This article is from the July issue of Total Politics
The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Volume 4: The Passage of Power
By Robert A Caro (Knopf Publishing, £18)
In the summer of 1983 my family and I swapped houses with Robert Caro.
Sandra and I had each brought books – lots of them – that we planned to read on our holiday. But scattered round the Caro house in East Hampton on Long Island were copies of Volume 1 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, the magisterial biography of the 36th President of the United States, Caro’s lifework.
We idly picked up the book and as soon as we started to read, realised that the books we had brought would remain unread.
There are not many things on which Gordon Brown and I agree, but we both regard this work as the greatest political biography ever written. That is a big claim, but one I believe to be thoroughly justified.
What makes it such a great work? It is, I think, the combination of subject and author. Lyndon Johnson was an utterly extraordinary man – a man of great complexity, full of contradiction and deep flaws.
The story of his life is one of high drama, great peaks and deep troughs, repeatedly scaled and plumbed. Caro, with his legendary meticulous research and his amazing attention to detail, tells this tale as a Western thriller and turns it into an absolutely compulsive page-turner.
These are big books. Caro’s dedication to his publisher at the beginning of Volume 3, Master of the Senate, reads: “Thirty years. Four books. Thanks.”
The reference to four books includes the only other book he has written, a biography of Robert Moses, a New York power broker.
The Passage of Power runs to 605 pages, but when I finished it, I suffered severe pangs of withdrawal. I wanted more.
This volume covers Johnson’s uncharacteristically indecisive pursuit of the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1960, his acceptance of the vice-presidential nomination, his years of humiliation in that office, and the first months of his presidency after the assassination of John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963.
From 1952 to 1960 he had indeed been the Master of the Senate, leading that awkward, wayward body in a manner never before experienced. In Caro’s words, he was: “Completely in charge, a man at home in his job.” And his 12 years in the Senate, his wife, Lady Bird, was to say, “were the happiest years of our lives”.
To general surprise, Johnson agreed to give up this position of extraordinary power. He did so partly out of miscalculation – he thought he could continue to control the Senate. He was wrong. The other element in his decision was to be proven right, though not quite in circumstances he could have envisaged.
As Caro records: “Sometime early in 1960, he had his staff look up the answer to a question: How many vice presidents of the United States had succeeded to the presidency? The answer was ten…
He had his staff look up a second figure: How many presidents of the United States had died in office? The answer was seven. Since 33 men had been president, that was seven out of 33. The chances of a vice president succeeding to the presidency due to a president’s death were about one out of five.”
As was almost always the case with Johnson, however, his acceptance of the nomination was far from straightforward. Even after John F Kennedy had offered it to him, Robert Kennedy, whose unrelenting hatred of Johnson – thoroughly reciprocated – is one of the underlying themes of the book, tried to persuade him not to accept it.
That hatred was an important element in the humiliation of Johnson throughout his vice presidency, meticulously chronicled in the book. Excluded from all decision-making, he became a figure of fun in sophisticated Washington circles, often derided, sometimes to his face, as “Old Cornpone”.
And much worse was to come. Life magazine had begun an investigation into his finances, particularly into how a man born into poverty and holding practically no job in his adult life, other than as a salaried public official, had acquired the wealth that the Johnsons obviously possessed.
Life was planning to run its exposé in the last week of November 1963, and Washington was full of rumours that Johnson would be dropped from the ticket in the 1964 election. Ignominy loomed.
Then came the events of 22 November, not surprisingly the most dramatic chapters in the book. Its climax lies in Part V, the 200 pages that record the way in which Johnson handled the transition to his presidency, and the masterful way in which he broke the log-jam that had frustrated his predecessor’s legislative programme, including the Civil Rights Bill.
No one else could have done it. Caro quotes the influential columnist James Reston: “President Kennedy’s eloquence was designed to make men think; President Johnson’s hammer blows are designed to make men act.”
This is the best of the four volumes we have had. Caro paints the full picture of this extraordinary, deeply flawed man – his lies, his bullying, his deceit. But it is in this volume that Johnson comes closest to greatness. I can’t wait for Volume 5.
Review by former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard