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The Passage of Power

In Volume IV of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” biographer Robert A. Caro concentrates on the succession of political triumphs and defeats that accompanied LBJ to the Oval Office.

By Erik Spanberg / June 26, 2012

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. 4 By Robert A. Caro Knopf 712 pp.

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Before Richard B. Russell became known as the name on a Senate office building, he spent 38 years on Capitol Hill as one of the most powerful members of the Southern Democratic caucus.

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Russell, a Georgian, commanded respect. An incurable racist, he presided over Senate matters with authority and acumen. When he spoke, legislators listened.

Soon after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Russell lamented the fate of the late president’s legacy: enacting meaningful Civil Rights legislation. He worried, of course, that it would happen, not that the dead president’s ambition would go unrealized.

“We could have beaten Kennedy on civil rights,” Russell said, “but we can’t Lyndon.”

In The Passage of Power, his fourth installment of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” Robert A. Caro concentrates on the years 1958 through 1964, an era when Johnson endured a roller-coaster existence of political triumphs and defeats. The book begins with Johnson riding high as Senate Majority Leader before backing into an unsuccessful presidential bid in 1960, followed by his unexpected spot on the Kennedy ticket and a vice presidency marked by mockery and the mundane. A familiar taunt (“Whatever became of Lyndon Johnson?”) heard at Georgetown cocktail parties and all around the Beltway haunted Johnson.

Then came Dallas and Dealey Plaza, thrusting LBJ into the role he had spent a lifetime chasing, but had come to view as unattainable. With characteristic detail and precision, Caro frames the assassination from Johnson’s vantage point, providing a horrifying, pulse-pounding account of what it was like for a humbled man – even one as ambitious and power-hungry as LBJ – to shoulder the grief and burden of an entire nation.

The circumstances surrounding Johnson just before Kennedy’s death, in Caro’s depiction, warrant reconsideration. Matters such as Johnson’s isolation from the Kennedy team come as little surprise, but the depth of the estrangement dug up by the author lends the situation much more severe context. To cite but one example, LBJ, the vice president, wasn’t even in the room when Kennedy reached his most important decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. By way of comparison, think of Vice President Joe Biden by the side of President Obama during the Osama bin Laden raid or Dick Cheney in almost every meaningful moment of George W. Bush’s two terms.

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