American history, biographies, book reviews, LBJ, Lyndon Johnson, presidential biographies, Robert Caro, US Presidents
“The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson” is the fourth (and most recently published) volume in Robert Caro’s series covering the life of Lyndon B. Johnson. Caro is a former investigative reporter and the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies. He is currently working on the fifth – and presumably final – volume in his LBJ series.
Published in 2012, “The Passage of Power” covers roughly a half-dozen years: from Johnson’s campaign for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination (while Senate Majority Leader) to his first State of the Union Address as President in 1964, just seven weeks after JFK’s assassination.
This 605-page volume is comprised of two sections of nearly equal length: the first consisting of the period leading up to Kennedy’s assassination, and the second focusing on the earliest weeks of LBJ’s presidency. Ever mindful of readers who have not read previous volumes, Caro periodically refers back to important moments in LBJ’s early life to provide valuable context. And he occasionally peers ahead in order to foreshadow themes that will presumably permeate the final volume of the series.
Readers who have followed LBJ’s life throughout this series will find much that is familiar and praiseworthy. Caro’s writing style – fluent and brilliantly insightful but also occasionally cumbersome – is again on display. But happily, the labyrinthine sentences, page-long paragraphs and unnecessary story line tangents that have populated previous volumes seem in shorter supply.
Like previous installments in this series, “The Passage of Power” is almost as much a treatise on the acquisition and use of power as it is a narrative of Lyndon Johnson’s life. But while serving both of those purposes exceedingly well it also provides a fascinating window into a remarkable transformation: of a depressed and politically powerless vice president into a capable and forceful president who managed to control his worst impulses and survive a period of significant political peril.
There are too many excellent moments in this book to exhaustively detail, but among them are useful “mini-biographies” of John Kennedy and Senator Harry Byrd, riveting and penetrating coverage of the relationships between LBJ, JFK and RFK, a canny analysis of the power of the legislative branch of government, and a fascinating discussion of the formation of the Warren Commission.
Caro’s thorough description of the fight for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination (and the selection of LBJ as Kennedy’s running mate) is excellent. His later review of the events surrounding JFK’s assassination proves no less detailed – or engrossing. And somewhat to my surprise, this volume provides far more insight into the Dallas assassination (and the days that followed) than any of the eighteen biographies of JFK and LBJ I’ve previously read.
“The Passage of Power” possesses a few flaws, but none will surprise devoted readers of this series. As demonstrated in previous volumes, Caro can be repetitive. He frequently recycles phrases, quotes and memorable one-liners not only across volumes in the series but also within an individual volume. I’ve now read one specific quote so many times that it seems permanently seared into my memory.
In addition, Caro sometimes becomes so engrossed in the details of whatever issue he is exploring that he fails to provide a clearer sense of the “big picture.” Readers seeking a holistic sense of LBJ rather than a granular understanding of his every strategic move are prone to losing the forest for the trees. And given the enormity of the public challenges LBJ faces during this volume, it is unsurprising (but still regrettable) that so little of his personal life is explored.
Overall, however, “The Passage of Power” is an incredibly compelling and endlessly captivating exploration of six important years – and several enormously consequential days – in the life of Lyndon B. Johnson. Anyone who has enjoyed previous volumes will find much to appreciate here, but even readers new to the series will find this volume immensely rewarding. And if the measure of a volume is the degree to which it creates an spirited sense of anticipation for the next volume, “The Passage of Power” is truly exceptional.
Overall rating: 4¾ stars
Great review. What is the quote that is seared into your memory?
…“he couldn’t stand not being somebody – just could not stand it.” 🙂
One of Mr. Caro’s interviewers (Brian Lamb I believe) brought up how many times the word ‘lonely’ was used in contemplating LBJ’s early life in the Hill Country.
Having lived in Texas two decades (during my own youth) and gone camping in the Hill Country, “lonely” is a word which is quite appropriate unless you have lots of friends/family around!
I have this series on my bookshelf, among many other presidential bios, but I am going to wait for the right time to start it. Seems like it will be a very demanding read, but I’m looking forward to it because I equate it to climbing a mountain – after you complete the task the reward is awe inspiring.
Very good review. This was my least favorite of the series but like you I found the LBJ JFK RFK Dallas portions fascinating
What I liked most about Caro’s writing style was unchanged from volume to volume so the two variables which – I think – created the difference in my own assessment of the books was how well I felt he used my time and how interesting that particular phase of LBJ’s life proved to be. There were large sections of each book I thought were about as good as biography can be and there were times in the two longer volumes when I wished he (or someone hovering over him) had cut out some of the duplicative or unnecessary material. And I did find it ironic that this last volume covered the JFK tragedy with more insight and detail than any of the JFK biographies I read 🙂
Larry Dickerson said:
This volume was my least favorite, perhaps because I learned my about distant times in the earlier three, than this one which concentrated on characters and actions I knew more about.
There was one other difference here: I felt Caro’s changed his style from disappassionate chonicler who shaped the bio, when needed to sell a point of view to out right cheerleader. I am referring to the civil rights battle where, perhaps understandably, Caro took the side openly of Johnson. I think he would have been far more effective to remain more neutral and let the story and characters (and the way he shaped them) clearly take the side of advancing the cause of African American equiality.
