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The Passage of Power by Robert Caro

By George Seymour - posted Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Passage of Power is the fourth instalment of Robert Caro's comprehensive biography of the 36th U.S. President: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The narrative has only now arrived at his selection on the Democratic ticket with John F. Kennedy for the 1960 election, his elevation to the vice presidency and then through national tragedy to the office which has been his personal obsession since childhood.

Throughout the four books' 3000 or so pages Johnson's doggedness and determination is always there as is his deep fear of failure. He furiously and obsessively lived his mantra that "if you do everything, you will win". What is equally extraordinary is Caro's dedication, his sense of purpose and his work ethic. This is a long-term project, essentially his life's work.

In 1975, with Gerald Ford as president, Caro set about researching and writing full-time the life and times of Lyndon Johnson. In 1982, with Jimmy Carter having come and gone and Ronald Reagan now in the White House, saw the release of the first volume: The Path to Power. Eight years later, in 1990, George Bush was serving as Commander in Chief when Means of Assent was published. By the time Master of the Senate was released in 2002, the Clinton era had ended and George W. Bush was president. Incredibly, the thirty-seven years that Caro and his wife Ira have spent researching and chronicling The Years of Lyndon Johnson already exceed the subject's thirty-two years in elective office.


It is hard to imagine any individual, or any publisher, tasking themselves with a similar endeavour again.

The immersive nature of Caro's research is the stuff of legend. He moved to the Texas Hill Country of Johnson's childhood for three years to better understand the making of the man. Hundreds of people across the country have been interviewed over the decades, many for the first time. Caro continues to write each book in long hand, which he then types out on his 1960s typewriter, a Smith-Corona 210. With the same publisher and editor for four decades, he dons a jacket and tie to his small New York office to combat his "inherent laziness".

Previous volumes have portrayed Johnson as power hungry, Machiavellian, ingratiating and amoral. From volume to volume, Caro's treatment of Johnson has become noticeably more sympathetic. His eye for ruthlessness and cunning, so long focused on previously unexplored aspects of Johnson's character, now turns on his new opponent; Robert Kennedy. The longstanding and open animosity between the younger Kennedy and Johnson is described as a 'blood feud'. 

Caro's work is no ordinary biography, cinematic and bold, it is narrated like a thriller. He has been awarded virtually every major literary honour, including the Pulitzer twice (the first time for his pre-LBJ work which also focused on the nature of power: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York).

It is only at the moment of Johnson's ascension that he is freed to pursue an agenda formed from his own background, a background of poverty painted in detail in The Path to Power. It is when his lifelong goal is achieved that his true character can be revealed. He is no longer reliant upon the support of the Southern segregationist reactionaries. ‘Power always corrupts’ the cliché goes, but equally as Caro shows, power always reveals, and in this case, cleanses. Taking forward the stalled Kennedy civil rights agenda, he made it his own, declared war on poverty and worked towards the 'Great Society'. He no longer felt the need to hide and mould his views to further his career.

Caro makes a study of power and how one man yearned for it, gathered it, and exercised it. In a highly divisive move, Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles offered Johnson the second spot on the ticket. Johnson lived by the phrase "Power is where power goes", but he badly miscalculated when he believed he could take the power accrued through the Senate Majority leadership with him. After years of pursuing and accruing power, Johnson found himself neutered, humiliated and ignored, the butt of jokes and with no apparent path back to power.


Of course the reader knows, as they would throughout The Years of Lyndon Johnson, that an assassin's bullet will instantaneously push him to the apex of power that he has coveted from his poverty stricken childhood. In the eleven months leading up to this turning point in history, Johnson spent less than two hours alone with Kennedy. Frustrated, isolated and powerless, Caro deftly lays out Johnson in all his lifelong fears of falling short, of repeating the indignities of his father, narrated in Path to Power, thousands of pages earlier; politically finished and forgotten.

This is the story of Johnson's transition, from high power as Senate Majority Leader to isolation as Vice President and of course the transition period when he took on the stalled Kennedy agenda surrounded by the grieving Kennedy staff and cabinet members. Roughly half of the text covers the 47 days between Kennedy's assassination in late November 1963 and the State of the Union address the following January/

The Years of Lyndon Johnsonis something so much more than a biography of one man.  Caro's interest is in power and how it works. Presumably the penultimate volume, it covers the moment anticipated by the reader through the previous volumes and sets the scene for what is to come with Vietnam and the dwindling of trust afforded to Johnson, and the Office of President, by the American people.

We know what is to come in the final volume: a massive victory over Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, another Kennedy assassinated in his prime and the chants of "Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?" But no reader could have taken up The Path to Power, which in a sign of the staggering level of detail and comprehensive research opens with a study of Johnson's ancestors in Texas back to the 1830s, and not known how it all ended. Yet Caro, the gifted storyteller, brings it to life; unearthing and enlivening an elaborate and enthralling American tale for posterity.

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About the Author

George Seymour is a solicitor and local government councillor. He is the President of Youthcare Hervey Bay, a homeless shelter providing support to young people on the Fraser Coast, Queensland.

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