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The Passage of Power (2012)

– tekijä: Robert A. Caro

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1,1733212,444 (4.56)89
Pulitizer Prize biographer Robert A. Caro follows Lyndon Johnson through both the most frustrating and the most triumphant periods of his career, describing Johnson's volatile relationship with John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy during the fight they waged for the 1960 Democratic nomination for president, through Johnson's unhappy vice presidency, his assumption to the presidency after Kennedy's assassination, his victories over the budget and civil rights, and the eroding trap of Vietnam.… (lisätietoja)

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Näyttää 1-5 (yhteensä 32) (seuraava | näytä kaikki)
This great doorstop of a biography (volume #4 in Caro’s magnum opus on Lyndon Johnson) for a long time. So when it showed up on a “buy one, get one free” sale on Audible, I decided to try the spoken product. And I am so glad I did.

We follow LBJ through the 1960 Presidential campaign where Johnson dithered away his chances to mount a meaningful Presidential run and then, to everyone’s astonishment, gave up his powerful position as Majority Leader of the Senate to run for the Vice Presidency with JFK.

And what a trial the Vice Presidency turns out to be. It really does seem like it’s “not worth a warm bucket of spit.” But then comes the fateful day in Dallas, and all that changes in the blink of an eye, and Johnson comes into his own.

Her is LBJ with all his flaws exposed, but still a towering political figure cajoling, twisting arms and even threatening as he strong arms the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964. Where JFK was unable to deal effectively with Congress, Johnson knows exactly what to do, and proceeds with a vengeance.

