Monday, July 09, 2012

Robert Caro's The Passage of Power

With Robert Caro's The Passage of Power you know what you will get. You receive a brick of a book that often reads like a novel, detailing how the use of power shaped Lyndon Johnson's transition from the senate to the vice presidency to the presidency--power is always what Caro focuses on. You get a feel for what it was like in the places where key events took place. I had waited years for it after reading Master of the Senate, and now will wait years for the next installment.

The beginning of the book shows how indecisive LBJ was about challenging JFK in 1960, then jumped in so late that he had no chance for the nomination. That too reflects power, or more specifically that Johnson did not want to be seen as lunging for power if there was a chance he might lose. The insecurities about his impoverished background (especially versus the Kennedy glamour) that came out in full force reminded me so much of Richard Nixon, and probably helps explain why they got along quite well after LBJ left office. Another Nixon echo is the bullying, as LBJ illegally pressured newspapers to support him. Power at that level very easily goes to your head.

Then the vice presidential years are characterized by an embarrassing lack of power. The Kennedys and their entourage openly made of him and excluded him from meetings. He almost literally had nothing to do. After Kennedy was assassinated, he worked quickly to put his own stamp on the presidency. He was able to do so because he knew how to get Kennedy's languishing legislation passed and hold his team together. Political scientists don't tend to like explanations based on individuals, but Caro provides a fascinating account of LBJ working to overcome the resistance of Senator Harry Byrd, who had everything tied up because he wanted a federal budget under $100 billion. Once LBJ found a way to do so, Byrd let legislation go to the floor. Overall, Caro notes how amazing the activity was in the weeks immediately after the assassination.

His first State of the Union address showed his commitment to civil rights and to poverty reduction, from a very personal perspective. It was positively Reaganesque: announce lots of new programs while proclaiming the benefits of reduced spending. By mid-1964, when the book leaves off, you see a president who is soaring, on the road to blowing away Barry Goldwater. With his prodding, poking, phone calling, lapel-grabbing, and threatening, he had dealt very successfully with Congress, the press, and public opinion. He had quieted the Kennedy crowd. In retrospect, it is remarkable how fast the fall came.

There is plenty on the split with RFK, which will move more toward center stage in the next volume. One point I didn't know regarding Latin America was that Robert Kennedy expressed his displeasure with the naming of Thomas Mann in the top post for Latin America. He believe, 100% correctly, that Mann would immediately dismantle the Alliance for Progress.

Caro has plenty of detractors. This is a popular biography, and so pays no attention to historiography. Previous books are noted only insofar as they add to his narrative. In fact, he makes no effort to insert himself into any broader debate at all. Take the series for what it is--a nicely written, well-documented effort to show how ruthlessly one of the most important politicians in U.S. history wielded power.


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