Robert A. Caro has spent the better part of 40 years researching the life and times of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the enigmatic and tortured 36th president of the United States. Last week's release of the fourth of five planned volumes on Johnson's life marked a great event in the chronology of U.S. history scholarship.
Caro takes a very long time to write his books. His first epic volume on Johnson's life was published in 1982 and new ones have emerged every 10 years or so. This book, The Passage of Power, brings the series to more than 3,000 pages of text and still leaves the bulk of Johnson's presidency unexplored.
All human beings are complex, contradictory and complicated people, but Johnson was bigger than life with an extraordinary number of contradictions and complications. A Texan who grew up poor, Johnson eventually became fabulously wealthy. He held many racist beliefs and threw around the "N" word casually, but spearheaded nation-changing civil rights legislation.
He possessed great vision and clarity of purpose, but also obsessed over avenging even the slightest insults and humiliations. As president, he helped enact JFK's legislation but feuded with the Kennedys both before and after leaving the White House.
It's no easy task to reconcile all of these contradictions, but Caro somehow manages it through sheer determination and willpower, poring through tens of thousands of documents and interviewing all of the surviving participants. His books are nothing if not thoroughly researched, to the point of distracting the reader. Even seemingly minor events are documented and discussed in great detail.
The 700-plus pages of this volume cover only a very small period of Johnson's life, from the late 1950s through early 1964, but in that time Johnson went from being the most powerful Senate Majority Leader in history to being the least powerful Vice President in history.
As Vice President, the proud Texan was the subject of ridicule from the Kennedy White House staffers. He was excluded from most important meetings and sent on meaningless diplomatic trips around the globe. His offers to help the president were rebuffed or merely ignored.
By November 1963, Johnson was in trouble. Several scandals were about to break, any of which could have not only embarrassed him but resulted in criminal charges. His ability to deliver Southern votes in the upcoming elections was seriously in doubt — he couldn't even hold the Texas Democratic party together. Kennedy was seriously considering dropping him from the ticket.
Johnson arrived in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 as a broken and shattered man. The Dallas newspaper headlines that day carried Richard Nixon's prediction that Kennedy, would in fact, dump Johnson. Hearings that day in Washington began to examine his questionable financial practices.
Three gunshots changed all of that. By the end of the day, Johnson was flying back to Washington as the new president, Kennedy's body in a casket. With a nation in chaos and mourning, and the possibility of a nuclear war always present, Johnson seized control, vowing to carry on Kennedy's unfinished agenda and calming a shocked nation.
Within a few months, he'd moved the stalled Kennedy bills through Congress, something nobody thought possible. He appointed the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination and dispel ugly rumors about the circumstances of Kennedy's death. Although the investigation was flawed and incomplete, it served its purpose at the time. (Caro felt compelled to state several times that he found no evidence of Johnson's complicity in JFK's death.)
By the time the book ends, in mid-1964, Johnson had achieved more in Congress in a few months than in Kennedy's entire presidency. The nation was headed towards its largest economic expansion in history. A war on poverty seemed winnable.
Within five years, of course, all of this would fall apart. Large urban rioting followed the civil rights victories. The war in Vietnam not only cost billions of dollars and as many as 2 million lives, it also destroyed the trust Americans had once held in the presidency. Johnson retired in disgrace, a broken and embittered man.
To tell the story of Lyndon Johnson is to tell the story of America, for he embodies all of its virtues and flaws. Caro is now 76 years old and still has yet to tell the most compelling story of Johnson's presidency, its destruction, but the four volumes so far stand as possibly the greatest achievement in modern political biography.
No serious student of American history can avoid reading Caro's books. And even for non-historians, Caro has created a vivid and unforgettable body of work about a poor Texan boy with great ambitions, who lived to see the fulfillment of his dreams and also their destruction.