Over the last week I have read Robert Caro’s fourth book on Lyndon Johnson and attended a Politics & Prose bookstore “conversation’ between Caro and Politico’s Chief White House correspondent Mike Allen. I thought the book (606 pages) truly worthy of my week’s devotion to it. I enjoyed listening to Caro and getting a sense of the man, his humility, his solidity, and his insights, though I think Allen missed an opportunity to draw out Caro on many aspects of the book that deserved discussion.
If you definitely plan to tackle The Passage of Power, you need not read further than the end of this paragraph. Mark this site, and come back to it after you have read the book. Then read what is written below, and let me others know what you think.**
If you’re not sure if you want to read the book, or if you just want to get a bit of a summary and one person’s reactions, read the “Summary” and “10 Takeaways” below.
(If your time is limited, check out The New Yorker’s excerpt of the day LBJ went from believing his political life was over to attaining the most power he ever had — Nov. 22, 1963.)
Part I of The Passage of Power, “Johnson vs. Kennedy: 1960” actually begins in 1958 and continues for 156 pages, describing Johnson’s desire and obsession for the presidency in the coming election. As we all know, he did not get the nomination, and Caro tells us why he failed:
*Johnson underestimated JFK who he knew from the Senate and who he described as a playboy who was lazy and though smart enough was “an indecisive politician;”
*Johnson’s was crippled by a lifelong fear of failure and not wanting to end the way his father had;
*When Johnson finally entered the race, it was too late (tho just barely) to prevent JFK from securing enough delegates on the first ballot at the Democratic convention;and
*For all of his political skills, Johnson did not understand the importance of the change that had taken place in the country, the transformative nature of TV.
Also, in Part I, Caro describes in fascinating detail how LBJ became the Vice Presidential candidate. JFK’s choice of Johnson for VP shocked everyone, especially Robert Kennedy who made three trips to Johnson’s suite to try to get him to reject the offer. (Don’t get to this part of the book late at night because you will not be able to put it down.) It seems to be Caro’s view that JFK chose Johnson primarily because he knew he could not win the presidency without Johnson’s ability to bring along Texas and several other southern states.
In the second part of the book, “Rufus Cornpone” (144 pages), Caro describes Johnson’s attempts as VP to find a role for himself in the Kennedy administration and why he failed. Largely, JFK and RFK had decided to freeze him out because they felt he was not loyal to them, he was allied with southerners, and he might impede the direction they wished to pursue. Also, RFK personally hated Johnson and was determined to marginalize him (the feeling of hatred was mutual).
When Johnson realizes he had indeed traded his power in the Senate for at best a ceremonial role and that he would have no power in the White House, he gradually becomes depressed, loses weight, can’t sleep, and feels his life ambition of attaining the presidency is a failure. He’s not even sure JFK will choose him as a VP candidate, in 1964, despite assurances by everyone that he will be on the ticket. (Caro seems to indicate that by the time of the assassination, JFK had already decided that Johnson no longer had support in the south. To win reelection, he would need someone different as his VP choice).
When Johnson realizes he is stymied, when it’s clear he will have no power, when the Kennedy administration refuses to use his political skills in any way, Johnson feels discarded and becomes a shell of his former self.
And then the tragedy of Nov. 22nd changes everything.
For the next 300 pages, the man, who just moments earlier felt his political life was a failure, is thrust into the presidency and probably the most successful and productive period of his life.
Caro almost magically puts the reader in Dallas, in Johnson’s limousine, in the Dallas hospital, on Air Force One, and then back to the White House all on the same day. (Again, don’t start this part of the book, “Dallas” & “Taking Command,” 81 pages, unless you have enough time to read it all in one sitting). From almost the moment Johnson’s Secret Service bodyguard puts him on the floor of his limousine, through the flight home and beyond, there is a transformation in Johnson that Caro describes as simply astounding.
The final 213 pages, “To Become a President,” describe Johnson’s triumphs, one after another. Caro describes an amazing blaze of successes (seven weeks), including calming the nation, convincing the Kennedy team to stay, and in winning great approval from the country. Further, he went beyond what anyone thought possible in passing long stalled legislation, specifically a tax bill and civil rights, and in calling for a War on Poverty. Caro believes this was a watershed period in American history and credits Johnson with a “triumph not only of genius but of will,” writing that “The situation brought out the finest that was in him.”
“In the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson this period stands out as different from the rest, as perhaps that life’s finest moment, as a moment not only masterful but, in its way heroic. If he had held in check these forces within himself, had conquered himself, for a while, he wasn’t going to be able to do it for very long.
