In the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Austin Texas there are thousands of boxes full of records that only one man has ever opened. That man is Robert A Caro and he has just released the fourth volume in his mammoth biography of Lyndon Johnson, titled The Passage of Power.
How important is this? Well in literary circles this is big! Volumes 1 and 3 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, titled ‘The Path to Power’ and ‘Master of the Senate’ won, respectively, National Book Critics Awards and a Pulitzer prize. Fans of the series include the current President, various leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives and politicians from this side of the pond including the current Chancellor, William Hague, Michael Howard and Gordon Brown.
Why? Because it is very, very good. This is no dry account of a life, but rather an analysis of a man’s character, in particular his towering ambition, evident even from his schooldays when he sketched out his own path of Congressman to Senator and then President.
What’s more this is history. Caro’s painstaking research is steadily rewiring our perceptions of events we thought we knew all about. The central question that Caro poses is, do the ends justify the means? Can Johnson’s appalling behaviour in getting to the Presidency justify the enormous good he did when he got there, most notably bringing civil and voting rights to Black Americans.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Volume 2, titled the Means of Ascent, in which Caro definitively proves that Johnson and his cronies did indeed ‘steal’ the 1948 Senate primary by stuffing ballot boxes and large scale bribery of officials. But this is a mere prelude to Volume 3, Master of the Senate, which tells the story of how LBJ, as he became known, brought America’s Upper House under his total control.
One of the joys of these books is the cast of supporting characters, many now forgotten or marginalised by history, that are thrown up along the way as Johnson schemes, bribes, cajoles, threatens and bullies his way to the top. In the Path to Power, it is Sam Rayburn, the longest serving speaker of the House of Representatives and Johnson’s Texas mentor. In the Means of Ascent Caro focuses on the story of beloved Texas Governor, Coke Stevenson, an “old style cowboy knight of the frontier” who stood against LBJ in the 1948 Senate campaign. In Master of the Senate, he focuses on LBJ’s partnership with Senator Richard Russell (pictured above receiving the “Johnson Treatment”) who commanded the Southern caucus which had successfully stood in the way of vital civil rights legislation.
Which brings us to the 4th volume, titled the Passage of Power which focuses on LBJ’s life between 1960 when he ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination, but lost, and 1964. If Caro is true to form we can expect to learn much fascinating detail about the events in Dallas in November 1963 and LBJ’s assumption of Presidential power after Kennedy’s assassination. Central questions that Caro may answer include whether LBJ would have been dumped from the Vice Presidency if JFK had lived and how he managed to ram the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act through the Senate against unprecedented opposition.
Where does LBJ rank in the list of those who have occupied the Oval Office? History is judging him much more kindly than public opinion in the immediate aftermath of his refusal to be the Democratic candidate in 1968, in the middle of the Vietnam War. I recall a conversation with an American Republican who found out I was reading The Path to Power and said simply, “One of our greatest Presidents.”