It is the evening of Nov. 29, 1963. John Fitzgerald Kennedy has been dead a week. Cold War Washington shivers amid fears of an international conspiracy. Was it the Russians? The Cubans?
In the White House, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, decides to create a commission of inquiry, chaired by chief justice Earl Warren. Johnson makes the announcement; it’s going in the next day’s newspapers.
But there’s a problem: Johnson hasn’t told Senator Richard Russell that he’s on the panel. No matter. At 8:55 p.m., the president calls the senator. The conversation is typically Johnson: folksy, flattering, saccharine, cunning, deceptive, ruthless.
“You’re my man on the commission. And you are going to do it!” Johnson barks. “You’re goddamned sure going to serve, I’ll tell you that!”
When Russell remains reluctant, Johnson empties his emotional arsenal. He abases himself (“you made me and I know it”); he appeals to Russell’s patriotism (“this is not for me, it’s for your country”); he makes Russell his father (“I haven’t got any daddy, and you’re going to be it”).
Russell surrenders. Johnson gets his commission, even if it is unpersuasive. In that hour of anxiety, though, he displays his remarkable human instinct and staggering political genius. And here, says Robert Caro, is the tall Texan at high noon: “In the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, this period stands out as different from the rest, as perhaps that life’s finest moment, as a moment not only masterful but, in its way, heroic.”
This is the fourth volume of Caro’s celebrated biography of Lyndon Johnson. It is preceded by The Path to Power (1982), Means of Ascent (1990) and Master of the Senate (2002). Caro now lives on the Olympus of biographers; he is to Johnson what Carl Sandburg was to Lincoln.
The Passage of Power opens in 1958, when Johnson is the most powerful majority leader in the history of the Senate. It follows his fitful campaign for the presidency; his chaotic selection as Kennedy’s running mate; his humiliating eclipse as vice-president; and, lastly, his early feverish weeks as president.
Caro narrows the focus and intensifies the scrutiny. The object of fascination for so long that Caro now quotes his words of 30 years ago, Johnson has finally reached the presidency. Once there, the story lingers, inviting readers to watch the redeemed, Shakespearean Johnson taking charge after the regicide in Dallas. He’s seen establishing confidence, reassuring U.S. allies, charming Kennedy’s distrustful loyalists, silencing investigative reporters, crafting a budget, delivering a tax cut, championing JFK’s landmark civil rights bill stalled in Congress, and declaring “war on poverty.”
Half the book unfolds between the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963 (“he’s gone,” an associate informs LBJ) and Jan. 8, 1964, when Johnson delivers the State of the Union Address.
The story this time is again exhaustive, if more derivative than the earlier volumes. Caro, who famously lived in the hill country of Texas to learn of stolen elections and illicit wealth, doesn’t surprise as much as elaborate and embroider here.
He examines, hour by hour, how Johnson was chosen as vice-president, offering a definitive account without a definitive conclusion. He ignores Johnson’s marriage to Lady Bird, his two daughters and his Texas-sized philandering. He casts no light on the assassination, other than to tell us, twice, that nothing in his research (including 62 pages of dense footnotes) suggests that Johnson was involved.
He recounts the ancient blood feud between Johnson and Robert Kennedy. Johnson calls Bobby “a snot-nosed little runt”; RFK calls him “mean, bitter, vicious – an animal in many ways.” Riveting as it is, their smouldering antipathy has been chronicled in the 591 pages of Jeff Shesol’s Mutual Contempt.
It is numbing to read, as well, that LBJ accepted the vice-presidency having shrewdly calculated the odds of a president dying in office, or that he twice asked aides in 1968 if the murdered Robert Kennedy was really dead, as if doubting his enemy’s demise. However telling, both anecdotes have been told before.
Then again, Caro doesn’t have to explode myth or unearth secrets. The power of the book is its consuming tale of power lost and found. His is historical excavation, lifting the layers of illusion and misconception of a half-century.
Where Caro particularly shines is recalling Johnson’s crippling insecurity when seeking the presidency in 1960. He covets the job but fears running and losing and being ridiculed, like his late father. So he temporizes. By the time he enters the race, Kennedy has seized the nomination.
Or, equally, as LBJ becomes president, Caro is matchless in recounting Johnson’s powers, deployed repeatedly, to persuade, threaten and browbeat legislators, just as he did poor Richard Russell.
All this is rendered in prose opaque, even rococo. As Johnson was master of the Senate, Caro is master of the sentence. His are not, let us say, those of Hemingway or Genesis. Indeed, Caro’s serpentine sentences seem longer than the Rio Grande, broken by clauses and sub-clauses, attended by an army of commas, colons and semi-colons on forced march. Like many biographies today, this one is too long, with too many minor tributaries swelled with the arcana that other historians – if not Caro himself – have already visited.
For Johnson, the moment is fading. There will be a triumphant election in 1964 and an unprecedented harvest of progressive legislation before Vietnam brings him to despair in 1968 and death in 1973. For the incomparable Robert Caro, though, that’s for another story, another day and another book.
Andrew Cohen is a columnist, author, professor and former Washington correspondent with The Globe and Mail. He is writing a book on two pivotal days in the presidency of John F. Kennedy.