Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power
Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Knopf, 2012
I had a professor in architecture school who said that you couldn’t draw up a building properly at 1:100 scale until you had worked out all the details at 1:20. Whether or not this is true for architecture, Robert Caro demonstrates how well such an approach works for writing history. Throughout The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and most particularly in his fourth and latest volume, The Passage of Power, Caro zooms in and out without ever losing the complex whole he has so carefully built up. Immense as Caro’s project is, The Passage of Power demonstrates the logic of his decision to extend the project to a fifth volume (he originally planned only three). The first 47 days of the Johnson administration, in which the best version of the man took charge, culminate this volume and are well worth the several hundred pages Caro devotes to them. There will be plenty of space for “ruthlessness, secretiveness, deceit,” the worst aspects of Johnson’s character, in the Years to come.
It is worth remembering that this work is called The Years of Lyndon Johnson, not Lyndon Johnson: A Life. It is simultaneously a biography of a complex and contradictory man, a history of the eventful years in which he lived and, like Power Broker, Caro’s extraordinary biography of Robert Moses, a study of “the acquisition and use of various forms” of political power. This mixture of the psychological, the historical and the philosophical is almost as much a Caro trademark as the doggedness of his research — from the first page I remembered what I had been missing since his last book. Each volume includes fascinating sidetracks, a history of the Texas Hill Country, of the Senate or a mini-biography of the Kennedys. In The Passage of Power, the world around Lyndon Johnson grows in importance, in part because for the first five years it recounts, from 1958 to 22 November 1963, its subject is very much on the periphery of power. There seem to be fewer but more powerful moving parts in this volume, almost a series of bravura set-pieces. During Johnson’s frustrating years as vice president, years in which he was deliberately sidelined by the Kennedys, Caro puts us subtly to the outside of major events. These were years of humiliation for Johnson; the “Harvards” at Kennedy dinner parties called him “Rufus Cornpone,” the airplane in which he was shunted around the world was embarrassingly small and he was expected to clear the text of each of his speeches with his superiors. Caro, who in a recent interview said that he found the vice presidential years the most painful to research, is able achieve a subtle sense of Johnson’s point of view in his prose without losing his own objectivity or depriving his readers of the full story. It is as though the reader is able to stand in the Executive Office Building with Johnson, looking out the window at the White House while knowing more about what is happening inside than he does.
Caro is rightly legendary for the quantity and quality of his research, but he is also a great writer. Readers should not be daunted by the size of the Years; Caro’s prose is too lively and his feel for people and places too deft for the work ever to bog down. He needs only a few paragraphs to capture a character like Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd, the “southern bull” who stood between Johnson and the passage of Kennedy’s tax bill, or the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles during the 1960 Democratic National Convention, where the young nominee’s offer of the the lower part of the ticket to Johnson was undercut by his brother’s three attempts to rescind the offer. The atmosphere of stuffy suites bathed in smoggy sunlight is never directly described, only implied through the events of the day.
I would love to be able to quote a paragraph to illustrate the beauty of Caro’s style, but he is less a writer of flashy sentences than the kind of writer whose prose sneaks up on the reader over the course of many pages. The experience reminds me a bit of watching Ozu’s films, even though the very American Caro has nothing stylistically or substantially in common with this most Japanese of film directors. Ozu’s films are best experienced in their entirety; there is no one shot or sequence which embodies his genius. Caro’s prose accumulates its force through understatement, precision and occasional repetition. This is history written to be both felt and understood, stripped of both false drama and pedantic detail. Reading Caro reminded me how easily other historians, and especially American historians, slide into sentimentality, a kind of magisterial sunset adagio intended to make familiar stories go down easy. Though some of the incidents in this book are among the most familiar of the twentieth century — the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination — they seem newly told. For those who haven’t read the previous volumes, Caro weaves a brief summary into the first few pages, but to fully appreciate the import of this volume, and the tragedy to come in the next, it is worth starting at the beginning.
Caro structures The Passage of Power into two unequal parts, the five years mentioned above and the seven week “transition period” between Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s first State of the Union address on 8 January 1964. For those five years, Johnson is far from the political mastermind who transformed the office of Senate Majority Leader in Master of the Senate. His miscalculations begin when he, against the advice of advisers who knew the opportunity was slipping away, entered the 1960 presidential race much too late and lost an election he probably could have won. Paralyzed by in the constitutional weakness of the vice presidency, a president who kept his distance and a president’s brother who hated him, Johnson alternately wallowed in self-pity, campaigned through the South with gusto, dreamed of ascension and, once elected, made crude, doomed attempts to increase the power of the office, most notably when he tried to get Kennedy to sign an executive order which would have transferred some important presidential powers to the vice president.