This volume ends just before the 1964 Presidential campaign and left me hoping that Caro hurries up and finishes the last volume in this story. ( )
  etxgardener | May 17, 2021 |
At this point in the series, you'll have made up your mind on Lyndon B. Johnson's character whether you wanted to or not. Caro has been so determined to show every wart, flaw, and imperfection he has that Robert Kennedy's verdict of "formidable but flawed, powerful but dangerous" is the default prism you view his every action through. This volume concentrates on both the lowest period of LBJ's adult life - the three long, painful years as John F Kennedy's ignored and ridiculed Vice President - and its highest, as he led the nation through the difficult first seven weeks after Kennedy's assassination and began to implement and extend his stalled bills in Congress. That "led the nation" phrase is key, as one of the eye-opening statistics that Caro reveals is that in the three days after Dallas, a solid majority of the entire nation was watching details of the murder on television, giving Johnson a position as national steward that no President had ever had before, and as events would make clear, would never have again. It's weird to look back on those days where the President was a sort of father figure to the country; that LBJ was one of the Presidents most responsible for that changing makes it all the more jarring. As far as continuity with the previous volumes goes, Caro continues to tell the story of the country in these years in large part through Johnson's character and personal qualities. I've always had philosophical issues with biographies and histories that lean too much toward the Thomas Carlyle-style "great man" approach, but Caro's writing style and ability to convey the high drama of the period still feels right, because even the small details of his relationships with the other famous figures herein have had lasting significance. He's toned down the mini-biographies, spending just a few pages on better-documented people like JFK and RFK, and even relative unknowns like Harry F Byrd are quickly summed up instead being given the monumental digressions on Richard Russell and Coke Stevenson in earlier volumes. Part of the reason is that we're now reaching the point where this history is relatively well-known to everyone and there's simply too much epic, Shakespearean conflict to waste time: the bitter competition between JFK and LBJ for the 1960 Presidential nomination, as LBJ's lust for the goal he had sought his entire life fought with his desperate need to never be seen as a loser; the even more bitter rivalry between him and RFK, so much his opposite in erudition and temperament yet so much his twin in determination and idealism; how unbelievably close an investigation into scandals around one of his protégés came to snaring himself before coming to a halt when he ascended to the Presidency; and how he was able to resurrect JFK's moribund legislative agenda with his long-dormant powers of persuasion; and then his 1964 State of the Union address with the first stirrings of the Great Society, the most visionary domestic agenda since FDR, and of the whole rest of the 20th century. The later parts where LBJ manages to get the tax bill and the civil rights bill moving along are the parts that I found most interesting, and that will probably be most relevant to people reading these books for lessons to apply today. The politics are fascinating; the debate over whether LBJ could get the budget under $100 billion to appease Senator Byrd and get him to stop blocking other bills would be interesting enough without curious political inversion whereby JFK's proposed tax cut was actually the liberal position, in an era where conservatives actually cared about the deficit. Additionally, since that was back in an era where parties weren't ideologically unified, Johnson's ability to craft coalitions by drawing on personal relationships is sure to bring back a lot of nostalgia for the kind of person who values bipartisanship in and of itself. Johnson himself of course did more than any other President to bring that to an end, a story which will have to be told in the next volume. As in the other volumes, this book is filled to bursting with layers of detail, insight, data, quotes, analysis, and scholarship. Also as in other volumes, there are the trademark emotional tenors that Caro imbues each scene with, as he tries to tell you not only what happened, but what it meant, and why it had to be viewed from that angle or heard in that pitch. Caro has been justly criticized for his ambivalent relationship to his subject and how that leaves the reader unsatisfied at times, but now that LBJ is finally in the position he's always dreamed of and is free to change the world for good or for ill, Caro's writing has returned to that peak of elegance and illumination that makes his books so addictive. The Passage of Power isn't quite the book that Master of the Senate was (I mean that literally: it's 500 pages shorter), but it's still a worthy part of the greatest biographical study of our times. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
This volume covers 1958 to early 1964, after Johnson’s passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act but before his campaign for reelection. That period was one of the most volatile in Johnson’s life. It finds him at his lowest—marginalized and powerless as Vice President under JFK, an object of ridicule with no real responsibility or power. Such a position was completely anathema to Johnson, so monomaniacal was he in pursuit of power. It was also worlds away from his reign as Majority Leader in the Senate, when he ran the historically dysfunctional body by personal diktat. For a man whose every maneuver had been calibrated precisely to propel him to the presidency, to find himself so physically close to the oval office but politically further than ever from occupying it, must have been torture. This period also found him at his highest: having assumed the presidency later in the previous president’s term than any other vice president in history, he took the reins of power with aplomb, beginning the minute he learned of JFK’s death at Parkland Hospital. In the first few months of his presidency, he navigated a minefield of political obstacles, consolidating his power through a series of genius maneuvers. At the end of the volume, Caro notes that presidential transitions, especially this one, are taken for granted, as evidence of the Constitution’s provisions for the peaceful transfer of power. But during this period, all of Johnson’s political talents were required, including ones that he had never before displayed, to take on the daunting transition. This story, the whiplash transition from the depths of Johnson’s time as V.P., to the heights of his power as President, forms the backbone of this volume.

In the months before November 22, 1963, the walls were closing in on Vice President Johnson. Two investigations, one by a Senate committee into Johnson’s right hand man, and the other by Life magazine into his finances, greatly threatened to ruin his career. Changing political realities made it increasingly likely that he would be dropped from the ticket in 1964. And Bobby Kennedy, the emerging star of the New Frontier, someone whom Johnson hated and who wasted no opportunity to humiliate the Vice President, was being groomed to succeed his brother as the Democratic nominee for president in 1968, ahead of Johnson. “My future is behind me,” a depressed Johnson said to an aide. Then, in the course of a single day, all that was rendered insignificant by dint of an assassin’s bullet.

If the previous 318 pages had told a story of increasing desperation, a desperation unique in Johnson’s life up to that point, the remaining 288 would be one of mounting triumph. Johnson wasted no time in beginning the work of the presidency. He gained the confidence of the nation with a crucial televised speech the day after JFK’s body was put to rest. He managed to retain almost all of JFK’s top advisors and cabinet members, including Bobby Kennedy, in order to show continuity between the very popular Kennedy administration and his own nascent one. He created the Warren Commission to put to bed international fears of an assassination conspiracy. Most of all, he flashed his renowned legislative genius to pass the federal budget, an education bill, a tax cut, and a long awaited strong Civil Rights bill. He did all of this after having been given no time to prepare to assume the most powerful position on earth. His actions made it clear that he had been preparing all his life for that job.

