BOOK REPORT: THE PASSAGE OF POWER By Robert Caro
First of all, as impressive as it is of Caro to have written these four volumes, it has to be at least one percent as impressive of me to have read them all. So let’s take a moment out from the Caro parade to send me my due portion of congratulation.
I do love these books. They are an incredible achievement. The sheer volume of detail amassed is something we never will see again. That said, they are getting with each volume progressively more frustrating to read. Part of it is that we losing some of the novelty of the first books as the story moves from obscure distant terrain - Johnson’s roots in Texas Hill Country - to the more well-travelled White House years. But it also must be said, the heavy handedness of Caro’s writing has gotten pretty frustrating to wade through. The big arc he was shooting for - that only a man as ruthless and corrupt as LBJ could have accomplished what he did - was clear volumes back so we read with a sense at this point of Johnson falling into step with a story that had been preordained by the muses of history. Caro hits his major notes over and over - “for a young man who grew up in desperate poverty” so that it gets to the point where you can recite in advance the card Caro is going to play at each turn.
But given all that, it’s still a pretty amazing book to read. The intimacy of the portrait of LBJ’s relationship with the Kennedys is an amazing picture of these ruthless driven power players locked together in a shotgun marriage. If you feel - as I do, and as you should - that RFK was one of the great demonic figures of the post-War era, the book has plenty of material to aid the drive to bring to Earth the hagiographic and largely false portrait of the saintly Bobby that still reigns today.
Presidents by and large are the most demented people to walk the planet. They all are driven by this combination of very shattered childhoods that were sublimated into insane, unquenchable ambition and need for power. That seems to apply - with some exceptions - from the founding fathers right through to the current occupant. They are people who if you met them in any other circumstance besides politics you would think them the weirdest, creepiest people you ever came across. Picture the most desperate student council member in your school who would go into hysterical tears if another candidate put their posters one centimeter outside of the official poster hanging area. Politics gives these creepy, broken people a place where they can seem normal and a language about helping the (poor, middle class, God fearing, etc) that makes their weirdness seem like it has a purpose. And then if they get to be President and they are invested with the aura of immense power and fame, all their weirdness seems in retrospect like the hand of God driving them to soar above mere mortals to their great destiny.
But if Lyndon Johnson had produced a few dozen fake votes less in his 1948 senate race, or if JFK had been caught sleeping with a Nazi spy, or if it had been rainy over Normandy Beach and the DDay landing had failed and Ike had been forced to resign - all these guys would have just been broken, creepy over-excited maniacs scaring people at their local diner. But instead they were Presidents.
For better and worse, there is probably no more Shakespearean run of Presidents than the JKF, LBJ, Richard Nixon trio. Say what you will about them, these were tortured, conflicted personalities on an epic scale. The amount of high drama to go through the White House from 1961 - 1974 is not something we’re ever likely to see again in the smallness Baby Boom era, and whatever scraps of a world they leave us. Everything a person wants to know about power and its effects could be found study those 13 years and every student of history should commit them to memory.