I am fascinated by presidential biographies. Part of the fascination stems from a love of history, and part from an interest in the mechanics of a job that no one is ever qualified for, until they’ve held it. I’m particularly fond of in-depth, multivolume biographies. I thoroughly enjoyed Edmund Morris’s 3-volumes on Theodore Roosevelt. And I was also impressed by Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and His Time. In 2019 I began tackling Robert A. Caro’s mutltivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson, and today, I finsihed reading the fourth and most recent volume, The Passage of Power.
This book was the best of the lot so far, and it was so good, I could hardly bear to put it down. That says a lot when it comes to Caro, not because his books are so long, but because his subjects frequently infuriate me to such an extent that I sometimes have to set the books aside for a time to allow me to cool off. This happened to me in 2018 when I read The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. It happened to me again while reading volume 3 of his Johnson bio, Master of the Senate. Johnson (and Moses) are complex characters (Johnson seems more complex than Moses) and I found myself cheering for Johnson at times and furious with him at other times while reading Master of the Senate.
The Passage of Power covers the time period beginning with the 1960 election campaign, where Johnson runs-but-doesn’t-run for president and is ultimately picked as Kennedy’s vice president, and continues through the assassination to the beginning of the 1964 election campaign, a period of about four years. In that time, Johnson is completely taken down and then built up again, and it made for a fascinating read.
I appreciate how deep Caro goes in these biographies. They not just about Johnson but about his times and those around him. There was a mini-biography of Richard Russel in an earlier volume that could have been a stand-alone. In this latest volume, there was a similar dive into John F. Kennedy, and to a lesser extent, Bobby Kennedy. You can’t understand Johnson’s presidency without understand those two men, and it made for fascinating reading.
I finished the book wanting more, and therein lies the rub. Because as I write this, Caro is 86 years old and still deep into the research of the 5th and final book, which won’t be just a biography of Johnson, but also a history of the Vietnam War. In several placs in the present volume Caro mentions a subject that will be covered in the final volume–an investigation into Johnson’s finances; Johnson’s reelection campaign; his term from 1964-68, and Vietnam are just some examples. But I worry: will he finish in time?
It is not unprecedented for an author not to finish such a vast work. William Mancheter died before completing the final volume of his biography of Winston Churchill and had picked someone to finish it for him. I hope Caro has this kind of succession planning in mind because I really want to read that second volume now. When I first started reading the Johnson biography, he was among the presidents I was least interested in. Caro’s four volumes have changed that and I can’t wait to read more.
Written on February 7, 2022.
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