Passage of Power is the fourth volume of historian Robert Caro’s Life of Lyndon Johnson series. The series has received widespread acclaim and this latest volume has been eagerly anticipated. To show the level of publicity it’s received, Bill Clinton wrote a glowing review for it in the New York Times.
Unfortunately the book itself doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Originally the fourth volume was supposed to be the final one, but instead Caro is writing another volume. Passage of Power begins with the 1960 election when LBJ competed with John F. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination. It covers Johnson’s emasculating period as Vice President, his becoming president after JFK’s assassination, up to the first weeks of his presidency.
The book picks off where the last one left off. Lyndon Johnson, the powerful Senate Majority Leader shows rare indecisiveness in deciding whether or not to enter the 1960 race. He runs unsuccessfully but ultimately becomes Kennedy’s running mate. But as soon as the new administration begins, Lyndon Johnson becomes a relatively minor figure in the new Camelot. His position as Vice President is a major contrast to the vast power he exercised in the Senate in the previous book. Caro conveys how helpless, powerless and hopeless over his future Johnson had become.
Perhaps the biggest reason for his lack of power in the Kennedy White House is because of his feud with the Presidents brother, the Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The two men absolutely hate each other, and RFK takes every opportunity he can to marginalize and insult the Vice President. But in an instant after Dallas, the tables are turned. Johnson unsurprisingly shows no mercy in taking pleasure in the reversal. But the extent of his vitriol is shocking, even after all the instance of Johnson’s cruelty we’ve seen in previous volumes. After the assassination, as Johnson tries to find out the legal requirements for his swearing in, he unnecessarily asks the shattered Attorney General for details, which he could have got from many other people. Later, Caro skips ahead to 1968, after Robert Kennedy is himself a victim of an assassin and lies in a coma in a Los Angeles hospital. From the White House, Johnson keeps asking his staff “Is he dead yet?”, to the point where they thought it was something the President wanted.
Caro argues that Johnson faced the most difficult transition of any Vice President. This may be a stretch; Harry Truman was succeeding one of the most successful presidents ever and had to not only end World War II, but shape the international system that would come out of it. But unlike Truman and Andrew Johnston, who succeeded at the start of their predecessor’s terms, Johnson didn’t have the luxury of time to make his own mark on the office. Johnson had less than a year before the next presidential election, and pressure was on to pass Kennedy’s legislation, and find out the truth of the assassination. While we now all know how that story goes, at the time it was vital to find out who killed JFK, in order to dampen down accusations that the Soviet Union or Cuba were behind it, rumors that could have pressured the White House to take action and sparked another nuclear crisis between the superpowers.
The main problem of with this book is that unlike the previous volumes in the series, it covers events that are widely known. The 1960 election was covered in Theodore White’s seminal The Making of the President, 1960. Indeed, Caro mentions these works frequently. Does Caro add anything to these events? Certainly. The chapter about Dallas is riveting. But while the section on the Cuban Missile Crisis is interesting in so far as it focuses on what LBJ did, who is relatively absent from other works on it (such as Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days, and the underrated movie of the same name), we already know all about the Cuban Missile Crisis. There are also long chapters going over the biographies of John and Robert Kennedy. Again, we all know about their lives and it’s repetitive to read. Caro also excerpts long passages from his previous volumes. This is rather tiresome as the book progresses (though not done as much as other reviewers have argued). It seems like padding due to the fact that the final volume has been split in two.
While there is a lot of repetition, there are some terrific chapters. The one on Dallas is followed by a detailed, emotive retelling of the three days of pageantry for JFK’s funeral. This is followed by what LBJ did in those days, as he tried to manage the transition and get right to work on his agenda. The contrast between the symbolism of JFK and the substantive accomplishments of LBJ is a recurring theme in the book. There is also a great chapter titled “Serenity” in which Johnson returns to his Texas Ranch for Christmas a few weeks after the assassination. You get a real sense of how happy Johnson was having finally attained the position he’d coveted his whole life.
While the book is hard to put down, the expectations for it may have just been too high. It suffers from too much padding and not quite enough substance to justify its 600 pages of very small type.