFK’s advisers and confidantes—to his triumphant State of the Union speech on January 8, 1964, when LBJ ruled as President over very nearly all he surveyed.
It is a breathtaking ascent, and Caro sweeps the reader along with LBJ.
One final quote from this volume bears addressing. While describing Johnson’s failed bid for the Democratic nomination in 1960, Caro draws on Charles Dickens, alluding to Marley’s Ghost and his memorable comment to Scrooge that, “I forged these chains in life—link by link.” From Caro’s point of view this describes “his” Johnson—a victim of his own excesses and weaknesses, forging his chains in life, link by link. But, the allusion to Dickens also, for me at least, describes the method of the author Caro. Caro is often called “Shakespearean,” but I see him as more like Dickens, a master portraitist painting memorable miniatures of character after character, from Bobby Kennedy to Bobby Baker. Also like Dickens, Caro is a bit of moralist, and it is hard not to see the moral judgment he casts on Johnson and his crew of power-hungry Texans. And finally like Dickens, Caro tells more than the story of a single man, he tells the story of an age—America in the 20th or the “American” Century.
If you like history or biography at all, then do try reading The Passage of Power. It stands on its own and can be read independently of the other three volumes. But, if you are interested in something more; if, for instance, you are deeply interested in the history of America in the 20th Century, or in the history of the American Presidency and of Congress, or of Texas and of Washington, D.C., or even if you are interested in something more abstract, like the history of power, then I suggest you start at the beginning and read all four volumes of Caro’s saga. It is without doubt the finest extended work of nonfiction by a living American writer. In other words, Caro’s books will stand the test of time. And now, like all the rest of Robert A. Caro’s readers, I will have to stand the test of time…by waiting for his next volume.
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Bruce Riordan is a federal lawyer in Los Angeles.