I’m sure you’ve read how Caro puts on a coat and tie and goes into his office to work on his biography. When reading his work I now feel like I should also approach it in a serious manner. I may have on jeans and an open collar shirt, but I make sure to read it from print and I sit up straight in chair.
Just tackled this one myself and I absolutely agree with you regarding the assassination and aftereffects. It’s strange how little JFK biographers seem to care about that, as if time simply stopped with JFK’s death.
I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Master of the Senate. The denouement where Caro previews the “Fall of LBJ” he seems to so relish telling feels tacked on and unnecessary, almost as if the author said to himself, “damn, if I leave it here people are going to walk away thinking of LBJ as an admirable and impressive man who lead the country through a nearly impossible crisis is masterful fashion. We can’t allow that!” Once again, Caro’s contempt for his subject tilts some things.
I also felt like the book lost a little steam at the end; I expected a little more on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and it felt like Caro couldn’t be bothered to finish it off here.
Still love the mini-bios, though.
Wow. I think only a couple of other bios have hit 4.75. Maybe Chernow’s Washington and one other??
Looks like John Adams: A Life by John Ferling.
Reblogged this on Practically Historical.
Russ Robinson said:
This is my favorite in the series thus far. I’ve always been interested in the Kennedy years, and this covers those years from the 1960 campaign to early 1964. One of the things I admire about the Caro series is his objectivity. Some biographers fall in love with their subject and some like to torpedo their subject. Reading Caro’s series, you can tell he really doesn’t like LBJ, but manages to still point out Johnson’s strengths. What makes this history different than other histories of the Kennedy years, is this is told from the Johnson vantage point. Caro description of Johnson’s sudden transformation to the leader the country desperately needed after the November 1963 is the best part of the book. Great book and Steve’s review is spot on.
I just finished The Passage of Power. Before this, I’d never even read a 2-volume biography, much less 4 volumes!
The last 300 pages, from Dallas onward, are among the best parts of the whole series. I think this is where Caro’s experience as a reporter comes in handy. I felt tense reading it. The way he describes the unfolding drama, all the little details and grand pageantry of JFK’s funeral, the visit by the German chancellor to Texas. It’s masterful.
I’m also guessing that Caro must have found it a bit liberating to write about LBJ in heroic terms after spending so many pages on his ambition, ruthlessness and cruelty.
As a historian, he makes a pretty airtight case that JFK could *never* have won passage of the civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965, regardless of what the legions of Kennedy devotees were to write over the next half century. He simply didn’t have the skills, the personal relationships. He wasn’t equipped for the fight.
(Caro’s description of how Johnson got the budget, tax cut and ’64 civil rights bill passed is thrilling. I don’t think there are many other passages in the whole series that you could describe as thrilling!)
Sure, Johnson used the shock of Kennedy’s assassination but it was his knowledge of Congress and how it operates, the years he spent charming powerful Southerners and convincing them that he was on their side, that really won the day.
In retrospect, it’s clear that the Southern stranglehold could *only* have been broken by a Southerner. The biggest threat is always from the person closest to you, because you never expect it. I’m sure at the end of his life, Richard Russell rued the day he decided that Johnson would become the South’s great hope to win the presidency. (And how he must be rolling over in his grave at the thought of a Black man representing Georgia in the Senate!)
It’s ironic that all the “Harvards” who made Johnson feel so inadequate could never have pulled off his greatest triumph, but they played a role in leading him into Vietnam, his biggest tragedy. (I know McNamara went to Berkeley, but he had a Harvard MBA.)
And right from the first volume of the biography, Caro shows how Johnson had been preparing his whole life for this moment. Now I can truly appreciate all the pages that Caro spent describing LBJ’s college days, the history of the Senate, because I understand how it set the groundwork for what was to come.
Many things surprised me in this volume. I didn’t know the story behind LBJ’s selection as vice president. I didn’t really understand the depth of the hatred between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy, and RFK’s own cruelty and ruthlessness. I didn’t realize the level of humiliation that Johnson went through as vice president.
I don’t think Johnson was ever as close to anyone as John and Robert Kennedy were to each other. Johnson’s criticisms of Bobby Kennedy after the assassination were so petty, and really go to his lack of understanding of Bobby’s grief. I also thought it was beyond the pale to ask Jackie about attending his swearing in. But I give him credit for not leaving Dallas without her, and JFK’s body. I’m sure he know that would have been horrible symbolism.
Finally, Caro does a good job describing the extent of JFK’s health problems. He truly was a hero in World War II, when he could have easily stayed out of the fight. I don’t think I knew that the back brace and tightly wrapped bandage he wore probably cost him his life.
When I bought The Path to Power more than 10 years ago, started it and then let it sit on my bookshelf for 10 years, I never thought I’d finish it, much less read the other three. Now I can’t wait for the fifth! And I’m thinking about other presidential bios to read.
Reading your lengthy and incredibly thoughtful note reminds me why I loved this volume as well as the entire series so much. Your commentary takes me back to when I was forming my own first impressions and couldn’t believe I’d stumbled over such a magnificent biographical feat. I REALLY can’t wait for the 5th…but I’ve been waiting a long time (as have many thousands of other fans of Caro’s series!)