Book Four of Robert A. Caro’s monumental The Years of Lyndon Johnson displays all the narrative energy and illuminating insight that led the Times of London to acclaim it as “one of the truly great political biographies of the modern age. A masterpiece.” The Passage of Power follows Lyndon Johnson through both the most frustrating and the most triumphant periods of his career—1958 to1964. It is a time that would see him trade the extraordinary power he had created for himself as Senate Majority Leader for what became the wretched powerlessness of a Vice President in an administration that disdained and distrusted him. Yet it was, as well, the time in which the presidency, the goal he had always pursued, would be thrust upon him in the moment it took an assassin’s bullet to reach its mark.
By 1958, as Johnson began to maneuver for the presidency, he was known as one of the most brilliant politicians of his time, the greatest Senate Leader in our history. But the 1960 nomination would go to the young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Caro gives us an unparalleled account of the machinations behind both the nomination and Kennedy’s decision to offer Johnson the vice presidency, revealing the extent of Robert Kennedy’s efforts to force Johnson off the ticket. With the consummate skill of a master storyteller, he exposes the savage animosity between Johnson and Kennedy’s younger brother, portraying one of America’s great political feuds. Yet Robert Kennedy’s overt contempt for Johnson was only part of the burden of humiliation and isolation he bore as Vice President. With a singular understanding of Johnson’s heart and mind, Caro describes what it was like for this mighty politician to find himself altogether powerless in a world in which power is the crucial commodity.
For the first time, in Caro’s breathtakingly vivid narrative, we see the Kennedy assassination through Lyndon Johnson’s eyes. We watch Johnson step into the presidency, inheriting a staff fiercely loyal to his slain predecessor; a Congress determined to retain its power over the executive branch; and a nation in shock and mourning. We see how within weeks—grasping the reins of the presidency with supreme mastery—he propels through Congress essential legislation that at the time of Kennedy’s death seemed hopelessly logjammed and seizes on a dormant Kennedy program to create the revolutionary War on Poverty. Caro makes clear how the political genius with which Johnson had ruled the Senate now enabled him to make the presidency wholly his own. This was without doubt Johnson’s finest hour, before his aspirations and accomplishments were overshadowed and eroded by the trap of Vietnam.
In its exploration of this pivotal period in Johnson’s life—and in the life of the nation—The Passage of Power is not only the story of how he surmounted unprecedented obstacles in order to fulfill the highest purpose of the presidency but is, as well, a revelation of both the pragmatic potential in the presidency and what can be accomplished when the chief executive has the vision and determination to move beyond the pragmatic and initiate programs designed to transform a nation. It is an epic story told with a depth of detail possible only through the peerless research that forms the foundation of Robert Caro’s work, confirming Nicholas von Hoffman’s verdict that “Caro has changed the art of political biography.”
About Robert A. Caro
Caro graduated from Princeton University and later became a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He lives in New York City with his wife, Ina, an historian and writer. For his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, Robert A. Caro has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, twice won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, and has also won virtually every other major literary honor, including the National Book Award, the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that best “exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist.” In 2010, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama.
This installment covers Johnson’s vice presidency under John F. Kennedy, his ascension to the presidency after the Kennedy assassination and his initial nine months as president. As in the earlier volumes, Caro (Master of the Senate, 2002, etc.) combines a compelling narrative and insightful authorial judgments into a lengthy volume that will thrill those who care about American politics, the foundations of power, or both. Even Johnson acolytes, sometimes critical about portions of the earlier volumes, are less likely to complain about their hero’s portrayal here. While documenting the progression of his subject’s character flaws, Caro admires Johnson’s adroit adaptability. Though he chafed as vice president after giving up the leadership of the U.S. Senate, Johnson seems to have developed a grudging admiration for JFK. However, Johnson and Robert Kennedy could not put aside the animosity that had taken root on Capitol Hill. When Robert became not only his brother’s confidant but also his attorney general, Johnson resented the appointment. Caro documents the feuds between them and vividly relates how the warfare between the two men continued after JFK’s assassination. On a more upbeat track, the author explains how Johnson’s lifelong commitment to helping the dispossessed led to passage of unprecedented civil-rights legislation. The evidence seems strong that JFK could not have engineered passage of much of the civil-rights legislation because he lacked Johnson’s influence over members of Congress. The fifth volume is in the works, and it is expected to cover Johnson’s election to the White House and his full term, with the conduct of the Vietnam War ceaselessly dogging him. The author writes that the next book “will be very different in tone.” – Kirkus Reviews
A Nation’s Best and Worst, Forged in a Crucible
The New York Times Book Review – April 29, 2012 (Excerpt)
On Nov. 22, 1963, when he was told that John F. Kennedy was dead, and that he was now president, Lyndon B. Johnson later recalled, “I was a man in trouble, in a world that is never more than minutes away from catastrophe.”