As in the previous volumes—even more so here—the story is focused almost exclusively on inside baseball. Out of this focus on the minute details of high-level political horse-trading emerges a sense of historical contingency. One gets the feeling that if certain telephone conversations had been interpreted differently by one of the parties, or if this or that congressman woke up on the wrong side of the bed on the day of an obscure but ultimately important vote, or if a news editor had decided to take a harsher line on an issue at an inopportune time, then the course of history may have been greatly altered. In a very banal way, this is true: history is in one sense the sum of every single human being’s individual choices. But this gets you nowhere fast—what conclusions can one draw, what patterns can one discern without assigning more weight to certain factors and less to others? At his worst it appears that Caro believes history is the sum of every single powerful human being’s choices. What other political history of this period would give only passing mention to the freedom rides, Birmingham protests, and other civil rights actions, all of which were crucial in pushing long-awaited civil rights legislation to the top of the president’s agenda? I understand that this is not that kind of book, but it’s not even there as scene-setting, as it was in the last volume. It’s just taken for granted that the civil rights issue was important enough to be the greatest litmus test of the new president’s powers, but that’s it. After reading this book one could conclude that the greatest result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was strengthening Johnson’s election case. Perhaps in the context of a Johnson biography that is indeed true, but Caro has explicitly said time after time that he intends with these books to write more than just the history of a single man, but the history of an entire era. I don’t see how he can claim to have done so by focusing so narrowly on Washington backrooms. I hope this approach doesn’t continue into the next volume, in which popular protests over civil rights and Vietnam are a key part of the story.

On the other hand, there is an enormous benefit to Caro’s focus on the minutiae of elite political strategizing. After all, it is true that history is not foreordained, and that certain people put a greater stamp on the course of events than others. As the details of some particular event pile up, so do the counterfactuals. And Caro’s got a lot of details. What if LBJ had decided to commit to a 1960 presidential run before Kennedy locked up all the delegates? What if RFK had succeeded in convincing LBJ in at the convention that his brother didn’t want him on the ticket? What if Johnson didn’t succeed in moving Harry Byrd from his opposition to the new federal budget, thereby making it basically impossible to pass anything on civil rights? (What if, the Cuban Missile Crisis, a critical threat to the safety of the world, requiring a delicate and complex presidential response, had been handled by an incompetent? OK, I think I have a pretty good sense of the answer to that one). It’s a credit to Caro that he makes these questions feel alive, as they would have at the time, though they were settled long ago. Plus, Caro’s vision of politics, centering on the self-interested actions of Washington elites and their moneyed backers, divorced from any notion of the public good, is a far more realistic portrayal of national politics than you get in the mainstream press. The New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico, and similar outlets implicitly celebrate self-serving Washington dealing as some sort of ideal, preserving at all costs the notion that politicians are essentially good-faith actors negotiating differing, but not incompatible, ideas of the social good. In Caro’s world, with all the ugly, selfish egotism and venality that drives politics in full view—not to mention the money, gobs and gobs of it—positive political outcomes only come about as the instrumental result of elite political self-interest. This is essentially accurate, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either rich, or a sucker, or both.

And when it comes to the Kennedy assassination itself, an event which has been the subject of more counterfactuals, more speculation about shadowy high-level conspiracies than any other in American history, Caro sticks to the facts.* Though he does allow that the Warren Commission’s conclusion that the killing was the work of a lone gunman is potentially flawed, he, wisely, does not spend much time discussing alternative theories. He says he found no evidence of Johnson’s involvement. That’s about all there is to that. But he does dramatize, to great effect, the great change wrought by the Kennedy assassination on Johnson’s life, coming as it does at the nadir of Johnson’s time as V.P. On 11/22/63, the two investigations into Johnson were on the verge of blowing up—in a matter of days, if not hours. The entire trip to Texas was a crucial test of Johnson’s sway in his home state that would likely determine whether or not he remained on the presidential ticket, and he was failing that test. Of all the various “what-ifs” surrounding the assassination of JFK, Johnson’s fate should the shooting not have occurred is one of the greatest, considering the mark his presidency left on American life.

