Masterwork charts LBJ’s passage to power


The latest volume of Robert A. Caro’s magisterial series The Years of Lyndon Johnson – volume four, The Passage of Power, was published in May. The first volume appeared 30 years ago.


Caro’s books are a study not just of Lyndon Johnson, but of power in America. No one could use find, obtain and use power like Lyndon Johnson.

The Passage of Power is a work of extraordinary detail. Caro’s third volume, Master of the Senate, puts its narrative on hold for a 60-page portrait of Georgia Senator Richard Russell. Only by understanding Johnson’s relationship with Russell can we understand how he was able to so skillfully position himself as a go-between between Northern liberals and Southern segregationists. And thus how Johnson was the only person alive who could negotiate a Civil Rights Act through a Southern filibuster.

In Passage of Power, Caro spends dozens of pages outlining Jack Kennedy’s medical history. When we see how badly Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease, we understand his frequent absences from the Senate and lack of legislative output, and thus how Johnson was lulled into thinking Kennedy was a weak opponent.

Book two in the series, Means of Ascent, is an entire volume about Johnson’s 1948 Senate race. A race Johnson won by 87 votes – won by Ballot Box 13 in ‘bossed’ Jim Wells County in the Rio Grande Valley. Box 13 served a precinct that discovered 203 extra votes six days after the rest of the results, cast by 203 voters who signed their names in the register in exact alphabetical order.

Caro was the first to cohesively piece the story together. He went to Jim Wells County to interview the local enforcer who made sure the box was stuffed. He showed beyond doubt that Lyndon Johnson made it to the Senate – and thus the presidency – because he stole an election. Stole it on a scale never before seen in Texas – for ‘there were hundreds of Box 13s in the Valley’. Because of this many of Johnson’s associates refused, for years afterwards, to be interviewed for Caro’s books.

Caro’s prize discovery in Passage of Power is the little known story of a closed congressional hearing and a news magazine investigation into Johnson’s financial dealings – information that might have wrecked his career had it fully emerged. Both were just getting underway on November 22, 1963 – exactly when the presidential motorcade was heading through Dallas.

These things we know. The delight will be finding out how Caro treats the years of this volume – 1958-1964 – and Johnson’s abortive presidential run in 1960, his humiliation in losing to that upstart Catholic. How Johnson got on the ticket with JFK – whether Bobby Kennedy really offered him the vice presidency expecting him to turn it down.

And then: Dallas. Caro will give us the first description of the Kennedy assassination, and the days afterwards, from Johnson’s point of view. Then, the beginning of the Great Society, and how Johnson bent to his will a Congress that just weeks before had seemed hopelessly gridlocked.

In this volume Caro takes us to the apogee of Johnson’s power. Everything that tore Johnson’s administration apart – Vietnam, the Watts riots, the challenge of Eugene McCarthy – looms in the future for volume five. 

For extraordinary breadth of research, for a stunningly lifelike portrait of the most complex and conflicted of 20th century presidents, for the clearest insight of our time into American political power, The Passage of Power will be the political and historical book of 2012.

The Passage of Power. The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert A. Caro. 
Published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Author: Zach Alexopoulos

Targeting Director, ALP NSW Branch.

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