He said he realized that “ready or not, new and immeasurable duties had been thrust upon” him and that he could not allow himself to be overwhelmed by emotion: “It was imperative that I grasp the reins of power and do so without delay. Any hesitation or wavering, any false step, any sign of self-doubt, could have been disastrous. The nation was in a state of shock and grief. The times cried out for leadership. … The entire world was watching us through a magnifying glass. … I had to prove myself.”
At the heart of “The Passage of Power,” the latest installment of Robert A. Caro’s magisterial biography of Johnson, is the story of how he was catapulted to the White House in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, how he steadied and reassured a shell-shocked nation, and how he used his potent political skills and the momentum generated by Kennedy’s death to push through Congress his predecessor’s stalled tax-cut bill and civil rights legislation and to lay the groundwork for his own revolutionary “war on poverty.” [Read the full article...]
Caro’s ‘Passage Of Power’: LBJ’s Political Genius
NPR Book Review – April 30, 2012 (Excerpt)
Robert Caro writes obsessively about power. Fittingly, it’s Lyndon Johnson — catapulted suddenly into the presidency “in the crack of a gunshot” — who consumes him.
The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Caro’s massive biography of Lyndon Johnson, is released this week. Caro has dedicated decades to meticulously researching Johnson’s life, and the previous books in the series have been almost universally hailed as a significant achievement in American letters.
Those books told the story of Johnson’s rise to national prominence. In The Passage of Power, Caro takes up Johnson’s dismal years as vice president and his sudden presidency, which he used to shepherd the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress.
Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep talks to Caro about the book and his portrayal of the brilliant, sometimes ruthless president. [Read the full article...]
Book review: Robert A. Caro’s ‘The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson’
The Washington Post Book Review – May 1, 2012 (Excerpt)
When Robert A. Caro published “Master of the Senate” (2002), the third volume of his voluminous multi-part life of Lyndon B. Johnson, he said he would finish his labors with just one more installment. But clearly he wasn’t being realistic.
“Master of the Senate” concluded in 1958. It left untouched the 1960 campaign, the vice presidential years and the whole of Johnson’s presidency — the Civil Rights Act, the Great Society, Vietnam. Moreover, Caro is not exactly partial to verbal economy. His books are famous, or infamous, for running on profusely — not just because of the sheer mass of his research but also because of his overflowing literary style.
Caro strives for the epic. He will make a book, or chapter, or anecdote as long as it has to be to achieve his desired effect — elongating even a single sentence, if necessary, and then stitching it together with a passel of colons, semicolons and dashes, as if scooped by the handful from his handyman’s belt. (No wonder he and his longtime editor are known to fight over punctuation.) Given all this, if the 1957 civil rights bill consumed more than 150 pages of Volume 3, how could the historic 1964 bill weigh in at anything less? [Read the full article...]
In ‘Passage,’ Caro Mines LBJ’s Changing Political Roles
NPR Book Review – May 13, 2013 (Excerpt)
For the past 37 years, Robert Caro has devoted his life to writing the definitive biography of Lyndon Johnson. So far, The Years of Lyndon Johnson has four acclaimed volumes and has shown readers just how complex the 36th president was, as both a politician and a man.
There was the Johnson who grew up poor in the Texas hill country; the Johnson who blackmailed a fellow student to win a college election; and the Johnson who, as a congressman, humiliated loyal aides for fun and brazenly stole votes to get into the Senate. And yet there was the Johnson who worked long hours teaching poor Mexican-American children in South Texas, and who believed passionately in government’s obligation to help people.
The fourth — and latest — volume in The Years of Lyndon Johnson is The Passage of Power, winner of the 2012 National Book and National Book Critics Circle awards. Now out in paperback, it covers the years 1958-1964. During this time, Johnson goes from powerful Senate majority leader to powerless vice president mocked by the Kennedy brothers, to again being handed the reins of power when he assumes the presidency following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. [Read the full article...]
THE LONDONDERRY AIR
Testament of an Ulster Gunman A Novel by Garrad Gawler
It all changed for Charles Cunningham, a Physics teacher at the local College of Technology in the County Derry town of Maddenstown, on a June afternoon in 1973 when a bomb exploded in his neighborhood. He answers an advertisement by the UDR, the Ulster Defence Regiment, but, in the time to come, he will experience the consequences of his decisions, and how his involvement complicates matters with family and friends, Protestants and Catholics alike, to an unexpected degree.
With “The Londonderry Air – Testament of an Ulster Gunman” Garrad Gawler describes in minute detail and with an astonishing level of authenticity not only the inner workings of the Ulster Defence Regiment, but also the activities of underground paramilitary groups of regular citizens who planned and carried out the assassination of suspected Republican terrorists in their neighborhood.
We are the only country that makes guns, including military-style assault weapons, available to anyone who wants to buy them. This is not freedom. It is a tyranny of death and destruction — a tyranny of which the National Rifle Association is proud. The Washington Post
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