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July 23, 2012

Caro gives us Lyndon Johnson in a form which would have a Shakespeare richly intrigued. This is work worthy of Cicero – or a Robert Harris novel, says Richard D. North: The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, volume 4 - Robert A. Caro

Posted by Richard D. North

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, volume 4
by Robert A. Caro
Pp. 712. London: Bodley Head, 2012
Hardback, £15.99

I knew I was a fan of LBJ long before I opened Volume 4, the latest, of Robert A. Caro's gargantuan biography. The guts of the story are obviously appealing. LBJ the operator, thrust into power, delivers the programme that the murdered JFK could only dream of. That was what I learned from The Economist some time in the 1960s.

Back then it fitted nicely with my growing awareness that the soft-left liberal mindset was all kind of things I should dislike. One had the ancient right-wing prejudice that professional reformers – the left - could seldom turn resentment into progress. More specifically, and true to the emerging post-modern obsession with appearances, one sensed that the Kennedy aura was a miasma which allowed liberals too much self-satisfaction and too little self-examination.

I was not exactly a reactionary but I saw that the lefty liberals owned the Camelot franchise and the means of promoting it. It took the right to have the courage to stand up for bastards.

Of course, there is a problem with any right-wing prejudice in favour of Lyndon Baines Johnson and it is that he was to some degree only a more successful socialist than the Kennedys were. As Caro makes clear, Johnson's long-standing mask of conservatism was merely what was required to make him successful as he wooed Texan Democrats. At worst, LBJ quivered with victimhood. At best, he had a real empathy with poor black people. But in neither guise could he easily be claimed for the right, except whilst he was pretending to believe in the forces of reaction.

Hang on though. The liberal left, which has never liked LBJ, has to admit that he really was the man who succeeded with civil rights legislation and with inaugurating the War on Poverty, and the right could – if they liked – point out that it was President Johnson who succeeded, in 1964, in capping government expenditure at $100bn. As Caro makes clear, LBJ deployed unique political skills in his dealings with the fiscally conservative Harry Bird, a southern Democrat aristocrat, who had a lock on Senate financial legislation. That was the footwork which got the Kennedy legacy through the Congressional logjam. (That's the Caro story and it's plausible. But what about the cathartic effect of Kennedy's assassination? Surely that had its own impact?)

So the story is of course very rich. Caro gives us a properly feeling but also political account of the assassination and the transition of power. As president, Johnson – like a Marvell comic hero – blossomed. His three years of humiliation as JFK's vice-president were shrugged off. His erstwhile dread of failure no longer plagued him. His long previous years as a master pragmatist in the Senate paid off in spades. He became, full-on, the Roosevelt New Dealer he told people the record showed him always to have been.

And even then, as he became loudly principled, Caro lets us know that Johnson was being political: to win in 1964 on his own account he needed to show he was his own man and he needed big city, East coast, support. In short, he had, he said, "to get out in front" and to out-Kennedy Kennedy. Within hours of becoming president, this southerner had seen how to produce reforms which for quarter of a century had been blocked by southerners. Within weeks, he had engineered them. The miracle was that by his fourth day in office he brushed off some cautious advice, declaring, "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?"

As is widely noted, Caro is a fantastic writer. He almost keeps one's attention through the sheer detail of his account of the games, at once brutal and subtle, that congressional government produces in the US's federal republicanism. This is mother's milk and devil's brew to political junkies but becomes a little tedious to lesser mortals.

But as one flips a few pages, one quickly finds the author giving us anecdotes about LBJ's feud with Robert Kennedy or his corrupt late night phone calls that jump the reader out of the Senate and into Vanity Fair (the magazine) or even LA Confidential. Even these can seem obsessive at times.

It is a good thing that Caro repeats himself in this volume: it becomes a stand-alone work. Enough of the substance of previous volumes is retold to make them, if not redundant, at least not absolutely vital. What's more, Caro's discursiveness within the volume means that one can skip pages and still pick things up pretty well. The saga of LBJ's conduct of the Vietnam War, the subject of Volume 5, is trailed and presaged, and the whole LBJ legacy properly hinted at.

At times, I wondered if Caro did enough of the serious work of a biographer. He gives us a huge quantity of evidence. But do we get enough judgement? To take one area: LBJ's needy nastiness. Caro tells us that Kennedy insiders thought that LBJ pushed subordinates around. Robert Kennedy said Johnson, "Just eats up strong men". But I don't recall that issue being addressed from any other point of view, let alone Caro's (though he promises this feature of LBJ will emerge more strongly in his next volume).

To take another: LBJ was clearly corrupt in some of his dealings. As a senator he forced people to buy advertising on his TV stations and as president he threatened federal action against media outlets that investigated this, his dark side. Caro does not place this kind of activity in any sort of context (though he promises it will re-emerge). To take a third: Caro, in spite of his own claims, does not really give us the national and intellectual contexts which we get in, say, Rick Perlstein’s one volume Nixonland (though we are also spared Perlstein's 2020 hindsight).

But if Caro does rather stick to the knitting, it's enough to give us a staggering psychic adventure. LBJ emerges as a sort of hero. He may be a bit of a monster, but there was tenderness as well as viciousness and grandeur as well as footwork. Caro makes his LBJ portrait deliver the evidence that politics is sort of beautiful; that its realities are as interesting as its fictions; that principles and pragmatics are both vital to it. And that, above all, politics can't be merely pretty, or aspirational or goody-goody.

So Caro gives us Lyndon Johnson in a form which would have a Shakespeare richly intrigued. This is work worthy of Cicero – or a Robert Harris novel.

Richard D. North is the author of The Right-wing Guide to Nearly Everything.


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