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Robert Caro's 'The Years of Lyndon Johnson'

Flanked by Jackie Kennedy (right) and his wife

Flanked by Jackie Kennedy (right) and his wife Lady Bird Johnson (second left), U.S Vice President Lyndon Johnson (center) is administred the oath of office as he assumed the presidency following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963. Photo Credit: Getty/

THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON: The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro. Alfred A. Knopf, 712 pp., $35.

Robert A. Caro's Texas-size saga of Lyndon Johnson covers more than either one life or one subject. "The Years of Lyndon Johnson" is a compact library: brilliant biography, gripping history, searing political drama and an incomparable study of power.

It's also a great read.

Caro has spent nearly half his own years reporting and writing about Johnson's. "The Passage of Power" focuses on 1958 through early 1964. This momentous period takes in Johnson's failed campaign for the presidency, the close election, Kennedy's administration, the assassination, the transition and Johnson's early White House tenure.

That's when you begin to see "power exercised by a master in the use of power -- in a way that is visible at only a few times in American history."

Johnson made the transition "a platform from which to launch a crusade for social justice on a vast new scale," turning these weeks of sorrow into "a pivotal moment" for the nation. Only the most caffeinated tea partyer would disagree.

The way Johnson acquired power, manipulated it, and used it to achieve goals that were impossible for his predecessors is at the center of Caro's incisive narrative. "Well, what the hell's the presidency for," Johnson said.

You'll learn more about strategy, tactics, timing, salesmanship, management and basic hardball from this revealing account than you will in any classroom or textbook.

"The Power Broker," Caro's classic examination of Robert Moses, the polarizing builder of public works who shaped 20th century New York, is essential reading to understand the state and city. Caro, a former Newsday reporter, delivered a landmark primer on how things get done.

That theme presages and runs through his exhaustive study of Johnson, very long-form journalism from "The Path to Power" (1982), "Means of Ascent" (1990) and "Master of the Senate" (2002) to this volume.

Johnson remains the most Shakespearean of postwar presidents, and frankly the only one through whom Caro could explore both the complexity and the simplicity of his elusive subject.

Rising from deep poverty and road-gang work in the Texas Hill Country, Johnson made a goal of Washington -- first Congress, and then the White House. "Here's where the power is," he said. He'd become the youngest majority leader in Senate history after one term.

"I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me," Johnson told an aide. "I know where to look for it, and how to use it."

Unable to win the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, he calculated that the vice presidency was his route to the White House. "Power is where power goes," Johnson said. The Kennedys never thought he'd accept the offer. Liberals were dismayed, but Electoral College numbers can be persuasive. John F. Kennedy would say, poignantly in hindsight, "I'm not going to die in office. So the vice presidency doesn't mean anything." The ticket carried much of the South, including Texas.

Vice President Johnson, who always feared failure, would be slighted, humiliated and derided as "Rufus Cornpone" by Kennedy aides. He was left out of important meetings. He'd be sent on ceremonial trips. He "detested every minute of it."

Johnson was hawkish during the Cuban missile crisis, underscoring differences with the president and, particularly, Robert Kennedy. That bitter relationship is one of several books within this book. In autumn 1963, it seemed likely that Johnson would be dropped from the ticket.

Caro's account of the assassination and what followed is extraordinary for its precision in reporting and writing, a portrait of power shifting, from the instant Kennedy aide Ken O'Donnell tells Johnson, "He's gone." The 36th president was ready and understood the need to "legitimize the transition" for the American people and for history. Caro describes Johnson's decisiveness and reassurance, his generosity toward the Kennedy family.

It all led to the immortal image of Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One, with Jacqueline Kennedy present, and the fallen president's body on the plane.

The transition and its aftermath, the first during the television era, stressed continuity and competence. Johnson, a "crude, coarse, ruthless, often cruel man, who all his life had made a mantra of pragmatism," would demonstrate "the immensity of the potential an American president possesses to effect transformative change."

"The Passage of Power" then becomes a masterly how-to manual, showing Johnson's knowledge of governing, his peerless congressional maneuvering and effective deal-making with legislative leaders who could block him. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be passed. So would a version of Kennedy's long-sought tax cut. The 1964 State of the Union would be lauded nationwide.

But all possibilities aren't realized. "The Passage of Power" is about the beginning of a presidency. The next story, Caro says, "will be very different in tone."

And, after thousands of pages spent with Lyndon Johnson, one of Caro's singular achievements is that you want more.

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