LBJ and the Penultimate Crusade

There is a danger continuing an old work. Instead of innovation, there’s a chance for stagnation where the work becomes too self-referential, too concerned about the work’s nebulous tradition than creating something new. The last Indiana Jones film worried too much at winking at the audience with references to the original trilogy, keeping themes from the series that were only recognizable in retrospect. When Lucas and Spielberg made the original trilogy, they just wanted to make some two-fisted tales of adventures like the Old Republic serials. With Kingdom of the Skulls, they suddenly had to copy 1950s sci-fi flicks on the understanding that Indiana Jones had to reflect the B-movies of the time. Just like it’s better to be the prophet than the student, since the prophet can break the rules he sets while the student must be constrained by them, returning to a well-established series constricts new directions the artist can go. So when Robert Caro follows up on the phenomenal Master of the Senate with Passage of Power, there are dangers of his being meticulous enough in his research that it takes a decade to write a book- and having ideas tied down thirty years back when he started his project.

Passage of Power is the fourth volume in a supposed five book series “The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson.” It covers LBJ from his attempts to get the presidential nod in 1960 to his first State of the Union Address, seven weeks after John Kennedy’s assassination.  After writing wonderful biographical pieces on the Kennedy brothers and the political fights that followed before the convention. Caro quickly goes from the Presidential campaign to Johnson as Vice-President. They are low times for LBJ. After promising friends (and the press) “that power follows the man,” Johnson stripped of any sort of authority by Kennedy administration that little need of the Texan after he help captured the state for them in the election. He is forgotten and given not even busy work. He loses the respect of those in Washington and becomes the butt of jokes. His very spirit is broken. In the same way, it’s a low point for the book as a whole. Robert Caro is above all a student of power and while he shows all the indignities a President can force on his Vice, these pages lack the same energy that carried Master of the Senate from beginning to end. Caro’s writing is wonderful as ever yet he loses his rhythm. Throughout the series, there are refrains like a great hymn, returning to the same ideas, quotes, and descriptions to remind the reader the permanent factors of Johnson’s life. His fear of an early death, his father’s failures, his meanness to staffers are repeated for a purpose. Alas, in the early parts of Passage Caro loses the meter. He makes references his other books more than ever in this volume as though new episodes are only interesting by how they color older issues. Caro finds a need to slog through this period more out of thoroughness more than for any storytelling purposes- Johnson’s time as VP is unlikely be used to explain any of his future actions. The man at the pipe organ has lost track and those in the pews must worry if the old man will hit the right keys again. Thankfully Caro finds the beat again is when LBJ finally gets the reigns in Dallas. November 22, 1963 is covered in all its gore and sadness mostly from the Vice-President’s perspective. What follows is the nation’s period of mourning- and LBJ quiet maneuvers that would end with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and a major tax cuts- the largest pieces of Kennedy’s domestic agenda, which to that point been stagnating in committee.

The last section of the book is not a story of the cultural influences on LBJ. It does not contain more than the most basic psychological analysis of the President. It certainly does contain any history of different ideological differences between liberal and conservative thought. It is a study of how a man who understand how power and influence works can use a position of strength to change things. LBJ understood how the Senate worked. He knew when to compromise and when to capitulate. He also knows when to go for the jugular and only accept total victory. Caro since the time he wrote The Power Broker is an expert at following these maneuverings. And in his descriptions there is brilliance. Something dreary sounding as counting votes- knowing how Senators will vote on a proposition- becomes moments of high drama. That Johnsons is doing it for good causes. For THE good cause of the 1960s make the subject all the more compelling. LBJ went against his great friend Dick Russell over Civil Rights. He knew all the methods his mentor would use- because he had been taught to use them against the sort of law he was now pushing. Johnson help the Civil Rights Act in the House so he could push the rest of his legislative agenda through. After this was accomplished, he turned a technical issues being used to hold up the bill into a moral issue forcing Republicans to pick sides while offering pork-barrel projects to those sitting on the fence. The same methods worked in the Senate as they overcame a filibuster to pass the law. The Kennedy agenda, so close to being completely destroyed had been passed in seven weeks by a man considered a joke.

Given a subject worth his time and expertise, Caro delivers what his fans expect. The only question remaining if he can keep it up for one more volume. And hey, when you go in expecting a fridge nuking and a space between spaces, having hope is a wonderful feeling even with the knowledge where Johnson’s demons will take the country- and Robert Caro.

In Part II, I will look at how LBJ is being applied to current circumstances.

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