BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Passage of Power’

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By Robert A. Caro
Knopf, $35, 736 pages

Robert A. Caro has spent much of his life writing about the political monument who was Lyndon Baines Johnson, a man of whom he is sharply criti- cal yet of whom he often stands in reluctant awe.

Mr. Caro’s assessment of Johnson’s life and times has varied considerably in the course of the four volumes he has compiled on the controversial Texan. He previously has blasted Johnson for an unbridled passion for power as well as for his means of achieving it. This time around, he gives full credit to the political skill Johnson displayed when the assassination of John F. Kennedy catapulted him into the presidency.

Yet the author also levels at Johnson the most grave of accusations, charging that the erosion of public trust in the American presidency, usually attributed to the disgraced administration of Richard M. Nixon, actually began in the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

Mr. Caro has taken on the task of his lifetime in seeking to analyze and understand a man who was one of the most complex of politicians. Controversy and argument always will surround him. That’s not surprising, given his impact during a lifetime that took him from hardscrabble Texas poverty to the fulfillment of his life’s ambition as the result of a national tragedy.

“Power is where power goes,” Johnson would say in characteristically arrogant and - as it turned out - erroneous anticipation that as vice president of the United States, he would continue to wield the same power he exercised in the Senate. That was before he made the bitter discovery of the humiliation that lay ahead of him in the Kennedy administration

It was not until after Kennedy was assassinated that Johnson’s story took the dramatic turn that fulfilled the legislative promise of his early years. In this fourth book of a series that emphasizes Johnson’s warts as much as his political genius, Mr. Caro focuses on the tense days that followed Kennedy’s death and Johnson’s ascension to the White House.

It was then, he asserts, that there was glimpsed “the full possibilities of presidential power - exercised by a master in the use of power.” It is eerily fascinating to read the recollections of those who watched in Air Force One, where Kennedy lay in his coffin as Johnson was sworn in. Veteran Johnson aides including George Reedy and Horace Busby witnessed the reappearance of the man they remembered as the real Lyndon Johnson. As Busby put it, “He was coming back to himself. He was back where he belonged. He was back in command.”

Undoubtedly the worst years of Johnson’s life were those he spent as vice president. He had to battle the relentless hostility of presidential brother Robert F. Kennedy. He had to accept being barely tolerated by President Kennedy and bearing the scornful nickname of “Colonel Cornpone.”

In a world where he once had reigned as a political powerhouse, what must have hurt most was the brutal rejection by his congressional peers of his vision of himself as a combination of vice president and Senate majority leader. He found he was proof of the adage that the vice presidency was indeed worth no more than a bucket of warm spit.

In the Senate, Johnson had dismissed John F. Kennedy as “pathetic … a weak and indecisive politician … a nice man but not a man’s man.” The irony of such comments, Mr. Caro emphasizes, lay in the fact that Kennedy and Johnson had more than a little in common. He notes that behind Kennedy’s carefree, smiling charm lay a life that had been filled with almost constant physical pain - “and refusal to give in to that pain or even to acknowledge its existence except on very rare occasions - and never in public.” Kennedy displayed the kind of stoic toughness that Johnson would have understood and respected.

Johnson used political skill and a steely determination to get from Texas to Capitol Hill, where he carved out a formidable career. He made mistakes in dealing with the Kennedys, conducting a “blood feud” with Bobby Kennedy, who never disguised his dislike, and he paid for them in years of political ignominy during which he virtually begged for recognition and approval by the president.

Yet Mr. Caro contends that the man who succeeded Kennedy would have earned the late president’s admiration.

“To watch Lyndon Johnson during the transition is to see political genius in action,” writes the author, who says no assessment of Johnson could ignore his “sureness of touch.”

Johnson, he observes, was “catapulted in an instant, in a gunshot, into the power he had always wanted and he proceeds to demonstrate, almost in the instant he attains that power, how much he is capable of accomplishing with it.”

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