Caro’s 4th volume of LBJ biography layered and nuanced
THE PASSAGE OF POWER: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. By Robert Caro. Knopf. 712 pages. $35.
There is probably little doubt that Robert Caro knows more about Lyndon Baines Johnson than anyone else in the political and academic world. His research for the now four volumes of what will be a five-volume biography has been prodigious.
His passion for the topic is unquestionable, and may, at this point, have tipped slightly into obsession, a transition that has only added depth to his accomplishment. In any case, it is safe to say that Caro has dedicated much of his life to his monumental study of the 36th president of the United States.
“The Passage of Power” covers Johnson from the election of 1960 and his painful tenure as vice president, through his ascension to the presidency and early triumphs with the passage of both the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and Kennedy’s up-to-then failed attempt at a tax cut.
As with previous books, the highlights showcase Johnson’s remarkable ability as a political strategist, reader of men and congressional “vote counter.” Much of what he discusses, though often as riveting as any thriller, primarily will interest junkies. The more general reader will be drawn to other aspects of the book.
First, Caro, master of so many things, is a genius at delineating character, and not just that of the deliciously complicated LBJ. He investigates, among other larger-than-life figures, the Kennedy brothers, the powerful and unbending Harry Byrd of Virginia, and the clownlike but devoted Bobby Baker.
The author often begins his word pictures with what appears to be a devastatingly negative portrait of an individual, only to suddenly deliver a sucker punch with some startling report of heroism or moral courage. He does this over and over again, building layered and nuanced interpretations of personalities that make us feel that, until Caro took them in hand, we never really understood these people.
Then there’s the famous Caro style. As always, he provides a densely rich narrative that is well-organized and detailed, but it is his use of strong image and repetition, almost hypnotic in combination, that is so breathtakingly effective.
Caro is a great historian, but if the purpose of art is to stimulate thought and arouse emotion, he is also a great artist. “The Passage to Power” is an exhausting book, but it does what every author hopes to do. It leaves the reader hungry for more.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud, a writer and editor based in Charleston