The fourth volume of author Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson was released this month to anticipated critical acclaim. The current volume, The Passage of Power, covers LBJ's career from 1958-64, leaving off before the Vietnam War began to swallow his presidency, which had begun with historic domestic-policy achievements.
There are no stunning new disclosures in the most recent Caro volume. Most of the ground has been covered before by others, including historian Robert Dallek, whose two-volume Johnson biography is an authoritative source for later scholars. But Caro's work stands out, in particular, because of the numerous personal interviews he undertook over many years with figures of the period.
The first volume of Caro's Johnson series, The Path to Power, was published in 1982 to favorable reviews and to general horror by the Johnson family and friends. It traced LBJ's early rise in Texas and made him appear a man who would resort to just about any means to attain and hold political power.
Soon after that first book's publication, what amounted to a Johnson rally was held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., organized principally by former LBJ staffer Jack Valenti, then head of the Motion Picture Association of America. Alumni of the Johnson White House and Administration gathered for dinner and a program afterward, which featured Lady Bird Johnson. Mrs. Johnson, asked about the Caro book, said, "I understand that it will be the first of a series. The books will be heavy and, piled together, they should make a good doorstop."
By 1999, when a similar reunion was held at the LBJ Ranch in Texas, hosted by Mrs. Johnson, a second volume had been published, not quite so critical of LBJ as the first, although by no means adulatory. By then antagonism toward Caro had waned and, over two days, no one mentioned him or his project.
A third volume was published in 2002, dealing with Johnson's tenure as a highly skilled Senate Majority Leader. By that time Caro already was researching the next one.
I had a long luncheon with Caro in New York, nearly six years ago, focused mainly on the period 1965-8. (That period will be covered in his upcoming fifth volume.) Caro took copious notes. He expressed surprise that, although Johnson often had bullied and mistreated my boss at the time, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, I nonetheless took a balanced view of LBJ. I did not like Johnson's treatment of Humphrey or his escalation of the Vietnam War, I told him, but nonetheless respected his domestic achievements and his attempts to escape the Vietnam trap on honorable terms.
I also was sympathetic to LBJ as an insecure man doing his very best to get big things done. Caro was pleased at the time because Harry Middleton, a former LBJ White House aide, had just retired as director of the Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, and his successor had granted Caro, for the first time, access to the archives there.
Caro himself no doubt will be the subject of later studies for his immersion over some 35 years in the life of a man, LBJ, whom he mainly disliked. I asked him why he had taken on the LBJ project. He said that, while writing a 1974 biography of New York public-works czar Robert Moses, he had become fascinated with men who understood and effectively exercised power. That led him to Johnson.
Caro was and is an archetype New York Upper West Side liberal, far in cultural orientation from Johnson's rural Texas Hill Country populism. His books reflect that gap.
Finishing the current book, I wondered: What would Johnson think of it? I could imagine him saying, first of all: "Hell, this book is as much about the Kennedys as it is about me!"
That would really have nettled Johnson, who resented what he saw as the Kennedys' patronizing treatment of him while he served as President John Kennedy's vice president and who shared with Robert Kennedy a mutual dislike verging on hatred. The Johnson-Kennedy tensions were well known at the time but they were only a part of the Johnson story in the years covered.
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