The Cult of Caro
I have not been a member of the Cult of Caro until now, although I know and admire many people who have been for many years. But this summer I read The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert A Caro’s life of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Call me simple, or herd-minded, because this is the part, from LBJ accepting the vice-presidential nomination on John F Kennedy’s ticket, to Kennedy’s assassination and LBJ’s first few weeks as President, where the story becomes mainstream. Kennedy’s death is one of the best known moments in modern history – indeed Caro describes how television made it the first live national and international news event – and the story leading up to it and away from it is a remarkable one.
And Caro tells it so well. It is not often that I have muttered, “Astonishing”, to myself as I close a book. But I see what people were on about now. Caro is a brilliant narrator of recent history. Through his long sentences and elaborate digressions he keeps up the momentum of the story, the what-happened-next, even when what actually happened next is well known. Yet such a tight grip is kept throughout on motive, analysing why decisions were taken, balancing the force of personalities against the forces of social change, and on weighing the evidence on questions where no definite verdict is possible.
The story starts with the run-up to the Democratic Convention of 1960, with LBJ’s attempt to reach for the party’s presidential nomination without being seen to reach for it – a throwback to an earlier style of politics (that was how it was in Lincoln’s time, as any reader of Team of Rivals would know) – and then his acceptance of JFK’s offer of the vice-presidential slot on his ticket. Caro disposes fairly briskly with the three years of LBJ’s vice presidency, in which the Majority Leader in the Senate gave up all his power for ceremonial job, but one with a statistical chance, which LBJ quantified before he took it, of succeeding to the top job.
The assassination occurs around the middle of the book, and Caro handles it with awe-inspiring confidence, knitting together several stories: the beginning of the end of LBJ’s career, as journalists start to close in on his suspect personal finances; the stalling of the Kennedy legislative programme; and the winding up of Kennedy’s re-election campaign, which was why he was in Dallas that day: to try to secure Texas. LBJ had delivered Texas for him in 1960, but, having lost his Senate power, it was becoming clear that he couldn’t do so again and that Kennedy would have to look to the West for the votes to secure his re-election. By November 1963, LBJ was sure that he was going to be dropped as Vice President as surplus to requirements.
The second half of the book tells the story of LBJ’s first seven weeks as President, from the assassination until his State of the Union address in January 1964. It was a remarkable reversal of fortune in which LBJ, from his lowest ebb, became President and immediately started to use its power – and the power of the Kennedy myth – to start his civil rights programme, so that, by the end of the book, he was set fair for his re-election later in 1964.
Yet Caro also skilfully weaves in to the story themes that come from earlier – the influences of his upbringing on LBJ’s politics – and that lead on into the future. The civil rights bill, for example, was unblocked in Congress over Christmas 1963, but not actually passed until July 1964. Caro jumps forward briefly to pre-empt what he says will be the fifth and final volume covering the rest of LBJ’s time as President, a year of his first term and the four years of his second, to preview how Vietnam will come to overshadow his achievements on civil rights and the war against poverty.
The book is not without weaknesses. Caro’s fondness for long sentences, vast subclauses and the full arsenal of semi-colons, dashes and brackets, tests the reader even if it is usually worth it. Occasionally he loses his thread. Sometimes his repetition ceases to be helpful signposting through complexity and becomes simply repetitive. And I deprecate the American fashion for invisible references, for which the phrase has to be hunted without even the aid of page numbers in the notes at the back. Give me footnotes on the page, or, at worst, endnotes.
But it is a work of greatness, of such acute observation of politics that its insights are applicable far beyond the time and place of the United States, 1960-64.Tagged in: contemporary history, US politics
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