Review: The Passage of Power, Robert A. Caro

Rating: 6 out of 5

Mr Caro’s next instalment in the Years of Lyndon Johnson is spectacular. The powerful master of the Senate, as he was in the prior volume, turns into a powerless vice president who is excluded from power—that is, until that famous day in November 1963 when the vice president was made president by the bullets of an assassin. The author details this journey and the first weeks of the presidency in immaculate detail. However, there is a big difference with respect to the LBJ we have met thus far: here, at least after November 1963, we are presented with a man who shows the best that he can do in the most difficult times.

That does not last long, however. In the best case, that period maybe lasts for a few months. And, starting with the run-up to the 1960 presidential election which forms the earliest part of this book, the reader sees far more of the typical anti-hero LBJ. This should not be surprising. What is surprising—perhaps—is the prevarication that allowed JFK to take the lead and to destroy LBJ’s hopes of being the front-runner on the 1960 ticket. Yet, this is one of the most common human traits of all the things LBJ is described doing—it might be one of the easiest emotions to understand and support for we see LBJ afraid of reaching for the thing he always wanted to reach for when he could have got it.

This passes. Even Mr Caro’s immense research was unable to exactly detail the events that led to JFK offering and LBJ accepting the vice president’s position on the ticket, so it is unlikely anyone else can reveal this now. Yet, these chapters illuminate other parts of the future president’s character. In addition, this episode and much of the rest of the book, is coloured by the animosity between Robert F Kennedy and LBJ—and it seems that this mutual hatred is also why the exact events leading up to JFK and LBJ campaigning together will remain unknown.

This mutual hatred is only one of the several tangents that Mr Caro provides in this book. There are fairly developed overviews of most of JFK’s staff along with extensive descriptions of the Cuban missile crisis—even though, or, rather, especially, because LBJ was excluded from it and the manner of his exclusion. These tangents do not, however, cover LBJ’s business endeavours in any great detail and it seems that these will be presented in the final volume.

What struck me most about this was the upbeat and solid tone that the author was able to take towards LBJ. This was only made possible by the person, who (ab-)used every other position of power in ways that kept him, even in the service of righteous causes, at best in the grey. In this work, however, the guarded front that the President had to keep up after November 1963 also gives us the best of a complex man. This was worth the wait.

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