Days before this magazine went to press, we received an advance copy of The Passage of Power (Knopf, $35), the latest installment of Robert Caro’s life of Lyndon Johnson. We asked two followers of Caro’s work, TEXAS MONTHLY deputy editor Brian D. Sweany and the magazine’s former editor Gregory Curtis, to read the book and engage in an email exchange about how, in particular, Caro deals with John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the immediate aftermath. What follows is the conversation that ensued.
On 3/28/12, 4:01 PM, Gregory Curtis wrote:
As I was reading The Passage of Power, I kept getting faint echoes that I couldn’t identify until I got to the chapters dealing with Johnson taking power after the assassination and realized that, yes, I was reading a volume in a life of Lyndon Johnson, but I was also reading a grand, epic nineteenth-century novel. Robert Caro has been a friend for many years, almost since he first came down to Texas to begin his research 35 years ago. I’ve learned how passionately he loves novels from that period, especially Trollope and Dickens. I once showed him a first edition of a Trollope novel where the original owner had written notes in the margins identifying the personages of the period that the characters in the novel were based on. He held the book almost reverently, looking slowly through the pages and reading the notes. Talking about Dickens, he once said, “His books are one thousand pages long, and you remember sentences. Individual sentences!”
Those influences have been present in Caro’s work from the beginning, but now, in this fourth volume of the Johnson biography, you can see them not only in individual sentences but also in the grand design of the book, which moves through a long series of complicating incidents to a dramatic climax, just as those wonderful novels do.
In the previous volumes, Caro could feel confident that the reader wouldn’t know very much about the events he was reconstructing. And indeed, much of the pleasure in reading them is in learning how much of interest he was able to find—such as Johnson’s drive to not merely defeat but destroy his early opponents, such as Coke Stevenson.
As I began The Passage of Power, I was curious to see what Caro would do with a story—Johnson’s years serving under John F. Kennedy and then succeeding him—that is well-known in its broad outline. But once again Caro’s research served him well. The early chapters about Johnson as vice president, an office he hated, are low-volume prelude to the great events that follow. But since Johnson at this time is virtually powerless and palpably miserable—the Kennedys and their Eastern friends laughed at him—Caro presents a nuanced, empathetic picture of Johnson. In the previous volumes, Caro has either been horrified by Johnson or admiring of him. But neither of those is the same as empathy. Here, at last, we see it. I don’t think I’ve felt Johnson as alive as I feel him in this book.
Which means that when we at last come to the assassination, we see it through Johnson’s eyes. As the terrible events unfold, we see what he sees and know only what he knows. The result is a view of the murder and what follows that is consistent with everything we know but is also new and fresh. It’s a brilliant stroke and seems obvious, now that Caro has done it that way. But how much hard labor, how many drafts were necessary before that solution emerged?
On 3/28/12, 11:21 PM, Brian Sweany wrote:
As a devout fan of Dickens, I agree with you about Caro’s skill as a writer. I remember reading that when he turned in The Power Broker, his astounding biography of Robert Moses, he had to cut 300,000 words. 300,000 words! His dedication is legendary, and that, in part, is what has made the previous three volumes of the Years of Lyndon Johnson so remarkable. I’ve always thought, for example, that the chapter from The Path to Power called “The Sad Irons” was the best examination of life in the Hill Country before electrification. It’s as if the reader is there alongside those people, where they used to say that a man was a real gentleman who gave his wife a sharp ax.
The Passage of Power is no different. I was struck by the elegance of Caro’s writing and the power of the assassination and its aftermath—how in Manhattan, as dusk began to fall, the lights on the marquees of Broadway theaters were turned off one after another. At Saks Fifth Avenue, employees removed the mannequins in a window display and replaced them with a picture of the slain president and urns filled with red roses.
But of course, readers expect to be dazzled by Caro. I think the larger question is if he is fair to his subject. A mutual friend of ours has summed up Caro this way: great writer, bad history. Caro has attributed spectacularly dark motives to LBJ in the past, and I have to say, I felt that in this volume as well. I stopped counting the number of times I read variations of the word “humiliation” in reference to Johnson—during his childhood, during his school years, and, of course, during his time as vice president. A theme of the narrative tension during the motorcade scene—ah, heck, during most of the first three hundred pages—was to highlight the degree to which Johnson had been marginalized: the fact that he rode in a rented car or that he trailed 75 feet behind President Kennedy’s limousine or that people on the parade route had already turned away and stopped cheering when LBJ passed by.
I fear that Caro has fallen into a familiar pattern: he has become a prisoner of his own conclusions, so he uses every moment to support his view of the man. Harry Middleton, the former director of the