“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