Since 1976, Caro has been toiling on his Johnson bio, which is really, he rightly told The Inquirer in 2001, the year before the previous volume, Master of the Senate, was published, “a history of how political power worked in America in the middle of the 20th century.”
The former Newsday investigative reporter initially conceived of The Years of Lyndon Johnson as a three-volume set. He now says he has just one more book left, which will cover Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964 and his only elected term as president, when the deepening Vietnam War overshadowed the tall Texan’s Great Society accomplishments.
That would be nice, but I find it hard to believe that Caro will be able to wrap it up so swiftly if it has the same sort of prodigious detail he has woven into the quite often riveting Passage of Power.
The book begins in 1958, with Johnson brilliantly commanding the Senate as majority leader. As the 1960 presidential election approaches, he’s tantalized with the possibility of achieving his lifelong ambition, but simultaneously filled with a fear of humiliation, which Caro convincingly traces to Johnson’s memories of his father falling into financial ruin when LBJ was a boy. As a result, he equivocates and waits too long to reach for the prize.
Johnson’s failure to throw himself into the 1960 presidential campaign early enough to defeat John F. Kennedy also stemmed from overconfidence. The backroom operator and “great reader of men” misread the man who would later choose him as his running mate. LBJ made the mistake of writing JFK off as a lazy “playboy” who already had two strikes against him because of his youth and his Catholicism.
The introduction of the Kennedy clan, at its best, elevates Caro’s tale to the level of Shakespearean drama, as the coldhearted, Machiavellian maneuvering and hot-blooded rivalries of supremely ambitious men play out with the fate of the free world at stake. LBJ had a long-running feud with JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy, by whom he was “tortured by an envy he could not exorcise,” in the words of Johnson aide Joseph Califano. But in writing about John F. Kennedy, Caro exposes his chief flaw as a storyteller: A tendency to pound home his thorough research with unrelenting emphasis.
To show how wrong Johnson was about Kennedy, Caro hammers home Kennedy’s toughness as he battled through excruciating back pain and other physical ailments, and achieved true heroism in the Pacific theater in World War II, while Johnson got away with flying a few bombing missions, just for show. Point taken, but by the time Caro was done delineating JFK’s pain, I felt my own back start to spasm.
By accepting the vice presidential nomination, Johnson gave up a powerful position for a weak one, with no real power at all. And in the three years leading up to Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, Johnson suffered the humiliation he so feared. The drawling Southerner sulked, an outsider among Northeastern elites — “the Harvards,” as he called them. He resented them, and they called him “Rufus Cornpone” in return.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan told Caro he remembered thinking Johnson resembled “a bull castrated very late in life.” In this period, the book loses zest as a depressed LBJ is relegated to the sidelines. The depth of Caro’s reporting always yields compelling anecdotes, however, such as the tale of the White House dinner dance where LBJ did a “a new, hip-swiveling dance called the twist” with the “scintillating” Helen Chavchavadze, one of JFK’s many mistresses. The ungainly veep slipped and fell on top of the president’s paramour and “lay on her like a lox,” according to one observer.
The action picks up in late 1963, when Johnson is facing an investigation into his finances and the improprieties of his protégé Bobby Baker. Just as those twin threats are about to come to a head, fate intervenes on Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
The oft-told tale is vividly brought to life as the shots ring out while Johnson rides in an open car behind the president‘s. The crux and climax of The Passage of Power is the 47-day period, which Caro calls “a pivotal period in American history,” between Kennedy’s death and the State of the Union address that Johnson delivered in January 1964.
Johnson used his political skills and the unifying spirit in the country brought about by the slaying of the youthful president to break a familiar-sounding partisan logjam in Congress and enact a series of social-justice measures that had been stalled in the Kennedy years. As Johnson himself told Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of his early biographers, he “took the dead man’s program and turned it into a martyr’s cause.”
Caro argues that Johnson was a man of compassion whose empathy, often subservient to ambition, would emerge at defining moments. The night of Kennedy’s funeral, he told a group of governors that the proper way to react to the tragedy was “to do something to stop that hate. … we have to … meet the problem of injustice that exists in this land, meet the problem of poverty that exists in this land.”
Johnson’s ambition to address those problems is taking shape as The Passage of Power comes to a close. As it does, Caro raises RFK’s contention that the programs often talked about but not enacted by his brother would have come to pass if he had lived. The author strikes what sounds like a contentious note on that question, but he’s not ready yet to tell us what he will conclude. “The mantra’s validity,” he writes, “must remain to be evaluated in the last volume of this work.” As he’s been doing since The Path to Power, the first volume in the series, was published in 1982, Caro is going to make us wait for it.
Before rock-and-roll addled his brain, Inquirer music critic Dan DeLuca studied political science at the University of Pennsylvania.