August 27, 1908 – Birth of Lyndon B. Johnson and Review of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power” by Robert A. Caro

Lyndon Baines Johnson, our 36th President, is remembered not only for the tragedy of Vietnam but for the miraculous of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This book is a magnificent way to find out more about this man and his incredible importance in American history.

LBJ by David Plunkert for the New York Times, May 6, 2012

LBJ by David Plunkert for the New York Times, May 6, 2012

How appropriate that I listened to this book on Brilliance Audio because it is a brilliant, brilliant book, and the narration is superb as well.

This is the fourth of Caro’s projected five-volume series on LBJ. Already, Caro has won two Pulitzer Prizes in Biography; three National Book Critics Circle Awards – for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year and Best Biography; the National Book Award; the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that best “exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist”; and virtually every other major literary honor including the Gold Medal in Biography from the National Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Barack Obama.

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Although this book lasts for 27 discs (and is over 700 pages in hardcover), it never once was boring. In fact, during one passage while I was listening at a stoplight, I was so deeply involved I didn’t notice the light turned green until all the cars behind me started honking. And this was during an incident in the story, moreover, with which I was already quite familiar (i.e., the assassination of John F. Kennedy). But Caro has a way of fashioning facts into a dramatic and thrilling narrative, whether the topic is a political murder or political machinations in Congress. The story of how Johnson got the Civil Rights Act through Congress is every bit as gripping as the account of the assassination.

I should also note that while the book runs for over 33 hours, it covers a rather short time in LBJ’s life. But what a period it was!

This volume begins (after some background on LBJ in case you’re just joining in with his story) right before Johnson’s selection as the vice presidential nominee in 1959. Although the story continues until July, 1964 (with the passage of the Civil Rights Act), most of the book focuses on the critical time between the assassination in November, 1963 and the subsequent intense transition period that lasted approximately seven weeks.

Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One, November 22, 1963

Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One, November 22, 1963

Even if you know something about this period in history, I can’t imagine you won’t learn more from this book. In fact, Caro is now considered such an expert on congressional rules and procedures from his years of studies of Johnson, “the master of the senate”, that politicians study his books on Johnson to learn tactics and strategies. This complex and tragic story also tells you about:

  • the ways in which the Kennedy brothers and their devoted fans managed to manipulate historical accounts of the period to enhance the image of JFK and denigrate that of LBJ, whom they pretty much abhorred;
  • the extraordinary and ingenious way LBJ managed to arm-wrestle, manipulate, cajole, horse trade, and threaten to get the Civil Rights Act through Congress in spite of the stranglehold of Southern senators on any such passage;
  • the tragic fact that, for the most part, LBJ was unable to overcome the ruthlessness, pettiness, deceit, and secrecy that propelled him to power in the first place;
  • the elements of his childhood – especially the memory of humiliation and the craving for respect and esteem that made him that way;
  • the role in American politics played by the mutual antipathy between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy; (Caro had me vacillating back and forth on who was the bigger villain in the story, but ultimately I went with Bobby, who not only seemed more vicious, but was more able to manipulate history because of his money and high-powered, literate friends);
  • Johnson’s sympathy for the underdog, anger at injustice, and compassion, and how, unlike the Kennedy brothers, he knew how to do something about it besides just create stirring rhetoric.
Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in 1966, pretending to get along

Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in 1966, pretending to get along

Evaluation: I can’t offer enough encomiums about this book, nor about the fabulous narration by Grover Gardner, who manages to sound exactly like Lyndon Johnson when he needs to do so. There was not an instant of this story that fell flat or dragged. I tried to think: would I have felt that way if I had been reading instead of actually feeling like Johnson was in the car with me? I can’t answer for certain of course, but I do know that I am not alone in praising this book in any format to the skies. I defy anyone to read or listen to this book without developing at least some empathy and admiration for Johnson (even while deploring some of his cringe-worthy behaviors and horribly lethal decisions). I was incredibly impressed by Caro’s objectivity – he told you the good, the bad, and the ugly about both the Kennedy men and LBJ, and you never knew from one moment to the next where your sympathies would lie, because Caro never tries to push you one way or the other. It’s just the facts, maam, but delivered in a way that is riveting, exciting, nuanced and many-layered.

Rating: 5/5

Published in hardover by Alfred A. Knopf, 2012; Published by Brilliance Audio in 2013 unabridged on 27 discs, performed by Grover Gardner

Additional Note on the Audio: At the beginning and end of each disc, a narrator announced, for example, “This is the beginning of Disc 10” or “This is the end of Disc 10”. Furthermore, the last line of the preceding disc was repeated as the first line of the next disc. This was incredibly helpful.

Previous Books in the Series by Robert Caro:

Book One: The Path to Power (1982)
Book Two: Means of Ascent (1990)
Book Three: Master of the Senate (2002)
Book Four: The Passage of Power (2012)

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