Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Review: "The Passage of Power"

When I looked back to see when I'd read Master of the Senate, Robert Caro's last volume on LBJ, I almost couldn't believe that it was a full decade ago. Back then I read the first three volumes, but the third was the one I enjoyed the most (being something of a political junkie myself, I appreciated the amazing level of Senate-minutiae Caro was able to pack in). At long last the next volume has arrived, and I'm pleased to say it was entirely worth the wait. The Passage of Power (Knopf, 2012) is yet another brick of a book, but it pulled me in completely (to such an extent that I literally dreamed one night that I was in a meeting with LBJ - not an entirely pleasant experience, to be sure, but a testament to Caro's ability to set a scene, I think).

This volume covers the 1960 campaign, LBJ's miserable (to put it mildly) three years as vice-president, and then "the transition," the seven-week period following JFK's assassination when Johnson took up the reins of power. Just how much happened during that brief period (even in just remainder of 1963, really) is absolutely astounding, and Caro deftly manages to convey just how quickly and urgently the wheels began to turn as Johnson assumed the presidency. Knowing that he had to both continue the program begun by Kennedy and also begin to put his own stamp on the administration if he wanted to have a record to run on in 1964, Johnson deployed his full arsenal of political weapons to the greatest possible effect. The results, truly, were nothing short of remarkable.

There are parts of this book which are terribly difficult to read. Johnson's treatment of subordinates often left something to be desired, and Caro's description of LBJ's vice-presidency (when he in turn was treated quite poorly by the Kennedy partisans) is cringe-inducing. I'd known about the level of hate (not too strong a word, as Caro notes) which characterized the relationship between LBJ and Robert Kennedy, but  Caro explores it to a level I hadn't read before. On the other hand, there are some sections here which highlight some really interesting aspects of Johnson's personality: the state visit of the West German chancellor to his Texas ranch, the surprising step he took to integrate an Austin social club, and the way(s) he managed to get Kennedy's tax and civil rights bills passed make for wonderful reading.

Some reviews have said that Caro repeats too much here from previous volumes; I didn't find this a problem, since it's been ten years. I appreciated the refreshers. I hope it won't be another decade before the next (and final) book makes its appearance, but no matter how long it takes, I'll be waiting. Mr. Caro, keep up the good work.

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