On the matter of style, so important to Caro, there are some notable changes in this volume. Gone are the baroque digressions that dotted the previous volumes like little bits of historical candy. Well, they’re not gone, just tightened up a bit. There’s no equal to the 100 pages of senatorial history that began the last volume, or the chapter long digression about poverty in the Texas hill country from the first. There are fewer blow-by-blow accounts of legislative wizardry, more succinct physical descriptions, and the pocket-biographies of supporting players are less fleshed out. These changes are probably a product of Caro’s sense that his time to complete the series is running out. And I’d say they make this a more traditionally coherent story, especially compared with the sprawling panorama of volume 3. Perhaps it’s ultimately beneficial that Caro is more judicious in choosing when to go long, but I can’t help but feel the loss of these never-to-be-written offshoots. If he wanted to spend 70 pages describing Everett Dirksen’s childhood, I’d read it, and enjoy it.

More regrettably, in certain places, probably in lieu of digressions that would serve to support a larger point, Caro repeats himself. Already a repetitious writer in style and focus, his citations of previous volumes grow noticeably in this volume. Sometimes, the same event from the previous book is cited to prove the same point multiple times. Usually these refer to some crucial aspect of Johnson’s character of which Caro wants to remind the reader. It's tiresome, but if that's the price of entry, I'm more than willing to pay it.

On the whole, this volume, though not my favorite of the bunch, is very much up to the standards of the series. It’s another improbably, wonderfully lengthy page-turner. Despite covering more familiar territory than the previous books, there is plenty new here. And let's be honest, if you got through the first 3,000 or so pages, were you really going to stop here?

On a personal note, I want to say that my journey through the four published volumes of this series has been one of the most satisfying and thrilling reading experiences of my life (as the length of this review may attest). If you are at all interested in American History, you’ve got to get around to Caro’s LBJ at some point. But my adoration of this series—and my strong recommendation that you read it—goes beyond historical interest. It’s not that Caro’s is the ideal approach to history or biography—I can think of many reasons why this is not the case—but because his books are unique literary documents that in their granularity and fetish for detail, represent the absolute limit of a certain fact-oriented, “objective” kind of non-fiction. If Caro had not written these books, Borges would have had to invent a character to do so. They have no equal, and are unlikely to be equaled because Caro’s process is basically impossible to replicate, the product not only of a singular mind but of a publishing landscape long dead. So now I join the rest of Caro’s devoted following in praying for his health and waiting hungrily for the final volume. Maybe I’ll read The Power Broker if I get impatient.

*If you’re interested in a convincing alternate-history of the assassination, with philosophical digressions about history, fiction, and conspiracies, you would be well served by Don DeLillo’s Libra.
  trotta | Mar 4, 2021 |
This is the 4th book in Caro's monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, covering the period from the runup to the 1960 presidential election to the assassination of JFK and then the first months of the LBJ presidency. The next book will presumably cover the remainder of his presidency. It seems an odd place to split the books, but Caro makes his case that the transition between administrations was crucially important, and in fact was Johnson's finest hour, and that the passage of the Civil Rights Act in early 1964 is a watershed moment (no argument there) worthy of ending the era.

Caro is deep in the weeds, and these books are frankly drowning in information, but the writing is great and the story is well told. Caro is himself an amazing story- he has literally dedicated his entire life to this series. Unlike other popular presidential biographies I've read recently, this one is of a man recently around enough that important players were and are still around to interview, and Caro has made good use of them.