In other words, Johnson is himself throughout. As in previous volumes, the reader experiences a kind of whiplash in their relation to the ‘protagonist.’ There is a temptation among progressives like myself to want to make Johnson into a second Roosevelt, but the man was too complicated, too — and this familiar adjective is most inadequate — ‘flawed.’ The minimal summary of the Johnson presidency — something like ‘the Great Society undone by Vietnam’ — breaks into a multitude of contradictions. At various moments Johnson is calculating, compassionate, cruel, clever, lively, elated, depressed, corrupt and idealistic. Back on the ranch over Christmas 1963, he is at his peak, ebullient enough to host a state barbecue for the chancellor of Germany in a high school gymnasium (where they sang “Deep in the Heart of Texas” in German), idealistic enough to single-handedly integrate a segregated club on New Years Eve by turning up with his black secretary and paranoid enough to use the power of his office to muzzle a critical journalist. At various moments we may want to sympathize with or condemn Johnson, but Caro never allows us a simple response; he is not out to praise, rehabilitate or condemn.
The harshness of Johnson’s contradictions makes the first few weeks of Johnson’s presidency all the more triumphant. Though Caro leaves us wanting more, by ending the volume so early in 1964 he emphasizes all the more what was perhaps Johnson’s finest hour, a relatively shadowy corner of an otherwise floodlit historical moment. While Johnson was physically in the background in the days after the assassination, walking behind the Kennedys at the funeral, working from the Executive Office Building across the street from the White House, he was laying the foundation for what could have become one of the most progressive and productive administrations in history. From the moment the gunshot rang out at Daley Plaza until the State of the Union he (almost entirely) suppressed the worst aspects of his personality. He instantly became, in the words of Jack Valenti, who was with him on Air Force One in Dallas, “something larger, harder to fathom.” The fear of failure which had caused him to mishandle the 1960 campaign vanished. A “passage of power” which may seem automatic in retrospect was not at all easy; Johnson had to simultaneously honor the fallen president, maintain continuity by convincing grieving Kennedy staffers who were hardly his allies to stay in their jobs, calm a volatile moment which, handled irresponsibly, given the rumors of conspiracy floating about on the day, could conceivably have led to catastrophe, all while laying he seeds of his own presidency to come. Most importantly for history, his skills as a political operator — skills Kennedy could have made better use of — returned stronger than ever. In a few short weeks he made a series of precise moves which unblocked the important bills which had been stalled in Congress at the time of Kennedy’s death. As we know from our own Years, maneuvering bills though the US Congress is never simple, but in Johnson’s hands, and through Caro’s pen, it becomes the kind of legislative choreography which may, more than the ability to give inspiring speeches, be the essential skill of the progressive presidency. LBJ’s bully pulpit was the telephone (so much so that the LBJ library’s excellent photo search function on their web site has a whole category devoted to “telephone conversations” — the 36th president would have been a holy terror on a cell phone).
Though Caro’s book is a work for the ages, I find it hard not to consider it in relation to our own times. There is of course the temptation to make comparisons between Washington then and now, comparisons which would almost certainly end up over-simplified. Safer ground perhaps is a consideration of The Years of Lyndon Johnson as evidence of a changed publishing culture. In 2012 The Passage of Power belongs to another age in a way that, I would guess, The Path to Power, did not in 1982. For the way that it redefines the possibilities of research, The Years of Lyndon Johnson seems almost avant garde. As Ken Auletta said on a recent New Yorker “Out Loud” podcast, Caro’s book is the kind of project most threatened by the erosion of the big publishers. While the great American novel could still be written without an advance by a writer with a day job, Caro’s brand of research requires resources and commitment from a publisher who believes in the project as a public service to our culture.
Any trip to a bookstore brick or virtual illustrates the difference between what Caro does and the kind of cute, glib little conversation starters which often pass for history books, but one small anecdote might give a hint of what we are in danger of losing in an age in which one might ‘research’ the purchase of a new bicycle tire more readily than the history of anything that matters. As one of many “obsequious” attempts to to prove his loyalty to his boss, Vice President Johnson bought Caroline Kennedy a pony, which Jackie named Tex (Caroline wanted to call it “John Jr.”). Johnson then insisted that a photo be taken with the Kennedys, himself and the pony. Thinking this photo might make a good illustration for this review, I consulted a well-known online search engine and found that many of the resulting sites incorrectly described Caroline Kennedy’s other, more famous pony, Macaroni, as the one given to her by Johnson. One even said that Tex was a gift for John Jr. It may seem a small point, but how many small points does it take to make up a big deal? For Caro the pony incident is not trivia; along with the even less-welcome gift of four Hereford heifers, it memorably illustrates the decline of the man who had been the most powerful Democrat in Washington.
At the time he gave Caroline Tex the pony, Johnson might well have thought that decline would be permanent. Bobby Kennedy, whose amply reciprocated loathing of Johnson is described by Caro with great nuance in this volume, was waiting in the wings as his brother’s successor, Johnson feared he was going to be dropped from the ticket and, due to a nascent investigation in Congress and in the press into his financial dealings, his fear may have proved right. What if? American history seems to encourage more than its share of “what ifs?” and perhaps no other period so encourages alternative histories as the years recounted here. Though Caro uncovers yet more than we might ourselves have imagined — Could Johnson have won in 1960? Would Kennedy have been able to pass civil rights? How would Kennedy have handled Vietnam? — we are left to draw our own conclusions. Only by trying to know everything about something can you find out what is unknowable.