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4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Volume 4)
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on 2 December 2015
Yes, it is long. Yes, it is not a casual read. Yes, it helps to have read the previous volumes (as I have...nah, nah, na, NAA, na!) but Robert Caro has done it again. This is a brilliant snapshot of Washington politics and backstage manouering as we are likely to get this year. Or most other years. This volume covers Johnson leaving his post as Senate Majority Leader for the Vice-Presidency and his soon realising he has made a huge mistake. Tragically the crack of Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle in Dallas saves Johnson from the nothingness of the Veep's non-role in governmental affairs and ironically saves LBJ's career but OMG what a story!
And let it be said here and now this book has the best explanation of Bobby Kennedy and LBJ's longstanding feud you will ever but ever read. Caro also goes to great lengths to explain how Bobby Kennedy, a most prickly and unlikeable undergraduate while studying at the Univ of Virginia, became the warm-hearted Senate visionary Democrats still weep over today.
This is a great work, a terrific book. It will stand tall through the ages and be used in schools for years and years. Any American interested in how we got to where we are in the early 21st century should read this.
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on 18 October 2014
Like many, I have waited keenly for these volumes to appear over the past 25 years. Part 2 and especially part 3 are among the greatest biographies I have read. Part 4 goes from the 1960 presidential nominations and campaign, through the Kennedy administration and assassination, to mid-1964 with the passage of the civil rights bill.

Why does this not work quite so well? One reason is that the Kennedy years and assassination have been covered ad nauseam, often in a hagiographic manner. Caro is not that, and Kennedy's legislative failures are made clear, but for me too much is swept under the rug.The second is that there is really not so much to say about LBJ when he was V-P. The Kennedys treated him like dirt: this is made very clear, but only needed to be said so many times. The events in Dallas could also have been stated a lot more briefly. So the middle third of the book drags a bit. On either side though, the high standards of parts 2 and 3 are maintained. The story of why and how LBJ screwed up the 1960 nomination is fascinating. The account of his first two months as president is epic, as is the revisiting of the Johnson methods for getting things through the Senate. The writing here is among Caro's best and it is these things that are maybe not such common knowledge where the book excels.

Maybe Caro is getting old (78 on Wikipedia), but I found the long parts of overblown writing about LBJ to be tedious. Perhaps they were there in the other volumes, but they seem more irritating here. To set against that are wonderful character sketches of forgotten figures: Harry Byrd is especially memorable, but there are many others.

How could this have been improved? Shortening the middle third and taking the story through to the end of 1964, including the election would have been better. Then the presidency, and the disaster of Vietnam would be a final volume. One can only hope that Caro lives long enough to complete it.

A final though occurred to me on completion. Bobby Kennedy and Johnson REALLY deserved each other.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 June 2015
This monumental series has spanned my adult life. Every single volume is chock-full of not just new perspectives, but revelations about the nature of power - how to get it, how to keep it, how to use it, even how to lose it. There is wisdom, admiration, and condemnation of LBJ, all rolled into one. Beyond LBJ, there are insightful and balanced portraits of all the key players, here including JFK and RFK in wonderfully vivid depth, but also an array of lesser known politicians and Kennedy men. Most important, there is a sub-plot of how LBJ cultivated and seduced Harry Byrd (D-VA) into cooperating with his agenda, breaking a logjam similar to the one that has stymied Obama.

In this volume, LBJ achieves his life-long ambition, becoming President. The scope of the narrative covers LBJ at the height of his powers in the Senate, then a depressing hiatus as a scorned VP, culminating in his masterful takeover of the reins of power in a grieving nation. In terms of plot, the reader gets an in-depth look at the LBJ-RFK political war, Cold War maneuvering with Castro and the USSR, and of course, the assassination of JFK. Caro writes of these with his usual luminous prose not just to evoke a time, but to expose its underbelly in the most shocking and challenging ways. What makes Caro's books must-reads are the themes that he develops: his books are exercises in moralizing and assessment, getting us to question the reality of the American system of government. Along the way, there is plenty of advice relevant to the young and ambitious as they begin their careers. At its best, the quality of the writing is so outstanding that these are also literary works of absolutely the first rank.

