The OF Blog: 2012 National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction: Robert Caro, The Passage of Power

Sunday, November 11, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction: Robert Caro, The Passage of Power

The 1960 bill, Rauh says, was "a pile of rubbish and garbage" disguised as a statute.  It "was a joke," he says.  "Everybody knew it was a joke.  Nobody who was really for civil rights then could have supported it," much less have pushed it through the Senate.  And Johnson was not really for civil rights, Rauh felt.  Not that he was against civil rights; he was simply for anything – on either side – that would help him become President.  "It wasn't that he was a conservative or a radical or anything else; it was simply that he was trying to be all things to all people."  The revered liberal senator Paul Douglas of Illinois went further.  Johnson had remained at least ostensibly neutral in the cloture fight only because he had known the South would win, Douglas said; had the result been in doubt, Johnson would have thrown his full weight behind the fillibuster. (p. 176 e-book, Ch. 3)

Nearly 50 years after the tragic events of 11/22/1963, much of the American populace is still entranced by the "Kennedy mystique."  The glamor, the smiles, the speeches, the sense of hope and optimism.  All of these are associated with a Presidency that lasted roughly 1000 days.  Yet perhaps what is most enduring about 1960s governmental policy (itself a far less "sexy beast"), even despite the arguments presented during the 1996 and 2012 Presidential elections that its programs should be reduced, is the Great Society program of President Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, or LBJ.  For over 40 years, the mere initials "LBJ" have sparked fierce reactions from Americans old enough to remember his Presidency (or his earlier stint as Senate Majority Leader).  Some have lauded him for passing the most sweeping social policy reforms since the 1930s New Deal programs.  Others have lambasted him for his increasing militarism and the Vietnam War escalation of 1965-1968.  A few have mocked his thirst for power, claiming that he had no vision other than what would garner him power; for those, Senator Douglas's comments doubtlessly would reinforce their opinions of LBJ.

In his fourth volume of his critically acclaimed biography series on Johnson, Robert Caro explores a critical time in Johnson's life.  The Years of Lyndon Johnson:  The Passage of Power focused on the period between 1958 and 1964, when Johnson transforms from a powerful Senate Majority Leader (perhaps one of the most powerful in the Senate's history) whose dedication to civil rights was at best viewed as dodgy by the Northern liberals in Congress and at worst seen as a blind meant to obscure his solid history of supporting Southern causes (not just those directly related to segregation) to a President who managed to get the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, cloture rules governing filibusters changed, and whose adept maneuvering of congressional leaders assured the passage of several important programs (minimum wage expansion, WIC, school lunch program, to name just a few).  This period has long fascinated Americans and historians of the period alike.  What motivated a man often disparaged by Kennedy staffers as "Rufus Cornpone" to get Congress to pass legislation that he himself rarely supported when he was in the Senate?  Was it simply political opportunism, the chance to put "his mark" on the Presidency?  Or was there something deeper, more sincere, about his sweeping policy proposals?  And what led to these noble programs being subsumed by the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam?

The Passage of Power originally was meant to cover all of these issues, but due to the amount of space needed to cover just Johnson's actions from his failed bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1960 to the seven weeks following Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 leading up to his historic declaration of a "war on poverty" in his January 1964 State of the Union address, Caro found it prudent to just focus on this period in which Johnson's behavior was at odd with his earlier (and later) public stances.  In exploring LBJ's motivations, Caro presents a complex, conflicted soul, a person who remembered his family's descent into "genteel" poverty in the 1920s and who favored the underdog, while also possessing a meanness of character that would lead him to humiliate those who worked for him and whose desire for acceptance would often lead to such fawning over those who could give him what he needed politically that his ability to "brown nose" is still remarkable even in a career where ingratiation is a necessity.

Caro's biography is divided into five parts:  the lead up to the 1960 Democratic Convention and Kennedy's surprise choice of him as Vice President; Johnson's humbling (and humiliating) time as Vice President; the assassination; the immediate aftermath of the assassination; and the transition period from the initial shock fading in early December 1963 to the historic January 1964 State of the Union address.  In each of these sections, Caro exhaustively explores Johnson's actions and interactions with people he had known for years, both in Texas and in Congress, and those he now had to deal with as an increasingly marginal player in the Kennedy administration.  Caro's sources include an impressive amount of primary sources, particularly interviews he or others had conducted with those involved with the events of the day (there were a few who refused to be interviewed by Caro, but for the most part the key players' reminisces were cited).  Yet a biography could contain a plethora of excellent primary sources and be weak if the biographer does not shape a compelling narrative from them.

Caro, however, is just that sort of biographer that can take these excellent sources and construct an even superior narrative from them.  Caro's LBJ is presented in all of his facets, with each sparkling in turn as the situation demands.  Caro does an outstanding job speculating as to what might have motivated Johnson to break with his past political record and to display personality traits during the crisis following Kennedy's assassination that very few who had known him for decades could have ever suspected that he possessed.  LBJ's faults are not neglected; they are present within even his greatest triumphs and Caro's willingness to take Johnson as he was rather than what he wished others to view him as being makes The Passage of Power a gripping political biography.

For those (such as myself) who have not read Caro's three previous LBJ volumes (each of which won prestigious American awards for non-fiction/biography), The Passage of Power contains enough references to events Caro discussed in those volumes that there is little sense that the reader is picking up Johnson's life in media res.  As a biography, it is one of the best that I have ever read of a political leader.  As noted above, Caro's sources are impressive and he presents conclusions that are cogent and which offer possibilities for historians to consider for years, especially when there likely will be a flood of new Kennedy/Johnson-related books released in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 unsealing of the final classified documents related to the assassination.  The National Book Award shortlist in Non-Fiction is a very strong list of finalists, but The Passage of Power perhaps is the best of a very stacked field of strong biographies and very good to excellent histories.

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