January 21, 2013
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power: A Review-Analysis
The fourth installment in a five novel series, The Passage of Power chronicles the period of time beginning with the last two years of Johnson’s terms as Senate Majority Leader, to the first seven weeks of his presidency. Using thorough, factual accounts, Robert Caro paints the reader into a story of a man’s hope, denial, tragedy, gain, and ultimately, a man’s story of power.
Meticulously detailed yet concise, Caro manages to bring to life the complexity of a man scorned from and then brought back into the summit of politics.
This novel begins in the height of Johnson’s career as Senate Majority Leader. With a reputation acquired from his enormous legislative and personal abilities, Johnson was considered - at that time - one of the most powerful men in Washington. Johnson’s goal of ascending to presidency, however, was plagued by a self-fulfilling fear of failure; Written by Caro, “[Johnson] was forging, link by link, his own chain, and it was a heavy one.” Against his comrades’ advice,
Johnson repeatedly refused to announce his place as a candidate for the Democratic primary in the years leading up to the election. His logic was that he couldn’t lose if he never tried. In the mere months before the presidential election of 1960, Lyndon Johnson finally enters the presidential race at full force, only to realize what his repudiation for public candidacy had cost him. Another opportunity for potential office arises when John F. Kennedy offers the vice presidency to Johnson. Caro describes in full analytical detail Johnson’s reasons for accepting the offer, including his probability of eventually succeeding to presidency by the passing of Kennedy, and the notion that he would be able to retain his power as Senate Leader. However, Johnson was denied maintaining his position in the Senate and “of any real responsibility” by the Kennedys.
In the first 300 pages of the novel, we feel Lyndon Johnson's pain as Vice President and through his unsuccessful attempts to assimilate himself with the Kennedy Administration, as portrayed through interviews and accounts by close associates. Adding increased scrutiny to Johnson’s already corrupted reputation was the growing scandal surrounding his protégé, Bobby Baker. In these chapters, Caro beautifully draws out the irony of a man who was once regarded as a dignified politician to one deprived of any real power by the incumbents.
The adversity the Kennedy Administration felt towards Johnson was explored even up until the
Dallas motorcade, where everything changed. The sorrowful chapters of Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s rise to presidency are among the best in the book. Caro pens a more poignant tale, capturing the nationwide mourning at the passing of their beloved president. Here, we begin to see Johnson as a more dynamic character, one with humility and understanding, but also determination and control. With his focus on a smooth transition in light of tragedy, Johnson’s full leadership and legislative abilities are displayed as he brings assurance to a shocked nation and assumes power as the President of the United States.
The second half of the book is dedicated to Johnson’s first acts as President. Caro heavily emphasizes the vast personality shift in Johnson viewed by the forefront of the Kennedy
Administration; The humility that Johnson displays is, as he believes, essential in gaining the trust of the Kennedy Administration and the Kennedys themselves. Caro also explores the long disputed argument of whether or not John F. Kennedy would have been able to carry out his legislative plans had he still been in office. Kennedy may have had good political instincts, trust, and substantial charisma, but Caro argued that he would have had no success in passing