The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power

By Robert A. Caro | Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group | $35 | 712 pages | 2012

Robert Caro’s massive biography of Lyndon Johnson — a project now in its fifth decade — has produced three meticulously researched, award-winning volumes: The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1982); Means of Ascent (1991); and Master of the Senate (2003). In his fourth volume, The Passage of Power, Caro reaches the
1960s and Johnson’s service as vice president and ascension to the presidency, the position he had sought with ruthless determination since his election to Congress in 1937. Although its focus is on a period of only five years (1959-1964), Caro’s latest installment covers some of the most momentous events of the second half of the 20th century. And, as those familiar with the prior volumes might expect, LBJ is at once both the unlikely hero and unquestioned villain of this compelling story.

The Passage of Power opens with then-Senate Majority Leader Johnson’s desultory campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960. With the modern era of primaries in its infancy, Johnson seemed to feel that collecting endorsements from his Senate cronies would take him to the nomination in Los Angeles. Displaying uncharacteristic ambivalence about campaigning, LBJ dithered while the Kennedy brothers used all their charm, resources and contacts to build grass roots support around the country — most crucially in the mountain West, where youngest brother Ted Kennedy collected the votes that would eventually secure the nomination for JFK on the first ballot. Caro attributes Johnson’s lack of vigor to a deep-seated fear of failure, which he traces to the disgrace of Johnson’s father and the humiliation that accompanied his political and financial failures when Johnson was a boy.

Caro’s strengths as a researcher and writer are on vivid display in his account of LBJ’s selection as the vice-presidential candidate on the Kennedy ticket in 1960. A surprise to virtually everyone, Johnson’s selection ignited a revolt among labor, liberals and civil rights advocates, who were deeply distrustful of the conservative southern Senator from oil-rich Texas. When Robert Kennedy is sent to Johnson’s suite to attempt to talk him out of accepting the nomination, the result is an epic struggle between two of the legendary figures in American political history. With dozens of wildly varying reports on the actions, words and motives of those involved, Caro manages to create a balanced, reliable account of those fraught hours. Although Johnson remained on the ticket (and may have been the key to Kennedy’s razor-thin margin of victory in November), the bitterness between Robert Kennedy and LBJ would continue to grow and to influence both politics and policy fatefully over the next eight years.

As Caro makes clear, Johnson’s three years as vice president were the worst of his life. From the pinnacle of “Master of the Senate,” Johnson soon realizes that he has virtually no power as VP. When he seeks a district court judgeship for Sarah Hughes in Dallas, he is rebuffed by the Kennedys. When he then promises the position to another supporter, House Speaker Sam Rayburn twists arms until Hughes is appointed, thus doubling Johnson’s humiliation. LBJ is regarded disdainfully by the brilliant and debonair Kennedy White House aides, who refer to him as “Uncle Cornpone.” At one point, Johnson tells his own staff to find work elsewhere, that his career is finished.

Of course, all of that changed in an instant on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. Again, Caro sets the scene in Dallas with a master’s touch. The president went to Dallas to repair a breach in the state Democratic party between Gov. John Connally and Sen. Ralph Yarborough. Johnson, the man who delivered Texas in 1960 and mentored Connally, seems powerless to move his former protégé or fellow senator. On the visit’s first day, Yarborough refuses even to ride in the same car with Johnson. With that snub leading the headlines on Nov. 22, Johnson’s career seems at its nadir. Within a few hours, three shots echoing in Dealey Plaza will take him to the presidency under uniquely difficult circumstances.

As Caro points out, no vice president had ever succeeded to the presidency with less than a year until the next election, nor in a world with two nuclear-armed adversaries and a Cold War raging. When Johnson insists on being sworn in on Air Force One in Dallas — by Judge Sarah Hughes — he triggers yet another series of misunderstandings and bitterness with RFK. When the plane bearing the slain president’s body lands at Andrews Air Force base that evening, the grief-stricken attorney general boards and pushes by the new president without a word, collecting the coffin and his sister-in-law, still wearing a blood-soaked pink suit, and leaves in the full glare of the cameras.

Caro suggests that Johnson’s actions over the next three days — the days of the funeral and its indelible images of national grief — were among his greatest achievements. During those days when the nation remained stunned, LBJ acted decisively to recruit the Kennedy men to stay on in the new administration, to reassure a nervous world, and to reach out to the liberal, labor and civil rights leaders who had tried to force him off the ticket three years earlier. He also took immediate steps to address an impending deadline on the federal budget, to crush a revolt over foreign aid, and to begin moving JFK’s tax cut and civil rights bills, long mired in the fiefdoms of southern barons in the House and Senate.

Within a little over six months, Johnson whittles the budget down to secure the crucial support of Sen. Harry Byrd, secures passage of the tax cut, forces the legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 out of committee in the House and breaks the longest filibuster in Senate history to secure its passage. And, as Caro makes clear, in doing so, Johnson breaks a legislative logjam that had hampered social reform since 1938 and thereby opened the way to the passage of landmark legislation in the years ahead, including the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Fair Housing and the War on Poverty programs. Also looming, however, are his fateful decisions on the Vietnam War, the shoals upon which Johnson’s presidency will run aground.

Caro concludes that Johnson’s triumphs from November 1963 through July 1964 were the result of his overcoming the habits and character flaws that had accompanied him on his long rise to the highest office. Always acerbic and bullying to his staff, Johnson charms the Kennedy men who reviled him into staying to pursue JFK’s vision. A poor speaker, Johnson gives two eloquent speeches to Congress and the nation in a matter of weeks. Long an ally of conservative Southern senators bent on thwarting civil rights, he puts the full weight of his new power behind fair employment, desegregation of public facilities, and the elimination of poverty in America. While the other Lyndon Johnson — flatterer, bully, liar — is never far beneath the surface, during this passage of power, he held them in check for the good of the nation.

One might well ask if a Lyndon Johnson biography that now exceeds in length the King James Version of the Bible, Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy, and War and Peace and Anna Karenina combined is worth the effort. One answer is that Caro is not out just to capture Johnson, but rather to deliver a comprehensive political history of the United States in the middle of the last century and to show how political power is seized, maintained and used by a master of the art. With a flair for drama and an incomparable cast, Caro’s Passage of Power is a definitive rebuttal of any doubts on the value of his monumental project.


GARY C. SHOCKLEY is a shareholder in the Nashville office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, where he chairs the firm’s Government Regulatory Actions practice group. He is a former chair of the Tennessee Bar Association’s Litigation and Environmental Law sections.