America’s Jug-Eared Achilles: Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power

May 3, 2012 | 3 books mentioned 2 6 min read

Imagine that Mark Twain had taken four volumes and 3,307 pages to get to the turning point in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck and Jim get lost in the fog at Cairo, Ill., where the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers meet. Imagine that at the end of that fourth volume, you still didn’t know whether their raft had drifted east along the Ohio River toward the free states or been carried southward down the Mississippi River and into the heart of American darkness. Now, imagine that those 3,307 pages, despite some slow bits, contained some of the most riveting reading of your life, and that you knew — knew in your bones — that Huck and Jim were headed south, and you lived in quiet dread that Mark Twain, now quite elderly, would die before he could finish the tale.

coverThat would put you roughly in the position of a devoted reader of Robert Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, the fourth volume of which, The Passage of Power, arrives this week, just in time for Father’s Day. The Passage of Power ends in the summer of 1964, seven months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but before Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, before most of the legislation that created The Great Society, before the Gulf of Tonkin incident that deepened America’s involvement in Vietnam and eventually destroyed the Johnson Presidency. In other words, the four volumes now in print, which have already earned Caro a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, along with virtually every other prize offered for books of history, merely form the prologue to the great American political tragedy that is the Johnson Presidency.

But what a prologue. These books are epically, at times even comically, overlong, and yet they are also, quite literally, epic in ambition and achievement. Caro is clearly trying to write the epic poem of The American Century, with tall, jug-eared, foul-mouthed LBJ as his flawed tragic hero. It is hard to believe that Caro will finish the last four and a half years of Johnson’s presidency in a single volume, as he has said he will, and I dread the hours it will take me to read the 1,500 pages or so I imagine it will take him to cover the subject, but I also fear that the American world I came of age in will never fully make sense to me unless Caro, now 76, lives long enough to finish his Life of Johnson.

coverThe unifying theme of the Johnson biography, and of The Power Broker, Caro’s equally overlong, and equally brilliant biography of New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, is political power and its uses. In the prologue to The Passage of Power, Caro writes:

[A]lthough the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary… But as a man obtains more power, camouflage is less necessary. The curtain begins to rise. The revealing begins.

As the curtain rises on this volume, Johnson is poised to trick himself out of the prize around which he has built his entire career. As the 1950s came to a close, Johnson was, as a ruthlessly effective majority leader of the U.S. Senate, arguably the second most powerful man in America, but after waiting too long to declare his candidacy for president in 1960, Johnson was outflanked by JFK and ended up as vice president. Johnson’s tenure in the Kennedy White House was made all the more humiliating by the fact that Kennedy’s aides, including his younger brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, despised him, mercilessly ridiculing the Texas-born LBJ as “Rufus Cornpone” and keeping him out of meetings where the real political decisions were being made.

coverThis section of The Passage of Power, funny as it sometimes can be in depicting Johnson trying to toady his way into Kennedy’s esteem, is slack and wayward. Whenever things get slow in Johnson’s life, Caro has the unfortunate habit of changing the subject, offering potted histories of the other people and institutions around his central character. While the long digressions into the Kennedy family and the roots of the blood feud between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy in this volume are vastly more engrossing than the ponderous hundred-page history of the U.S. Senate that clogs the absurdly overstuffed third volume, Master of the Senate, these sideshows still feel like throat-clearing, especially compared to the second half of the book that begins with crack of the rifle that fells President Kennedy in Dallas.

Each of the four volumes has its set piece, a dramatic moment that Caro uses to turn the usually dry topic of history into a riveting page-turner, and here that set piece is Thanksgiving Week of 1963, which began with the Kennedy assassination. November 22, 1963, is surely the most exhaustively examined day in all of American history, and yet Caro manages to make it seem new by telling the story of the assassination from the point of view of the man it most directly affected, Vice President Johnson.

In the months leading up to the assassination, Caro reminds us, Johnson was increasingly worried that Kennedy might drop him from the ticket in 1964, and, on the very morning Kennedy landed in Dallas, editors at Life magazine met to discuss their investigation of Johnson aide Bobby Baker’s peddling of political favors, which was quickly morphing into an investigation of Johnson’s questionable financial dealings. Had Lee Harvey Oswald missed, it is altogether possible that the Baker scandal, along with Johnson’s dwindling political influence, could have pushed Kennedy to pick a new vice president, rendering Johnson little more than a colorful footnote to history.

But Oswald, and whoever else may or may not have been crouching in the Grassy Knoll, had deadly aim, and, in that instant, provided the hinge that separated the first half of the American Century from its darker, less glorious second half. For nearly an hour after the first shots rang out, as rumors swirled of a possible Soviet-led coup d’etat, Johnson was held out of sight in a small cubicle in Parkland Hospital where doctors were trying to revive the fallen president, until Kennedy aide Kenneth O’Donnell walked in, his face stricken, and said, “He’s gone,” two words that transformed Johnson from a political has-been into the leader of the free world.

Caro considers the next seven months, from the hectic Thanksgiving Week transition, in which a cool, calm President Johnson managed a flawless transition of power while the nation mourned, to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which put an end to a century of legalized segregation, as Johnson’s “finest moment…a moment not only masterful, but, in its way, heroic.” The LBJ the reader has come to know in the previous 3,000 pages is a schemer and a bully, who lives for crushing those less powerful than himself, abusing his staff, publicly humiliating fellow politicians and government officials, and always carving up the spoils, political and financial, for his own benefit. “Yet for a period of time,” Caro writes, “a brief but crucial moment in history, he had held these elements [of his personality] in check, had overcome them, had, in a way, conquered himself.”

Sadly, it was to be a short-lived victory. “Power reveals,” Caro argues, and in The Passage of Power, he demonstrates precisely what this means. One comes away thinking that for a man like Johnson, with his exquisite antenna for the finest gradations of power, the chaotic post-assassination White House was a perfect atmosphere for his particular talents. On November 21, 1963, LBJ was still “Rufus Cornpone,” a big, funny-looking caricature of a Beltway pol, largely unknown to the average American, corrupt to the core, and fast slipping from power. Seven months later, he had passed a landmark civil rights bill, which Caro convincingly argues went far beyond anything Kennedy could have achieved, and was cruising toward one of the most lopsided presidential victories in history.

Johnson accomplished this by shielding himself behind the country’s almost mystical sense of the promise of the fallen president, leveraging his very powerlessness as a usurper to the throne into absolute power. Once he won the presidency in his own right in 1964, his ego returned, and all his great achievements for the poor and powerless of this country — Medicare, voting rights, Head Start — were undone by his unquenchable thirst for power and his ham-fisted approach to the war in Vietnam.

Robert Caro, one senses, has a bit of an ego on him, too, and it is a shame for those of us who love his books that he has not found an editor able to stand up to him after the near perfection of the first two volumes of this series. Master of the Senate is too long by at least a third, and this new volume, though less egregiously long-winded, nevertheless could do with a judicious edit. But while I might be able to imagine cutting hundreds of pages from these books, I cannot think of another living historian who could have written any of the pages that remain. As we learn from studying Lyndon Johnson, we have to take our geniuses as they are, warts and all.

Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. Texas writers know that Lyndon Johnson was indeed larger than life. That small passage of Caro’s in which Johnson waits in the cubicle at Parkland to hear news of Kennedy is a brilliant evocation of a man, silently standing there, who shows himself ready to meet his moment in destiny. It’s a mysterious, understated, and new depiction.

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