National Book Critics Circle Award, Biography, 2013
The Passage of Power follows Lyndon Johnson through both the most frustrating and the most triumphant periods of his career - 1958 to 1964. It is a time that would see him trade the extraordinary power he had created for himself as Senate Majority Leader for what became the wretched powerlessness of a Vice President in an administration that disdained and distrusted him. Yet it was, as well, the time in which the presidency, the goal he had always pursued, would be thrust upon him in the moment it took an assassin’s bullet to reach its mark.
For the first time, we see the Kennedy assassination through Lyndon Johnson’s eyes. We watch Johnson step into the presidency, inheriting a staff fiercely loyal to his slain predecessor; a Congress determined to retain its power over the executive branch; and a nation in shock and mourning. We see how within weeks - grasping the reins of the presidency with supreme mastery - he propels through Congress essential legislation that at the time of Kennedy’s death seemed hopelessly logjammed and seizes on a dormant Kennedy program to create the revolutionary War on Poverty.
Caro makes clear how the political genius with which Johnson had ruled the Senate now enabled him to make the presidency wholly his own. This was without doubt Johnson’s finest hour, before his aspirations and accomplishments were overshadowed and eroded by the trap of Vietnam.
It is an epic story told with a depth of detail possible only through the peerless research that forms the foundation of Robert Caro’s work, confirming Nicholas von Hoffman’s verdict that “Caro has changed the art of political biography.”
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From Powerful to Powerless
The fourth installment of Robert Caro's majestic and sweeping biography of LBJ is a mammoth achievement and ranks favorably with all prior installments.
I stumbled onto the series a couple of years ago after seeing Robert Caro on a television program and began my exploration of the series with "Master of the Senate." Since the first two installments have not been made into audio books yet, I purchased "The Path to Power" & "Means of Ascent" on my Kindle and found both to be riveting.
For those of you who have gone thorough the entire series as I have, you know that LBJ's life contained periodic reversals. This installment chronicles the 3 years he spent in the most desolate wilderness of them all: The vice presidency.
Daniel Webster is reported to have said when the Whig Party offered him the chance to be vice president, "I do not propose to be buried until I am dead." LBJ???after he bungled securing the 1960 nomination and JFK mopped the floor with him???made a different calculation; to friends who wondered why on earth he would trade the second most powerful post in the land (senate majority leader) for the vice presidency he said, "seven of them got to be president without even being elected."
For 3 years LBJ was ignored, insulted, and treated with thinly veiled contempt by the Kennedy group???particularly by Robert F. Kennedy who DETESTED Lyndon Johnson. Newspaper headlines began asking, "Whatever Happened to LBJ?" His genius for legislation went untapped and Kennedy's domestic program was floundering.
Then it happened...
Half the book covers a roughly 7 week period of time. The coverage of the assassination is the summit of "history as thriller" and finds few if any equals.
For conspiracy theory buffs, sorry, but Caro does not give credence to the idea LBJ was involved. Caro has chronicled just about every fault Johnson has from the megalomaniacal to the scatological, but murder isn't one of them.
Grover Gardner, as another reviewer already mentioned, was the only possible choice for this book. He lends it his usual gravity and precision. Why Caro hasn't contracted him to record the first two books in the series, I don't know. "Means of Ascent" was so funny in places I needed a tissue by my side to wipe the tears.
Caro's penchant for exhaustive research has meant that he has taken over 35 years to produce four books. The man is now 75 and he still has all of Johnson's election and Vietnam to cover. Let's hope his health holds out and he finishes the job.
- Abdur Abdul-Malik
The most dramatic time in U.S. history