Friday, March 1, 2013

A Quick Review

The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, #4)The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This would be the volume of Caro's masterful, and massive biography in which I anticipated taking the least interest.  I was not altogether wrong.  The 1960 election, every dull, equivocating hour of it, seemingly from breakfast to bed for the whole of a year, the feud with the Kennedy brothers, the unhappy compromise of that near non-thing, the Vice Presidency, the assassination... better than half the book felt, for the first time with Caro, like an unhappy rehash of just so much crow.  I put the book down for months.  Always in the earlier volumes of this biography, there was enough of the unfamiliar, the unsuspected, the scandalous and the triumphant to hold my interest through even the longest lecture in civics or history.  Always before there was some unfamiliar peak toward which I as the reader was being led.  Here at last, for me at least, the territory was not only all too familiar but of such an overcast and deadly airlessness as to feel suffocating.  I need never read another word about rural electrification, Joe Kennedy Sr., the electoral politics of West Virgina, etc., etc., -- due in no small part to Caro himself.  This time, I simply hadn't the strength, or the interest to continue the climb.

Caro's last, and to my mind best book, by some miracles of research and writing, managed to make the story of Johnson's Leadership in the US Senate not only a monumental tribute to the political genius of the man, but also what must be the slowest moving but nonetheless thrilling narrative of legislative compromise I'd ever read.  If the victory at the end of that one felt a bit hollow, after, this volume promised a greater good.  Strange then that it should feel such a slog.

Finally picking up the load again, at the point of Kennedy's fall, I was pleased and no little amazed to find Caro, and myself all the better for his second wind.  The rush of events explains this, but not completely.  Yes, from the day in Dallas, there is an urgency to everything to come after, but perhaps the key to Caro's special gift as a biographer is his relentless focus, much like Johnson's, perhaps here because of Johnson's, on the main chance.  As Caro's LBJ is almost entirely a creature of politics, an all but perfect practitioner of power, so both subject and biographer are at their very best when exercised.  Even in defeat, if still active, Johnson is a fascinating monster.  But power here begets power.  Out of it, and Johnson all but disappears as a personality.  Caro, wandering with him in the wilderness, does not so much lose his way as the point.  With LBJ, for good and ill, the doing is all.  Likewise, I've come to suspect with this book.  Neither the politician nor his biographer seems much suited to the contemplative, or even the equivocal.

From the hour that Johnson is called on to take up the real power of the presidency, both he and the book spring to an unexpectedly thrilling new life.  His handling of both the tragedy and the transition, culminating in his first address to the Congress and the country, show LBJ as Caro has taught the reader to admire him most; decisive, effective, even ruthless in his determination to move forward; move the country, his progressive agenda and himself further, faster, better, higher.  (Making my anticipation now of his fall all the greater, frankly, and already more understandable, and possibly forgivable than I'd ever have thought possible otherwise. We'll see.)

My advice then to any not already committed to reading the whole magnificent, sometimes ponderous, sometimes maddening project of Robert Caro's biography might be, at least for those most familiar with this period, to make up as much time as possible through the first third or better of this book and maybe, just wait for the next and then read just the last two hundred of this one's six hundred pages by way of preface to Caro's (hopefully) final volume, and Johnson's last, glorious and horrible exercise in hubris and destiny.

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