Jeremy's Reviews > The Passage of Power

The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro
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's review
May 27, 2012

it was amazing
Read in May, 2012

Simply one of the greatest biographies I've ever read. Initially, I thought this fourth volume could not equal the first three, at least for me, since one of the great aspects of the first three was how much I learned about parts of American 20th century history that I knew little of. This volume, about LBJ's abortive run for the presidency in 1960, the 1960 campaign with JFK, the three agonizing years as VP, and the transition 7 weeks after his ascension to the presidency, were about things I thought I knew much better. But Caro managed to teach me many things I did not know, and to make me reinterpret or reconsider those I thought I did know.

What Caro is building towards has been obvious from the start, but like a Greek tragedy, it doesn't matter that you know where it is going. You are still pulled into the grand moral question--can a man so fundamentally flawed as LBJ be the vessel for such an unalloyed good as civil rights? LBJ's venality, pettiness, sexism, lying, megalomania, machismo, and poor judgement (in the Cuban Missile Crisis in particular) have never been clearer than they are in this volume. But the man's sheer genius at legislative work, at understanding power and how to use it, at reading men and figuring out how to get what he needed from them, is also crystal clear. His calm and supernatural decisiveness on the day of the assassination is something I have never fully appreciated. And then there is the man's ability to feel such empathy for the poor, for the outcasts, for the African Americans who could neither vote nor could they protect themselves from violence. His heart was as big as Texas...and yet as corrupt and wicked as the worst part of the Lone Star state as well.

Caro is a writer and a thinker great enough to give us the man in full, without compromise. He makes historical judgements, carefully weighing the conflicting accounts in controversial moments. He also provides stunningly vivid portraits of JFK, RFK, and John Connally, among others. This a biography written by a man who would have made a great novelist in another life.

I cannot recommend this series enough. It is encouraging in a way to read how baffled our nation was by the filibuster power of the Southern bloc, of the hold the conservative coalition had on all legislation by their control of chairmanships and the rules, and how many intellectuals thought then that our institutions were not up to the task of world leadership. Yet we prevailed. There are passages here that could be taken straight from today's newspapers. But at the deeper level, this could be about any nation, any empire, in which people fought for power and influence.

One finishes this volume filled with trepidation--what if Caro dies before he can write volume 5? It would be one of the larger tragedies in the publishing world if such is the case. And what the world knows about Vietnam, about LBJ, and about the 1960s, will always be less if he does not write the book.

I believe that Caro has set a standard by which all future political biographies of American politicians will be judged. Few figures in the 20th century could justify such intense scrutiny, but in LBJ, Caro has found one, and he certainly has made the most of it. I stand in awe of the achievement that this book represents.
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message 2: by Brian (new)

Brian Herrera Did you see the CBS Sunday Morning profile of him a few weeks back? A fascinating portrait of this author's method and style. (Great, informative rave review, Jer.)

Jeremy I missed it! Thanks...and glad you liked the review.

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