Friday, May 25, 2012

Jim is observing the Memorial Day holiday weekend. His recent reading has included the latest installment of Robert A. Caro's monumental biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. This volume, the fourth, is entitled The Passage of Power. The first book, The Path to Power (1982), covered Johnson's early life as a young man on the make. The second, Means of Ascent (1990) describes Johnson's rise in Congress, including an unforgettable account of his 1948 U.S. Senate race that he "won" by "87" votes, resulting in his satirical nickname "Landslide Lyndon." Volume three, Master of the Senate, (2002), chronicles LBJ's years as Senate Majority Leader, culminating in his successful passage of the toothless, yet epochal, 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first such law to overcome the resistance of the segregated Southern delegation -- of which Johnson had always been a member -- since the era of Reconstruction. In reading these books, one is alternatively moved and appalled by the stunning combination ruthlessness and altruism that drove Johnson so relentlessly.

As its title suggests, The Passage of Power covers a transitional period in Johnson's life: his departure from the Senate to run a botched bid for the presidency in 1960, followed by his risky acceptance of a place on the ticket as vice-president to John F. Kennedy, his miserable years in the political wilderness, and his subsequent accession to the presidency upon Kennedy's assassination in November of 1963. It seemed impossible to tell the story of the Kennedy assassination again in a compelling way, and yet Caro's account (published recently in The New Yorker) is absolutely riveting. Part of the drama from narrating it from LBJ's point of view comes from a literally simultaneous meeting taking place in which investigators in Washington are learning of politically corruption that seems virtually certain to sink his political career.

One of the great pleasures in these books is the way Caro stuffs them with mini-biographies of other people. So, for example, Means of Ascent offers a deeply compelling portrait of Johnson's opponent in the 1948 Senate race, the deeply principled and politically successful Coke Stevenson. In The Passage of Power, it's Robert Kennedy -- whose mutual hatred with Johnson has long been legend -- who gets the Caro treatment. The biographer mines existing sources exhaustively, but then adds new interviews that make his interpretations fresh. So it is, for example that we learn Texas in the presidential election of 1960 was as much a source of electoral fraud as the far more well-known case of Illinois.

At 600 pages, The Passage of Power ranks as one of the smaller segments of Caro's Johnson saga. But it goes quickly. As one recent reviewer aptly suggested, Caro's books are like J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series for history buffs. There aren't many better ways to spend a holiday weekend. One can only look forward to the fifth and final installment, but Caro himself probably doesn't know when that will be.