The definitive LBJ biography for sure. I hope he makes it through the next one. ( )
  DanTarlin | Jan 15, 2021 |
Thought I would just dip and out of this weighty tome, picking and choosing certain topics, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Wrong!! Caro’s lively storytelling, keen sense of detail, thoughtful reflections, and compelling portraits of key individuals completely drew me in. I found this to be a quick read despite the size of the biography. The first third (roughly) of the book focuses on Johnson’s botched bid for the presidency in 1960, acceptance of the vice presidency, and years in that second office. Despite the fact that his bread and butter had always been his ability to read individuals quickly and accurately and determine their strengths and weaknesses , he failed to do so with John F. Kennedy. After failing to gain a real measure of the man during the 1960 campaign for presidential nomination, Johnson compounded this by thinking he could steamroll Kennedy into giving him more power and access than any previous vice president. Kennedy easily dismissed this. If he failed to include Johnson in important legislative strategy discussions – a place the Texan could have greatly benefitted the administration – it is due to in some measure to the vice president’s behavior when he was around the president. For example, Johnson rarely spoke out in meetings, even though he frequently shared his misgivings with others. Johnson’s constant and tactless pleading for appointments, photo-ops, and other considerations did not help either. Lastly, Johnson’s long running feud with Robert Kennedy further alienated him from the inner circle. Caro devotes considerable time discussing the relationship between these two men. Clearly, he will return to this theme in the next and final volume. Yet, President Kennedy intended to keep Johnson on the ticket because he needed Texas, or so it seemed until September 1963. A combination of the Bobby Baker (a very close Johnson associate and protégé ) scandal splashing across the headlines and Governor John Connally’s (another close Johnson associate and protégé) rapidly ascending influence in Texas hurt the vice president’s chances of remaining on the ticket in 1964. It was the nadir of Johnson’s long career in politics. Then everything changed at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Johnson is at his best from the assassination through to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He consoles the nation, brilliantly steers major legislation through the Congress, establishes himself as president, and inspires bold new action, including the landmark Civil Rights Act. Caro is impressed by these achievements and Johnson’s personal restraint. Throughout this period Johnson contains himself, holding his unpleasant personality traits – his self-pity, need to dominate others, bullying, narcissism, etc. – in check. Unfortunately, that Lyndon Johnson will be back in the next volume when we will see him mix great achievements and terrible disasters. ( )
  gregdehler | Jul 23, 2020 |
Näyttää 1-5 (yhteensä 32) (seuraava | näytä kaikki)
Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson—this is the fourth volume of a planned five—was originally conceived and has been largely executed as a study of power. But this volume has been overtaken by a more pressing theme. It is a study in hate. The book’s impressive architectonics come from the way everything is structured around two poles or pillars—Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy, radiating reciprocal hostilities at every step of the story. Caro calls it “perhaps the greatest blood feud of American politics in the twentieth century.” With some reservations about the word “blood,” one has to concede that Caro makes good his claim for this dynamic in the tale he has to tell.
What he did to advance civil rights and equal opportunity was too important. I remain grateful to him. L.B.J. got to me, and after all these years, he still does. With this fascinating and meticulous account of how and why he did it, Robert Caro has once again done America a great service.
At the heart of “The Passage of Power,” the latest installment of Robert A. Caro’s magisterial biography of Johnson, is the story of how he was catapulted to the White House in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, how he steadied and reassured a shell-shocked nation, and how he used his potent political skills and the momentum generated by Kennedy’s death to push through Congress his predecessor’s stalled tax-cut bill and civil rights legislation and to lay the groundwork for his own revolutionary “war on poverty.”

It’s a breathtakingly dramatic story about a pivotal moment in United States history, and just as Johnson used his accumulated knowledge of the art of power to push the nation along the path he’d envisioned, so in these pages does Mr. Caro use the intimate knowledge of Johnson he’s acquired over 36 years to tell that story with consummate artistry and ardor, demonstrating a tirelessness — in his interviewing and dissection of voluminous archives — that rivals his subject’s.
Caro’s treatment of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—and of the roles that Johnson and the Kennedy brothers (especially Robert Kennedy) played in the crisis—is, on several levels, simply wrong.
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(Introduction) Air Force One, the President's plane, is divided, behind the crew's cockpit, into three compartments.
When he was young - seventeen and eighteen years old - Lyndon Johnson worked on a road gang that was building a highway (an unpaved highway: roads in the isolated, impoverished Texas Hill Country weren't paved in the 1920s) between Johnson City and Austin.
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Pulitizer Prize biographer Robert A. Caro follows Lyndon Johnson through both the most frustrating and the most triumphant periods of his career, describing Johnson's volatile relationship with John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy during the fight they waged for the 1960 Democratic nomination for president, through Johnson's unhappy vice presidency, his assumption to the presidency after Kennedy's assassination, his victories over the budget and civil rights, and the eroding trap of Vietnam.

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