Here are the themes as I see them. First, though many liberals were suspicious of the way that LBJ consistently subordinated his ideals to his pursuit of power, once he achieved power, LBJ used it to advance his ideals, many of which were hidden from his deep-South colleagues. At long last, he initiates his own agenda in favor of civil rights, economic opportunity, and the like. That is how "power reveals".

Second, to effect a smooth transition, LBJ was able for a time to suppress his worst flaws - vindictiveness, anger, meanness, inability to listen, and ruthlessness - in favor of inclusiveness and compromise, always in appearance if not in reality. This was accomplished at great personal cost, in particular toadying up to RFK and others.

Third, he continued to rely on the core skills and instincts that he developed over his entire career. Here, we see LBJ snap back with his undeniable political genius, enabling him to recognize the perfect time to get something done, to cultivate the right people to do so, to maintain the right public image, etc. Yet at the same time, he was secretive, misleading, and manipulative, relying on lies and intimidation when necessary. Whatever you think about it, LBJ succeeded, where JFK failed, to get a balking Congress to act in the most productive legislative sessions since FDR's first term. This is relevant to the debate about Obama's presidency: LBJ may have had a democratic majority, but Southern Democrats were blocking everything, much as the GOP is doing today. LBJ figured out how to change that dynamic - it is an amazing story.

Fourth, and this is new, LBJ made a series of self-destructive political misjudgments, each of which threatened to derail his career. They included: 1) waiting too long to seek the nomination in 1960 out of fear, assuming instead that the party would turn to him in a deadlock; 2) misunderstanding how, with TV, the power base was shifting from backroom dealing to celebrity, which explains how JFK blindsided him so completely; 3) his assumption that as VP he could still function as majority leader in the Senate. Combining such misjudgments with his suppressed character flaws, Caro hints, will explain his catastrophic failure in Vietnam once he wins the presidency in his own right.

All that being said, there is no question that volume 4 is not as good as vols 1 & 3 (which rank as perhaps the greatest American political bios ever written). I do not know if it is because Caro's powers are waning as he enters his late 70s, but somehow there is less energy to the prose. As many have remarked, he also refers to earlier volumes, which he never did before. We can only hope that his energy will return in the final volume, which so many of us anticipate eagerly.
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on 20 January 2014
A tour de force.This is an exceptional biography of a politician who makes Machiavelli look an amateur.Lyndon Johnson had a mind like a steel trap.He had a photographic memory,A power lust,a personality that was both persuasive and brutal.As a young senator, he cultivated the senior southern senator's who had the power and effective control of the senate with outrageous flattery and flannel which is embarrassing to read in it's flagrancy.He spent year's doing it and gradually rose in authority within it.At the same time he abused his staff shamefully with a viciousness that was shocking.As he became more powerful other senator's learnt not to oppose his wishes.Johnson studded everyone he needed to,he made it his business to know their weaknesses and used the knowledge unmercifully to his advantage.He gradually controlled the senate and the bills that came before it.He was organised,and dedicated to his own need for power..Nothing stood in his way[tho he met his match later with the Kennedys] I felt at times i was standing by his side as he cajoled,bullied,buttered up his friends and enemy's,such is the detail and power of the prose.A truly great biography and an engrossing, stunning read.
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on 24 July 2017
This was a stunning read. It is long and it is very detailed but there was no mundane repetition. The massive research undertaken for this book helps provide evidence for the arguments Caro makes in his assessment of LBJ. The detail of discussions between Booby Kennedy and Johnson in the Hotel rooms to agree the Vice Presidency is fascinating. I have passed this book on to friends telling them that they have to read this but they will need to prepare themselves for the long haul. It's a large book and small print. But set yourself a goal people, brace yourself and read this book.
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on 15 May 2013
It's not often I wish I could give a book more than 5 stars. This is a superbly written, nuanced account of 5 crucial years in the life of Lyndon Johnson and, indeed, in the life of the United States, some of them better known as the Kennedy years. Caro gives us political biography as political thriller - there were times when, as with Mantel's Wolf Hall, although I knew what was going to happen, it felt as though I didn't. And Caro is so very, very good at psychological analysis - I was going to say we get a warts and all portrayal, but Caro actually goes beyond even that to show Lyndon Johnson in all his human complexity. It is difficult to believe that a book about this so over-told period in American history, with so much detailed information on political manoeuvring, a 600+ page book on such a short period, could be so engrossing, so absorbing that when you look up from it, you have to reorientate yourself. I lived through the LBJ years and brought away the memory of an apparently overbearing bully and the relentless chants `hey hey LBJ how many kids did you kill today' during Vietnam - now I am aware of a supremely astute and crafty political operator - someone who could actually deliver on the rhetoric, a poor boy who finally got his dream and endeavoured to create a country which was genuinely for the people, all the people. The overbearing bully is there, and none of Johnson's flaws are glossed over, but Caro, buttressed by years of painstaking and exhaustive research, shows us the man who was prepared to take on what he was told were lost causes, because, as he said `Well, what the hell's the presidency for?' And that is what this book is all about, as Caro says in the final paragraph of his introduction: `...the story of Lyndon Johnson during the opening, transition, weeks of his presidency is a triumphant story, one in which it is possible to glimpse the full possibilities of presidential power - of that power exercised by a master in the use of power - in a way that is visible at only a few times in American history.' The Kennedy men had the Harvard brains, but not the political nous. This is a book everyone should read, and it is uncomfortable reading because it makes us confront hows how ideals can almost certainly only be realised by a readiness to wheel and deal, a willingness perhaps to let principles slide, the necessity of working within moral grey areas - it should be gift-wrapped and presented to every new leader of men wherever they may be.
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on 18 August 2016
I came into reading this book without any familiarity with Robert Caro or his previous books on Lyndon Johnson.

