Into the White House: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro

The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, #4)The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro

The fourth volume of Robert Caro’s massive Lyndon Johnson biography, The Passage of Power is shorter in scope than any of previous three books but looks at one of the most crucial periods of Johnson’s life: 1960-63.

The book opens with Johnson as majority leader in the Senate and arguably one of the most powerful politicians in the US. As the 1960 election rolls around, Johnson goes from front-runner to also ran, his indecision (Caro suggests it’s a fear of failure and humiliation) costing him as John Kennedy builds an insurmountable lead, both in the polls and in on-the-ground campaigning. Johnson eventually swings in, but far too late to make a real impact. In one of the most interesting sections of Caro’s books, he explains the backroom talks between JFK and Johnson, mostly conducted in a hotel room, that led to two bitter opponents sharing the same presidential ticket – the bitter feud between Johnson and Robert Kennedy.

That dispute, which got more and more bitter as the years go by, runs throughout this book. First RFK has the upper hand: as vice-president, Johnson’s role was largely ceremonial and RFK took every opportunity to embarrass and diminish Johnson. Caro takes you inside meetings and strategy sessions where Johnson wasn’t just mocked to his face (like the time a staffer told him to shut up and walked away) but wasn’t even consulted. Caro’s account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, is shocking: not just in how little attention was paid to Johnson – he wasn’t even present for the definitive meeting – but for Johnson’s brunt, warhawk approach. It’s an attitude I’m sure you’ll see more of in the next volume.

The book turns on a dime in November 1963. There was a scandal around Johnson protegé Bobby Baker and a building investigation into Johnson’s shady business dealings. And Kennedy was thinking of dropping him in the 1964 election: Caro makes a convincing case that Johnson’s career was rapidly approaching its end.

The drama builds to a fever pitch when Kennedy and Johnson go to Texas; I’m sure you know what happened next. In a detailed look at that day, Caro never takes his focus away from Johnson: he follows him in the car to the hospital, into a cubicle where he awaited the news and eventually to Air Force One, where he took the oath of office. It’s all explained in amazing detail, right down to why he chose a specific judge, where the photographers stood, even how it felt inside the airplane (and why!). This intense focus shows a different side than the one I’m used to seeing and Caro never gets overwhelmed by the day’s events, even as he lays them out like a documentary filmmaker.

The back half of the book focuses on the next few weeks: how Johnson kept the White House together and provided a smooth transition; how he worked his legislative charm to pass critical bills (the budget, a tax cut, the 1964 civil rights act) in a Senate determined to filibuster to death; how he made his own stamp on the presidency. Caro suggests Johnson’s role here kept things from getting out of hand: a lesser personality would have seen those bills stuck to die in the Senate, could have seen the White House lose confidence of the masses and – most interestingly, if rather speculative – from any military action starting between the US and Cuba.  He also makes an interesting case: could Kennedy have actually passed the same bills? Would be have turned to Johnson – or, for that matter, would Johnson have risen to the occasion?

Despite the short period this book covers, it’s as fascinating and detailed as any of the three previous. While at times the narrative starts to lag and the vice presidential years feel a little rushed over, once Caro gets into the meat of Johnson-as-President, the book takes on a new energy, attempting to prove the line that echoes throughout all of Caro’s four LBJ books: Power reveals. And Caro makes a good case that the Johnson who rocketed to prominence in this book is the real guy, capable both of The Great Society and the Vietnam War.

But how much credit does LBJ deserve? Caro makes a convincing case for Johnson as the driving force behind the civil rights act, but it’s been argued Caro gives him too much credit at the expense of men like Everett McKinley Dirksen or Mike Mansfield who played just as large a role in the Senate, a chamber inclined to resist presidential pressure.

Rating: 8/10. Not the best single individual volume – the third is hard to beat for it’s massive scope and distillation into a highly readable volume and the Senate election in the second is as wild as anything in all four – but it’s essential for anyone who enjoys biographies. As a whole, Caro’s books are the gold standard. Recommended!

Related: Rising to Power -Master of the Senate

Related: The War Years – Means of Ascent

Related: Portrait of the President as a Young Man – Path to Power




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