Robert A. Caro’s series about the life and times of President Lyndon B. Johnson doesn’t read like a typical biography. The first volume, 1982’s The Path to Power, was more of a real-life epic fantasy novel, mapping Johnson’s rise from the hardscrabble Texas Hill Country into New Deal-era Washington. 1990’s Means of Ascent, which began with Johnson’s World War II years and ended with his hotly contested 1948 senatorial election, was a genre-hopping delight: a breakneck campaign bio, a courtroom thriller, and a Western, all rolled into one. And 2002’s Master of the Senate, which detailed Johnson’s 12-year span in the Senate, remains the indispensable examination of the whole mechanism of American governance. Now comes the long-awaited fourth installment, The Passage of Power, in which Caro weighs in on the pivotal period between 1958 and ’64.
After his remarkable run in the Senate, Johnson botched his 1960 presidential campaign and was relegated to inconsequentiality as vice president. Then came Dallas and the single most investigated event in American history: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Caro’s portrayal of it is riveting. Equally absorbing is its aftermath, depicted here as a series of unforgettable images that essentially heralded the creation of the modern media circus: ”Never in American history — never in the history of any republic since, perhaps, the great pageants of Rome — had the passage of power been marked by such pageantry.”
But in Caro’s telling, that pageantry was the prologue to Johnson’s best moments. In the book’s second half, he narrows his focus to a day-by-day exploration of Johnson’s first seven weeks in office. Caro argues that this was Johnson at his finest: a brilliant legislative tactician, a crusader for the underprivileged, and a canny salesman of his own public image.
In some ways, Passage is a bit less satisfying than the earlier volumes. The bifurcated, set-piece-heavy structure makes for a messy narrative, and there’s a sense that Caro is mostly teeing up his grand finale — Vietnam, which will be pushed almost entirely into the next (presumably final) volume. But this is an addictive read, written in glorious prose that suggests the world’s most diligent beat reporter channeling William Faulkner. Passage is an essential document of a turning point in American history. It’s also an incisive portrait of one great, terrible, fascinating man suddenly given the chance to reinvent the country in his image. A-