In “Passage of Power,” the fourth volume of his ever-expanding, five-volume-to-be biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, Robert Caro maintains the same standards of excellence of the first three volumes and more.
The book covers the era from late 1958, when, despite his denials, LBJ first looked at running for president, through Jan. 8, 1964 and his first State of the Union address, with brief glances past that to passage of the 1964 civil rights bill, the first moves in Vietnam, and the Warren Commission. The bulk of LBJ as President, though, will be in volume five.
The title refers, of course, to the passage of power from LBJ to JFK, as Johnson, after having vastly expanded the power of Senate Majority Leader, along with effectiveness of the Senate, finds that this power won’t transfer to the vice presidency.
Not even in the Veep’s constitutional role as presiding officer of the Senate. Caro details how LBJ tried to get himself allowed to sit on the Senate Democratic Caucus, make committee assignments, etc., and how he hand-picked Mike Mansfield to be his successor as majority leader because he surmised, rightly, that Mansfield would go along.
Others, even the by-now often-flaccid Hubert Humphrey, would not, though, and did not.
LBJ met equal success at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Caro details how he sent JFK a memo of attempts to expand his duties that became known as the most blatant attempt at a power grab since Secretary of State William Seward sent a somewhat similar letter to President Lincoln early in his administration.
Like Lincoln, Kennedy basically ignored the letter, rather than either embarrass or enflame LBJ by firing back.
So, why ws Johnson on the ticket? Caro speculates two reasons.
One, even before the 1960 Democratic convention, he guesses that, without telling Bobby, he was already counting electoral votes and knew he needed Johnson. (Bobby, of course, tried three times to talk LBJ back out of the position, and Caro well documents how this was an “unauthorized” try.)
Second, Caro speculates JFK figured it was better having LBJ inside the tent pissing out rather than holding his legislative priorities hostage in the Senate.
I’m not going to give away much else, but I will add that Caro has a few new insights about the LBJ-RFK feud following on Jeff Shesol’s “Mutual Contempt.” In fact, I now find myself wondering if part of the reason Bobby hated Lyndon so much as a liar is that, unconsciously, Bobby knew how much of a liar he was himself.