It is not often that the fourth mammoth installment of a multivolume biography has an initial print run of 300,000. Journalist-turned-historian Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson is an exception. Titled “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” it is the most celebrated political biography of its era. The previous three volumes have won major literary awards, and the newest serving promises to be a prize winner as well.
Caro is famously obsessive about his work. He has spent 38 years working on these four books, and a final fifth volume will cover most of the LBJ presidency and the remainder of Johnson’s life. “The Passage of Power’’ covers just six years in the life of the tall Texas schoolteacher, touching on only a few months of his presidency. The rest covers Johnson’s ill-fated run for the 1960 Democratic nomination, and his three humiliating years as JFK’s vice president.
If that sounds dry, it isn’t. Making ordinary politics and policymaking riveting and revealing is what makes Caro a genius. Combined with his penetrating insight and fanatical research, Caro’s Churchill-like prose elevates the life of a fairly influential president to stuff worthy of Shakespeare. “Much of Lyndon Johnson’s accomplishment thus far in his presidency — creating an impression of continuity by holding the Kennedy men and of competence by his first speech — had been, while important, symbolic in nature,” he writes at one point. “Dealing with Congress wouldn’t be symbol but substance, indispensable substance, the very essence of governing in a democracy, for in dealing with Congress a President was dealing with a democracy’s very heart: the creation of the laws by which it was governed.” Lengthy lines like this follow chapters of tension-building and scene-setting, so that reading Caro’s books can feel like encountering the life of an American president for the first time.
The book’s subtitle refers to Johnson’s ascension to the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. But it also is a nod to the fact that Johnson’s first years as president saw more legislative accomplishment than Washington had seen at any time since 1937 — or in the years after. In particular, LBJ did more as president for African-Americans than any president since Lincoln.
Indeed, Caro argues convincingly that Johnson did what even a two-term President Kennedy never could have. He passed a meaningful civil rights bill. “You know,” Richard Russell, the segregationist Georgia senator is quoted here as saying, “[W]e could have beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson.” Johnson was the supreme American lawmaker of the 20th century, a man who as senator combined unparalleled legislative shrewdness with unmatched deviousness.
Whereas Kennedy spent his short years in Congress in the hospital, on foreign trips, and running for a higher office, LBJ spent his time studying the institution. When JFK’s death made sudden action possible, LBJ seized the initiative. Put another way, he exploited Kennedy’s assassination to accomplish things for blacks, the poor, and the elderly that would not have otherwise been possible.
Though these are the most consequential pages in the book, most of “The Passage of Power’’ focuses on other matters. Johnson’s bitter, decades-long feud with Kennedy is exhaustively detailed, with neither man emerging as particularly noble. LBJ’s exclusion from the inner circles while vice president is rightly portrayed as unfortunate for both Johnson, who inhaled power as fish inhale water, and Kennedy, who would have benefited from his partner’s expertise.
The most riveting sections, however, deal with Kennedy’s assassination. Even with the millions of words written on the subject, Caro unearths new facts about the horrible event, drawn from his many interviews and archival research. We find the Johnsons waiting in the hospital for news about the president’s condition immediately following the shooting. “
Caro’s sure hand only leaves the wheel when he writes about the Warren Commission, charged with investigating Kennedy’s murder. Johnson is persuasively shown to have been wise in insisting on a national investigative inquiry (under the law, a presidential murder was then no different from other murders). But Caro ignores the commission’s flaws, even though they have led to 50 years of conspiracy theories. “The Passage of Power’’ concludes, as have the most reputable other analyses, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. The commission’s failures explain in part why so many Americans believe differently, however.
On other matters though, Caro’s judgment is solid, his prose inspiring, and his research breathtaking. Lyndon Johnson was “Master of the Senate,’’ as a previous installment in Caro’s series was subtitled. And, as this volume shows, Johnson was a master of the presidency, too, for a while. But Robert Caro stands alone as the unquestioned master of the contemporary American political biography.Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon. He blogs at www.jordanmichaelsmith.typepad.com and can be reached at jordanmichaelsmith100@gmail