“But he did it long enough.”
Ten Take Aways:
- What Caro Does Best: He puts you in the middle of each aspect of this history (five years), describing, in his own voice, in the voices of the hundreds and hundreds of people he interviewed, and from the documents he accumulated, each scene such that you feel you were there. When Caro is unable to determine the accuracy of an event, he gives all the data he has and leaves it to reader to make a judgment. Additionally, he describes the context in which each event takes place in such a way that you not only feel you are there but that you understand it better than whatever you thought you knew in the first place. (One example: the day LBJ moves in the Oval Office, he begins the chapter with a short history and a description of that space that even if you have been in that presidential office, you know you must go back to see it again.)
2. What Caro Does Not Do So Well: Despite making 605 pages seem like a page- turner mystery, Caro over does some things. Specifically, his sentences are too long; one sentence goes on for a long paragraph. I often had to go back to the beginning of the sentence to remember where he had started a particular thought or point. Also, and I suspect he and others would disagree with this, I believe he overdoes it with his quotes and his obsessive need to solidify his point(s) by having numerous people say similar things.
3. How Does Caro Do It: 35 years, 1.5 million words, 3000 pages, four books, so far, and folks are still buying his books, despite his writing about something that took place more than 50 years ago (The Passage of Power will be the number one-selling hardback book next Sunday, according to what we heard at the Politics and Prose book conversation.)
Briefly, Caro is an old fashion newspaperman and a consummate researcher. He assumes nothing, takes nothing for granted, and interviews every conceivable person who has touched or been touched by Johnson. He not only visits most of the places he describes, he has gone to live in Texas and in Washington to understand the context in which LBJ lived. He listens well and has gained the confidence of most, though not all, of the folks he quotes. (The Johnson family, for example, “is so hostile to me that I have not been able to talk to his daughters,” and Bill Moyers, LBJ’s advisor and then press secretary, will not share his experiences, thoughts, and insights with Caro.).
Caro forces himself into a routine, he says, because he is ‘lazy.’ He puts on a coat and tie each day, goes to his office, writes the first three or four drafts by long hand, and then finally types up what he has written. He only uses a computer for minimal research, and he doesn’t use a tape recorder when he interviews. (He says he doesn’t concentrate well if there is a tape going and states that when he compared a tape of an interview with Lady Bird Johnson with his handwritten notes, he had gotten everything.)
Finally, Caro believes he can complete his writing on Johnson with one more volume, covering from 1964 on, though he says he understands why folks might not trust him on that point. He has outlined the ‘final’ book and even written the final sentence of the final book. He is 76 and has put in his will that if he is unable to finish the last book, he does not want anyone to complete it for him.
And briefly, the book convinced me:
4. LBJ Was a Political Genius. Both as Majority Leader in the Senate and as President of the United States, Johnson can truly be termed a political genius. He understood power and how to use it. He knew exactly how to get to someone. He knew what drove others and could and did adjust his actions accordingly.
5. LBJ Was Ambitious, Ruthless, Deceitful, and Immoral. In his use of power, nothing was out of bounds for him. He became a millionaire because he traded influence for money, and there seemed to be no limits to his use of whatever power he had. For him, the ends always justified whatever means he needed to use to get there.
6. LBJ’s Concern and Care for the Poor Was Real. Although it was not immediately obvious, he truly cared about those who were unfortunate in the society and worked to make their lives better, probably because he personally knew and understood failure and poverty. He was probably our most successful champion of all Americans of color.
7. RFK & LBJ Had Many Similarites: Though the feud between these two men is by now well known, and Caro adds many details to confirm and describe it. Less, however, has been written about the similarities in the two men. Both were driven, tough, obsessive, ambitious and also hardworking and cared for those less fortunate.
8. Ambition and Compassion. When these two attributes were in conflict for LBJ, ambition won out. When they were aligned, he was virtually unstoppable.
9. The Seven Week Transformation from Failure to Triumph Was Stunning. What he was able to do between the time JFK was shot and the time he delivered his own State of the Union message seven weeks later is truly astonishing.
10. LBJ Has Been Shortchanged: Caro argues, convincingly I think, “The succession of LBJ deserves better fate in history. For had it not been for his accomplishments during the transition, history might have been different.”
**I am planning for a Fall evening discussion (and dinner?) at the Millers’ of Caro’s fourth book. Let me know if you’re interested