In this, the fourth of his majestic five-volume series on Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro covers a six-year period marked by withering decline and then, instantaneously, ascension to the very apex of world power.
Caro picks up, in "The Passage of Power", where he left off, with Johnson as Master of the Senate - the greatest majority leader in the nation's history, we are told - contemplating how he might scale higher still. Haunted by his father's failures, Johnson persistently sought out the next steps on a steep political climb. In 1960, a final one to the White House stood before a Texan in full stride. Reaching for this ultimate prize, however, Johnson's extraordinary skills and imposing presence failed him.
For most of the 1960 presidential campaign, he hoped that party elites and the larger public would take up his cause. Johnson, however, gave them precious little with which to work. The political giant disavowed any interest in the presidency - to the great frustration of his closest allies. The man who, 12 years earlier, had snatched a Senate seat with several hundred forged votes would not even participate in the primaries for an office that, by all rights, was his for the taking.
Offered the opening, a sure-footed, debonair junior senator from Massachusetts seized the Democratic nomination for president, and he did so, to Johnson's great astonishment, on the very first ballot at the party's convention in Los Angeles. Though John F. Kennedy promptly offered Johnson a spot on his ticket, Johnson's influence, and with it his self-regard, slipped into free fall.
Johnson's vice presidency, perhaps more than any other in the nation's history, was defined by humiliation and indignity, both real and imagined. Caro shows us Johnson pitiably seeking to ingratiate himself with gifts of livestock (cows and ponies, to be precise) to a Kennedy family that held him in contempt; sulking in hotel rooms and Cabinet meetings; shuffling about the White House, hoping that the president, or even just a president's aide, might pay him some mind; and then, at the peak of the Cuban missile crisis, when the president depended most on sure counsel, launching into long tirades about the inadequacies of the diplomatic maneuverings that would bring the nation back from the brink.
If that were not enough, in the fall of 1963 scandal began to envelop the vice presidency. Revelations about Bobby Baker, Johnson's protege, using government contracts to amass a personal fortune threatened to undermine what little remained of the vice president's relevance in the Kennedy administration. Johnson attempted to distance himself from Baker and his various dealings, but his efforts bore little fruit. Starting as a series of articles in trade journals but then quickly grabbing national media attention, the scandal flared hotter and hotter.
Kennedy's late-November fundraising trip to Texas should have buoyed Johnson's spirits and standing. It did neither. Home-field advantage and all, Johnson's sorry pining met with intermittent scorn and lack of interest.
But then came Dallas. Kennedy's assassination would change everything, and it serves as this volume's pivot point. In split screen, Caro puts us in Johnson's convertible, sharing a backseat with a senator who wanted nothing to do with him and losing sight of the president's car up ahead, while simultaneously, back in Washington, the case for Johnson's long-standing and close relationship with Baker is being made in a congressional committee.
In one moment, Johnson's political obscurity appears set. But in the next, the president is assassinated, and Johnson is delivered from political purgatory. Unfathomably, the blundering, childish vice president reverted to his former self, but this time with all the powers of the presidency at his disposal.
In short order, a cool and resolute Johnson came back to form and took charge. After attending to a nation in shock and then enacting a stalled tax bill, Johnson sought to make his mark by tackling the most divisive issue in American politics: race. Within a year, and an election year at that, he would sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the single most important domestic legislation of the 20th century. In so doing, Johnson would demonstrate not mere competence as shepherd of Kennedy's policy agenda but also sheer genius at advancing his own.
This slice of American history is well known. But with Caro's narration, it burns anew. In his writing, Caro does not merely recount. He beckons. Single sentences turn into winding, brimming paragraphs, clauses upon clauses tugging at the reader, layering the scenery with character intrigue and the plot with historical import. The result is irresistible.
For nearly 40 years, Caro has quietly studied every aspect of Johnson's life that is available for scrutiny. And roughly every 10, Caro has emerged from his solitary Manhattan office to tell of his discoveries, not merely of his protagonist, but of the political and social times he inhabited and did so much to shape.
Individually, Caro's volumes have won every literary award imaginable. Collectively, they are unrivaled. "The Passage of Power" may be the most accessible of the bunch. More importantly, though, it covers with all the artistry and intrigue of a great novel events that are seared in the nation's memory. In an era defined by fragmented media markets, instantaneous communication, gadflies and chattering suits, Caro stands not merely apart, but alone.