Robert Caro has been tracking his great white whale for thirty years now. As with any undertaking of this scale, an aura of legend attaches to the labor. First there is the Ahab-like devotion with which he has pursued the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson. In 1977, not long after publishing his epic biography of Robert Moses, New York City’s master builder, Caro decamped to Texas Hill Country for three years to take in the air of LBJ’s childhood. He spent a night outdoors in a sleeping bag to better fathom the desolation of the territory. Along with his wife, Ina, he has combed through every possible archive and ballot box; his appetite for firsthand impressions from LBJ’s entourage is matched only by his allergy to post-1960 scholarship. All of this fact-hunting and what you might call Method research has made Caro—who started his career as a reporter for Newsday—something of a hero for American journalists: he is the guildsman who made good and raised their craft to a level that academics can only envy. But he is far from universally admired by historians. Garry Wills and Sean Wilentz have dismissed him as a myth maker who rhapsodizes the life of Johnson into a morality play. In their view, Caro is hopelessly committed to seeing the thirty-sixth president through the prism of good and evil: LBJ the civil rights crusader versus LBJ the scourge of Vietnam. Caro’s anatomy of political power is too crude, they argue; he thinks LBJ’s secret was simply to be always the greediest, most ambitious and ruthless man in the room.
This is a serious criticism, but like the journalistic halo over Caro, it confuses the trappings of his achievement for its core. Caro has always been more valuable as a guide to how power works in postwar America in particular than how it works in some general abstract sense. Biography would not initially seem to be the form best suited to his purpose. The locus of power in this country is never fixed; it doesn’t reside in one person or single power elite, or in one institution, agency, economic interest, media outlet or popular movement, but in the shifting imbalances among them. Caro’s fortune in choosing LBJ as an entry for understanding the elements of American power is that Johnson moved through so many of them—and responded to and manipulated so many more—throughout his long career. Indeed, the great drama of reading The Years of Lyndon Johnson comes in watching LBJ master the machinery of American politics like one of those security contractors hired by companies to test the strengths and weaknesses of their systems.
The Passage of Power, the fourth installment of Caro’s LBJ saga, takes us from Johnson’s last two years in the Senate to his unsatisfactory days as vice president—the one office whose riddle he was never able to crack—to the summit of his political might in the year following President Kennedy’s assassination. With unshakable faith in the value of repetition, Caro shows, again and again, how LBJ was not only an expert counter of votes and “reader of men” but also a sensitive monitor of the national pulse. In The Passage of Power, that pulse is determined by the civil rights struggle, and LBJ rallies his matchless skills to the cause. But however sincere his convictions were—and Caro convinces us that they were sincere—it’s nevertheless clear that LBJ seized on civil rights because it was politically sensible to do so. His brilliance as a politician lay not in his idealism but his opportunism. His career also manifested a corollary dynamic: the more adept a democratic politician is, the more perfect a demagogue he or she will be. LBJ’s calculated populism identified tidal shifts in public opinion and then sought to assuage them with just the right degree of reform that would ensure his continued rise within the power structure. As president, Johnson could rise no further, and so Caro claims that his true nature can be discovered by chronicling his exercise of executive power. “Power always reveals,” he insists. But in fact something like the opposite happens: we witness how LBJ’s lifelong lust for power prevented him from being much more than an opportunistic pursuer of political gain.