A review of The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
There are very few figures in history worthy of multi-volume biographies, much less one that runs to five books, the first four of which alone total nearly 3,600 pages. However, Robert Caro proves conclusively that his subject, President Lyndon Johnson, is fully deserving of the attention. One of the towering figures of the 20th Century, Johnson’s extraordinarily complex personality and the indelible imprint he left on American history literally require years of intensive research and thousands of pages to unravel.
It may be difficult for one who didn’t experience the 1960s as an adult to appreciate the consequential impact of Johnson’s career, both for good and for bad.
Before his ascension to the leadership of the U.S. Senate in 1953 — just five years after his first election to the body, and still in his first term — the Senate was effectively dysfunctional from the perspective of anyone who felt that action was needed to solve the country’s most pressing social and economic problems. During Johnson’s six years as Majority Leader (1955-61), his unrivaled legislative and political skills permitted him to change that dramatically, passing the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction nearly a century earlier and guiding the legislative process as smoothly as could ever be expected of a two-century-old institution hobbled by obscure rules designed to forestall any action.
Later, as President (1963-69), Johnson achieved victories almost universally deemed impossible when he acceded to the office upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy: “his great personal victory in the 1964 election, and his great victories for legislation that are the legislative embodiment of the liberal spirit in all its nobility. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Voting Rights Act of 1965. Medicare and Medicaid; Head Start; Model Cities. Government’s hand to help people caught in ‘the tentacles of circumstance.'”
But Johnson’s tenure in the White House was equally dramatic in tragic ways as well. “‘We Shall Overcome’ were not the only words by which it will be remembered. ‘Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?'” was the other side of the coin. No one who experienced those times can possibly forget either of these emblematic statements.
The picture of Lyndon Johnson that emerges from the pages of this book is, on balance, one of greatness — but greatness alloyed with weaknesses and character flaws reminiscent of the tragedies of Sophocles or Euripides. Johnson, who grew up desperately poor, was venal to an extreme. He built a fortune over his decades in the Senate and the White House by breaking numerous laws and exercising the most heavy-handed of business tactics. His political conduct was equally heavy-handed, alternating between fawning respect for people whose support he craved and transparent scorn for others that sometimes took the form of deliberate public humiliation. Although Caro makes clear that he exercised admirable restraint during the months immediately following his swearing-in as President, Johnson typically treated his staff with extraordinary contempt, screaming at high volume, waving his arms, and subjecting them to insulting demands. He was, as Bobby Kennedy regarded him, a very “nasty man.”
The Passage of Power tells the story of Lyndon Johnson from his first explorations of a possible race for President in the mid-1950s until the middle of 1964, which saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act that confirmed his political genius. But the book focuses most tightly on the four days beginning November 22, 1963, when JFK was killed, “and the rest of the transition period — the period, forty-seven days, just short of seven weeks, between the moment . . . when [Kennedy intimate] Ken O’Donnell said ‘He’s gone’ and the State of the Union speech on January 8, 1964” — a speech that. given its almost universally exuberant reception may well have been one of the greatest (and certainly one of the most consequential) orations in history.
If, a century from now, historians are still practicing their craft, and people are still reading books, The Passage of Power will stand out as a worthy contribution to the understanding of the contradictions in the American character.
The Passage of Power is the fourth of the five projected volumes of Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson. To date, Caro has devoted thirty years of his life to the project, and his wife Ina, his principal researcher, nearly as much. He estimates that the fifth volume will require another two to three years to write.
My top 20 nonfiction picks
For nearly three-and-a-half years now, I’ve been posting book reviews in this blog, typically twice a week. For my own benefit as well as yours, I like to look back every so often at the books I’ve read and think about what I’ve learned from them. What follows below is a list of the 20 nonfiction books (out of more than 100 I read) that have added the most to my understanding of the world. They’re arranged in no particular order: I can’t imagine trying to pick the best of this lot!
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright
The definitive study of the belief system known as Scientology, with an emphasis on its human rights violations and the Hollywood celebrities it has gathered into its “prison of belief.”
Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney
Revelations galore from newly unearthed evidence about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his last years in the White House.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
The seminal role of a long-forgotten ancient Greek poet and philosopher on the thinking of the geniuses who shaped the Renaissance and on the course of history that followed.
The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan
Recent history and current events through the distorting lens of geopolitics, which views Planet Earth, and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders, from a very different perspective than is found in most history books.
Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman
The astonishing story of America’s rearmament in World War II, with a focus on the two larger-than-life personalities who made it happen through sheer force of will: William Knudsen and Henry J. Kaiser.
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre
The stranger-than-fiction story of the British double agents whose brilliant work in Europe played a pivotal role in the success of the Normandy Invasion.
The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan
A comprehensive and well-informed view of the world of social enterprise and the extraordinary individuals who stand out in a field that attracts brilliant and inspired people by the carload.
The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham
An in-depth refutation of the myth of rugged individualism, lionized by Ayn Rand’s novels and enshrined in conservative and libertarian ideology for four decades.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
How the War on Drugs, and the institutionalized racism that undergirds it, has weakened American society and fostered a new underclass dominated by young men of color.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo
A first-hand account of three years in a slum neighborhood in one of the biggest cities in the world, focusing on the hopes and challenges of two local families.
Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion, by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy
A beautifully-written account of the history of a nonprofit South Indian eye hospital that has pioneered a revolutionary approach to eye-care which has brought relief to millions of poor people worldwide.
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
An unvarnished biography of the design and marketing genius who built Apple and gained a place in business history alongside Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Sam Walton.
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin
The troubling story of the institutionalization of a new military-intelligence complex triggered by 9/11 and accelerated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson
The long-overlooked story of FDR’s ambassador to Nazi Germany and his frustrated efforts to turn U.S. policy against Hitler in the face of horrific violence against Jews in Germany and anti-Semitism in the State Department.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
An oncologist’s critical study of the diseases lumped together under the label of cancer and of humanity’s halting efforts to arrest and cure them.
Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff
A fresh new take on one of history’s most powerful and fascinating women, long caricatured in popular fiction and history books alike.
The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers, by Vicky Ward
An illuminating tale of the people who set off the Great Recession, bringing to light the greed, self-delusion, and miscalculation that came so close to collapsing the world economy in 2008.
Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard. A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake
A profoundly troubling look at the rapid rise of cyber warfare and the existential threat it poses to American civilization, written by the top counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Based on ten years of dogged research, a science journalist’s deeply moving account of the African-American woman whose cancerous cells seeded six decades of medical discoveries.
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Tagged as Aravind, Ayn Rand, Ben McIntyre, Bill Knudsen, cancer, CIA, cia conspiracy, Cleopatra, cyber warfare, D-Day, Dana Priest, Erik Larson, eye care, geopolitics, Henrietta Lacks, Henry J. Kaiser, hollywood celebrities, John Elkington, John F. Kennedy, Katherine Boo, Lawrence Wright, Lehman Brothers, libertarian ideology, mary pinchot meyer, mass incarceration, michelle alexander, military-intelligence complex, Mumbai, Nazi Germany, Pamela Hartigan, poverty, racism, Rebecca Skloot, Renaissance, Richard A. Clarke, Robert D. Kaplan, rugged individualism, scientology, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Stacy Schiff, Stephen Greenblatt, Steve Jobs, The Swerve, Vicky Ward, Walter Isaacson, War on Drugs, William S. Knudsen, World War II