This is most effective work of nonfiction I have ever read.
I have been reading about LBJ and JFK my whole life – I even wrote papers (including my thesis equivalent at the LBJ School) on LBJ’s transition from the vice presidency in general and LBJ’s accession to the presidency in particular. I spent two and a half years in graduate school ten yards away from LBJ’s presidential library, and often wandered over to look at the exhibits or the Oval Office replica (6/7 scale which should bother everyone as much as it does me).
Yet in the first two chapters Caro explained LBJ and JFK to me in a way that made me realize how incomplete and shallow my understanding was. I simply could not put the book down after that. I’ll never look at John Kennedy the same after the understanding he gave me of Kennedy’s physical condition, which was incomparably worse that I previously understood – even after substantial reading. His summary of LBJ’s background and the forces that drove him was far beyond anything I’d read before. That that is just the first two chapters. As almost a curtain call he gives Robert Kennedy the same treatment at the end, even though the book’s time period – 1958 to the beginning of 1964 – doesn’t require it.
The book begins in 1958 with Johnson’s beginning to seek the Democratic nomination in 1960, goes through the campaign (making clear that LBJ’s campaigning for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket is what gave Kennedy the White House) and the agonizing experience of being vice president. It then addresses in detail Johnson’s unerring first six weeks as president, where he not only managed the transition, but began the passage of the Kennedy tax cut and civil rights bills through Congress – major legislation in a Congress that had done almost nothing substantive (with a minor exception for the years of LBJ’s Senate majority leader tenure under Eisenhower) since 1937. LBJ’s accomplishments in getting major legislation moving was nothing short of miraculous, as was his success in keeping the Kennedy team together for the crucial first weeks of his administration, and is success in overcoming his own shortcomings as a public speaker. No one who knew him expected his address to Congress five days after Kennedy’s death to be anything but an embarrassment and a disaster – he simply could not restrain his gestures and speak slowly enough no matter how hard he tried. But on November 27, 1963 he did. He persuaded Ted Sorenson to stay on and draft much of the speech, and then disciplined himself to present it with the seriousness and dignity that no one thought he possessed. Six weeks later he did the same in his State of the Union.
Caro seems to have selected this time period because it provides in many ways a contrast to the remainder of Johnson’s presidency. Not that LBJ’s corruption, both from his Senate days and while in the White House, is not present here, but because his disciplining of himself to set aside the negative aspects of his personality and leadership style for the crucial transition period was so extraordinary – and the positive effects on the country resulting from his actions during that period were so significant – that Caro seems to want readers to understand that here was a truly great leader with enormous gifts who chose to turn them to the service of good. For a while. Clearly that will come crashing down in the next five years, but those years shouldn’t obscure what happened from November 1963 through the summer of 1964.
Caro’s command of the subject matter is impressive, and the story he tells absolutely engrossing. The book is 692 pages, including Notes (which I read) and I finished it in just under a month.
I said it is the most effective work of nonfiction I have ever read, but that is because of the wealth of information imparted to the reader. I didn’t particularly like Caro’s habit of mentioning both his prior works on LBJ and the (still forthcoming) volume which will address the Johnson presidency after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And even less his tendency to refer to “this author” and what people said during his interviews with them. But I can’t object to the factual relevance of his statements, and it underscores that Caro is that rare historical biographer who has become part of the story of the historical figure that they are explaining. This is the fourth of a projected five book series on LBJ, and Caro is far, far beyond presenting a positive or negative book on him.
It wasn’t always that way. I remember when I was a student at the LBJ school standing next to Lady Bird (this is 1987-1989 sometime at a brown bag lunch – and I have the photo to prove it) when a student asked her to sign a book about her husband.
She signed it, and then closed the cover and saw Caro’s name (it was the first – Path to Power) and went “ooooooh” with her eyes closed – making clear she probably wouldn’t have signed it if she’d realized whose book it was.
Which was understandable – the New York Times review of Caro’s first volume concluded that “almost without exception his judgments on Johnson are not merely negative but hostile.” The book was perceived as an encyclopedic hatchet job, but as Caro has progressed through Johnson’s career that tone has faded, and it is certainly not the case with this one. Caro relates both positive and negative events without any note of animus – and as I’ve said twice already – the overall tone is an almost pleading with the readers to acknowledge Johnson’s gifts and accomplishments in this period – if for no other reason that because they contrast with what he had done – and would do again. Towards the end of the book he insists that LBJ has not received his due for the skillful transition, with most simply concluding that it was the norm following the death of the president in the United States. He also insists that second only to Lincoln, Johnson was responsible for actually moving the United States closer to the nation where all citizens were treated equally. I often wished while reading the book that Mrs. Johnson could have read it and seen Caro’s fairly passionate argument for her husband’s greatness – at least in a couple of areas he would have appreciated.
If it is true that as FDR is once reputed to have said, no great man can also be a good man, then LBJ is the best example. His gifts and his accomplishments were simply without parallel – with the exceptions in my estimation only of Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But his faults, and the consequences for the nation of those faults – was equally gigantic. But as Caro would say – and often does – that’s the next volume.