Feature

Book of the week: The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro

Caro continues to roll out “what is almost without question the greatest political biography in modern times.”

(Knopf, $35)

Thirty years in, Robert Caro continues to roll out “what is almost without question the greatest political biography in modern times,” said Patrick Beach in The Austin American-Statesman. This fourth volume in Caro’s beyond-epic telling of the life of Lyndon Johnson covers roughly five years, beginning in late 1958. It captures the outsize Texas Democrat both at an absolute low, when he assumed the vice presidency, and at his finest hour, when in the wake of a great tragedy wrought by an assassin’s bullets, he stepped up to provide the nation with visionary leadership. This book’s Johnson is “the same deeply flawed character straight out of Shakespeare” that Caro’s given us before—a man of vast ambition whose insecurities often got the better of him. Yet his performance when faced with his biggest challenge was better than skillful. It was, writes Caro, “in its way, heroic.”

Holding the narrative center of The Passage to Power is “an unforgettable 65-page elaboration of Nov. 22, 1963,” said Robert Draper in The Wall Street Journal. Johnson’s numbed shock following the shots that killed John F. Kennedy is “as palpable in this devastating set piece as the blood on Jackie Kennedy’s suit.” But first we must get there, at Caro’s leisurely pace. For most of 300 pages, the Johnson we get is, in his own words, “a cut dog,” rendered impotent as a vice president who was ignored by his former running mate and despised by the president’s brother Bobby. Caro rarely lets us forget Johnson’s flaws, said Ariel Gonzalez in The Miami Herald. Yet “he lays much of the blame” for Johnson’s bitter feud with RFK on the younger man. The enmity would poison Democratic politics for years.

The depiction of the two rivals’ interactions is riveting, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. “Even more impressive,” though, “is Caro’s ability to convey, on a visceral level, how daunting the challenges were facing Johnson upon his assumption of the presidency.” With “novelistic depth and amplitude,” Passage to Power conveys how Johnson used his singular political instincts to push Kennedy’s stalled agenda through an antagonistic Congress, and to pave the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and his own “war on poverty.” In Caro’s next volume, which will cover the Vietnam War years, Johnson will change, of course. For now, it’s worth remembering that the 36th president, in at least one passage of his life, used his power wisely. This is “a breathtakingly dramatic story about a pivotal moment in United States history.”

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