The Passage of Power
The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Alfred A. Knopf: 736 pp., $35
"The Passage of Power," the fourth volume in Robert Caro's epic biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, encompasses the period of LBJ's deepest humiliation and his greatest accomplishment. It is a searing account of ambition derailed by personal demons in Johnson's unsuccessful bid for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. It is a painful depiction of "greatness comically humbled" when Johnson gave up his unbridled authority as Senate majority leader to becomeJohn F. Kennedy's disdained vice president. Most of all, it is a triumphant drama of "political genius in action" as Johnson smoothly took up the reins of office in the wake of Kennedy's assassination, made his predecessor's liberal agenda his own, and bent Congress to his will as Kennedy had never been able to do. Caro combines the skills of a historian, an investigative reporter and a novelist in this searching study of the transformative effect of power — its possession, its loss, its restoration — on the character and destiny of a man who from his teens had one overriding goal: to be president of the United States.
With each volume (a fifth is promised on Johnson's final decade), the biography gains a cumulative richness that mostly justifies its length and Caro's fondness for emphatic repetition, as well as frequent digressions into wonderful background material. The childhood roots of Johnson's all-consuming political aspirations, cogently traced in Volume 1, "The Path to Power," explain his otherwise mystifying indecision about openly pursuing the presidency until it was much too late in 1960: He still feared the kind of public failure that had shamed his father. Johnson's willing participation in political corruption and shady financial dealings, scathingly portrayed in Volume 2, "Means of Ascent," threatened Johnson's prospects in 1963, when a major scandal involving his protégé Bobby Baker seemed likely to get him dropped from the 1964 Democratic ticket. The unerring grasp of arcane congressional rules and the formidable gift for personal manipulation displayed by Majority Leader Johnson in Volume 3, "Master of the Senate" (probably the best book ever written about the American legislative process), enabled President Johnson to overcome a 57-day filibuster and force passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.