Review: The Lyndon Johnson Years: Volume 4, The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro
Should you be looking for a window into the lopsided nature of the 'special relationship', you need look no further than the reverence with which political classes on either side of the Atlantic observe the others internal affairs. While most inhabitants of the beltway view our politics with a sort of wry curiosity, wonks of all stripes over here obsess at the labours of American Presidents, campaigns and Congresses throughout history. To this the pride and place of Robert Caro's latest offering on the summer reading lists of Westminster watchers everywhere is just the latest testament.
The equivalent, I suppose, would be shipping a six-hundred page tome covering six years in the life of Harold MacMillan over the other side of the ocean and seeing how it flies. But in the fourth instalment of his monumental life's-work on Lyndon B Johnson, Caro shows us not only why we fall in love with American political life - but what it is that grips us about politics in the first place.
The Passage of Power spans just a portion of Johnson's time in Washington (1958 to 1964). But it is gloriously rich in detail, as Caro brings out the many competing facets that make up the texture of a seismic chapter in US history. Indeed in many ways it is a book defined by contrast and contradiction, even a certain dialectic, personified by Johnson himself.
It begins with LBJ at his peak in the Senate, but quickly descends into a study of his time as JFK's sidelined Vice President - "the man of power who suddenly finds himself short of it", as one journalist described. Johnson wound up there having calamitously misjudged Kennedy - "a whipper-snapper, malnourished, yellow, sickly, sickly" who "never said a word of importance in the Senate, and never did a thing". All of which was true - but none of which was germane to the changing nature of Presidential politics. The telegenic Kennedy glided to the 1960 candidacy, as Johnson tortuously dithered and delayed over whether to enter. This from a man at the height of his powers, famed not only for his ability to read men, and the tides of US politics, but for his decisiveness.
Having been offered the Vice Presidency (in the teeth of opposition from Bobby Kennedy - a passage which Caro relates in intimate detail), Johnson proceeds to make a second error of judgement. He believes he can take an ostensibly ceremonial role and forge a separate political base, as he has always done ("power is where power goes"). But an early power grab falls flat spectacularly, and Johnson is shut-out of the Kennedy White House, starved of influence.
Here the portrait of him offered by Caro is painful. Haunted by premonitions of his own thinly-attended funeral, he skulks around Washington debasing himself in an attempt to get back in the President's good books ("like a cut dog"). The once proud Texas lope is reduced to a slump or a slight kneel in Kennedy's presence, in a sycophantic attempt to hide his height advantage. In a particularly excruciating passage, he even tries to work Kennedy's kids onside ("I want you to call me Uncle Lyndon" he pleads). All to no avail. This period captures Johnson at his most inadequate; shrivelled and pathetic, by turns self-pitying, bitter, jealous, hawkish and corrupt. His greatest fear realised, he was humiliated (humiliation being Washington's answer to the ice pick).
All of which is turned on its head by the crack of a gun in Dallas, and Kennedy's assassination. If it seemed impossible to find a fresh angle on one of the most famous events in human history, Caro achieves it. He vividly puts you right in the back seat of the car - carrying Johnson - that trails the Kennedy motorcade. Better still is his depiction of LBJ in these moments, thrust into the Presidency - a man re-born, reanimated by power. He is sworn in by the same district judge who once symbolised his impotence (Sarah Hayward, whom he had previously failed to personally place on the Federal District Court himself).
The years and pages that follow showcase the better angels of Johnson's nature. His intimate understanding of Washington's "tribal rituals", his ability to see the broader war in an individual skirmish (and face up to it as such), and a razor sharp judgement of character. All were matched with the right dose of idealism and oratory to twist the right arms in the right way, press the right Congressional levers, bring Kennedy's people onside and set an agenda that went where their fallen hero never could - on civil rights, tax and later, poverty. As Caro concludes, Johnson's performance in the aftermath of the assassination was a masterclass in art of power and government. At his best, he was close to a model of Presidential perfection - as majestic as he was once pitiable.
Yet Johnson's weaknesses and fallibility do not totally disappear from sight, they continue to co-exist alongside and jostle with his strengths - the latter just win out in these circumstance. We get a prelude as to how they return in Caro's next volume, in his mendacious attempts to deny Bobby Kennedy an Arlington burial in 1968 (and his dark, impudent delight at news of RFK's demise, "Is he dead? Is he dead yet?"). Even here, they bubble not far from the surface; his needless humiliation of press secretary Salinger, for instance, or his horribly misjudged phone call to Bobby almost immediately after his brother his shot - conducted under the auspices of a constitutional technicality, but clearly in part a taunt at the still grief-stricken attorney-general.
This is the ultimate strength of The Passage of Power: it is not a fairytale. LBJ does not 'overcome' in a way the arc of a Hollywood movie might have it. He is so fascinating precisely because his every move is the product of a tussle between avarice and idealism, guts and pettiness and statesmanship. The enmity between he and Bobby Kennedy may light up the book, but in truth the bigger clash was with the whole Kennedy set, for which Bobby was simply the prefect. Johnson was not urbane or intellectual, born into power - "all social graces" - like Washington's ruling class. He was an outsider who never truly belonged to any tribe. His whole life was spent clawing his way inside, learning the rules, climbing over bodies, and he carried the battle scars as a result: rampant insecurity, paranoia and a fear of mimicking his fathers failings. He was and remained throughout deeply flawed, and deeply human.
In this sense, his successes in this volume are more inspiring than Kennedy's ever were, marshalling as he does his own multitudes and the democratic machinery, itself a bundle of contradictions, towards some good. He showed us the best and worst of what human beings are capable of, and in doing so embodied the best and worst of what politics is capable of.
Like its subject, the book is not perfect; in places it is sloppy and baggy. But it is Caro's ability to tease out and corral the true nature of this complexity - so rarely achieved in popular depictions of politics - that makes Passage of Power such a triumph. As the American author Scott F Fitzgerald famously wrote, "the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." By this marker, and every other, Caro's is a work of pure genius.