'The Passage Of Power' is a reminder of just how interesting the work of a scholar can be, but it's also told in a way that is highly accessible and gripping throughout. Anyone vaguely interested in Lyndon Johnson should absolutely read this.

In an age where people are either unfamiliar with President Johnson or place him into their fanatical conspiracy theories (usually involving the death of JFK), it's nice to read something that is actually researched and factual rather than some rubbish typed on a blog.

The length of the book may be off putting to some but it's worth persevering. The 60s was an incredibly vibrant time politically and this book embodies that.
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on 30 October 2014
Not quite in the same range as volume 2 (the ultimate power struggle) but up to Caro's excellent, if somewhat gushing at times, standards. Races at a pace through the civil rights legislation of 63/64 -- could be treated in more depth I think -- but brilliant on the Kennedy-Johnson battles, the assassination and transition.
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on 26 April 2014
Part four the years of Lyndon Johnson is a page turner. Even though you know that he got his legislation through you are on the edge of your chair to learn how he managed it. All four books are a must read for anybody interested in American politics. I can not wait for the next book in the series.
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on 30 July 2013
This is the only volume of Caro's series on Johnson that I have read and it is a masterful study of a fascinating political operator. The insights into the less than wholly democratic processes of the US political machine at the time, both at County level in Texas and in Washington, are fascinating, terrifying and hilarious all at the same time. Johnson's mastery was supreme until he lost it when faced with the final challenge, achieving the Presidency; how he was out-manoeuvred and then humiliated by the Kennedy's is surprising, moving, even shocking. But then his ascent back to mastery after Kennedy's death in Dallas, is portrayed as the triumphant re-emergence of the political genius. The political vignettes of the other players and historical interludes are fascinating and worthy of separate books in their own right. The portrayal of JFK, RFK, the Cuban missile crisis, the growing challenge of Vietnam, are all so much more than an interesting backdrop to one man's story, they form the threads of this intricate fabric of a fascinating time in history and one man's central role in it. The human elements of how he helped ordinary people, how he flattered and manipulated the powerful, his homespun charm winning over Chancellor Erhard, and even his weaknesses, of which he had many, are all fascinating. Perhaps the most interesting aspect to me was how it was LBJ who unlocked the Washington political log-jam that was blocking the Civil Rights movement, in a way that even JFK hadn't been able to achieve with all his charisma. This is a great biography of, one has to say despite all his faults, a great man.
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