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Review: Robert Caro continues tale of ascension in 'The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson'

Power, Robert Caro writes in the introduction to the fourth volume of his biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, may indeed corrupt, but "what is equally true, is that power always reveals."

Caro proves that in The Passage of Power. He creates a deep and vivid portrait of Johnson as he suffers the greatest losses in his political career and then is thrust in one violent moment into the role he has hungered for since boyhood, as the 36th president of the United States.

In both its absence and its presence, power reveals a great deal about Johnson. In Caro's nuanced, compelling portrayal, Johnson emerges as immensely complex, driven by demons and idealism, ruthless and loyal by turns, contemptible in some situations and noble in others. His fate balanced between tragedy and farce, he is always larger than life.

What is more, Caro re-creates for us the times in which Johnson came to power, from the broad sweep of history (the civil rights struggle, the Cold War) to the individual sketches of a huge cast of characters. The impact of those people and those larger forces on Johnson is analyzed with unfailing clarity.

When Caro set out in 1976 to write a biography of Johnson, he expected it would fill three volumes and take about six years to write. That was 36 years and four books ago; he expects to complete one more volume in the next two to three years. (Now 76, Caro is 12 years older than Johnson was when he died.)

"Magisterial" is a faint description of these deeply researched, beautifully written, always insightful works. The first two, The Path to Power (1982) and Means of Ascent (1990), won National Book Critics Circle awards; the third, Master of the Senate (2002), won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. To write them, Caro and his wife and researcher, Ina, conducted thousands of interviews, spent several years reading through Johnson's papers at the Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, and much more. It's tempting to say Robert Caro knows more about Lyndon Johnson that Johnson ever knew himself.

The Passage of Power focuses on the five worst years of Johnson's career — his loss to John F. Kennedy in his bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee in 1960, followed by his surprising role as Kennedy's vice president, a role that humiliatingly stripped him of the enormous power he had wielded as majority leader in the Senate — and on the seven weeks following Kennedy's assassination, which were perhaps Johnson's finest hours.

As The Passage of Power opens, Johnson is the highest-ranking elected Democrat in the nation as majority leader of the Senate during the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower. And he revels in it: Caro describes his Senate office, dubbed the Taj Mahal, a large room with a huge desk on a spotlit, raised platform that let the already-towering (at 6 feet 4) Johnson loom over anyone else in the room seeking his favor.

Johnson had been expressing his desire to be president at least since he was a teenager, but in 1958 and 1959, despite being an obvious choice as the Democratic candidate, he waffled. He publicly denied any interest while talking behind the scenes with supporters about a run. Caro posits a number of reasons, from Johnson's deep-seated fear of failure to the difficulties of a Texas politician with "the taint of magnolia": No Southerner had won the White House for a century and, at the height of the civil rights movement, Northern and liberal Democrats were unlikely to unite behind electing one, even if in 1957 he had passed the first and only civil rights law since 1875.

Yet Johnson thought he had time because he believed the field of men running was so weak. He particularly dismissed Jack Kennedy, a junior senator whom Johnson considered lazy, just a rich man's son playing at politics.

Kennedy was certainly a rich man's son, but Caro gives us a minibiography of him that reveals how wrong Johnson was about his determination — the details of Kennedy's health problems and war injuries are excruciating — and his political savvy. By the time Johnson began to run in earnest, he discovered that Kennedy's organization, spearheaded by his relentless brother Robert, had pretty much sewn up the nomination.

As Caro recounts, just about everyone was shocked when, as soon as he was nominated, Kennedy asked Johnson to share the ticket. Accounts of whether he genuinely wanted Johnson or only proffered a pro forma invitation vary widely; Caro dissects and collates various versions and refutes other historians — notably Kennedy chronicler Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — by arguing that Kennedy very much wanted Johnson, in part because he could "deliver the South."

Johnson did deliver the South, but he also delivered himself into a series of humiliations as vice president. Despite his attempts to transform that office, long a punch line, into a position of genuine responsibility, he found himself systematically shut out, dismissed, even referred to as "Rufus Cornpone" by Kennedy insiders.

By November 1963, it was an open question whether Johnson would even be on the ticket in the next year's election. His longtime aide Bobby Baker was under Senate investigation, and Johnson's own financial affairs were being scrutinized by journalists that month, as he and his wife, Lady Bird, prepared for a visit to the LBJ ranch by Kennedy and the first lady during their swing through Texas.

Johnson was in another limousine several car lengths behind the president's convertible on a Dallas street when shots rang out, and everything changed. Caro's account of the assassination and its aftermath is stunning in detail and emotion; although those events have been described many times, he makes them breathtakingly new.

And revealing. The Johnson who walks out of Parkland Hospital is, immediately, the president. From his orchestration of the oath of office, which he took flanked by Lady Bird and Jacqueline Kennedy in the bloodied pink suit that she would not change because she wanted "them to see what they have done to Jack," to his reclaiming his mastery of legislative tactics to push forward Kennedy's civil rights and tax cut bills despite the fierce opposition of conservatives in Congress, he takes charge.

In the seven weeks after the assassination, Johnson not only propelled Kennedy's programs forward but conceived one of his own greatest achievements, the War on Poverty. That legislation would expand — after Johnson's tremendous victory in 1964 (he got 61 percent of the vote and carried 44 states) — into the Great Society, whose programs, such as Medicare and Head Start, still serve millions today.

That triumph, and the debacle of Vietnam, lie ahead in Caro's next book. I can hardly wait.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

The Passage

of Power:

The Years of Lyndon Johnson

By Robert Caro

Knopf, 736 pages, $35

Review: Robert Caro continues tale of ascension in 'The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson' 04/28/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 28, 2012 4:30am]
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