The Passage of Power: Fourth installment of LBJ biography

Robert A Caro's gripping new work centres itself on the tumultuous moment in November 1963 when power was thrust upon the Texan following the assassination of John F Kennedy.

Lyndon B Johnson is sworn in as the 36th president of the United States on board Air Force One, after the assassination of President John F Kennedy. 
His wife, Lady Bird, left, and the grief-stricken first lady, Jackie Kennedy, look on. Keystone / Getty Images
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Robert A Caro is the poet laureate of political frustration. Caro's first book, The Power Broker channelled the simmering frustration of neighbourhood activists steamrollered by Robert Moses, the high-handed master of forcible urban renewal. His most recent, Master of the Senate, offered a crash course in the obstructionist history of the US Senate - absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to truly understand American politics - before diving headlong into the complexities of Senate majority leader Lyndon B Johnson's successful effort to overcome the racist foot-dragging of Southern senators and pass the first notable civil rights legislation in nearly a century.

The Passage of Power picks up where Master of the Senate leaves off, and there is, at least at the outset, a notable flagging of energy. Having passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1957, Johnson incomprehensibly dithers over whether or not to run for president in 1960. More than anything - more even than his burning desire to become president of the United States - Johnson wanted to avoid his father's humiliation, a once-powerful legislator reduced to digging ditches, and so he was fatally slow to appreciate the threat to his aspirations posed by an inexperienced, boyish senator named John F Kennedy. Losing the nomination, he was awarded the questionable consolation prize of the vice-presidency - a chit he cashed after helping Kennedy eke out a razor-thin, possibly fraudulent victory in his home state of Texas.

And here is where Caro's trademark frustration, dependable as ever, kicks in. As majority leader, Johnson had wheedled, cajoled, pleaded and petitioned, bending the will of fellow senators to the demands of the office. No one had been more adept at counting votes, or understanding the levers of power, least of all his new boss.

"All those Bostons and Harvards don't know any more about Capitol Hill," Johnson observed, "than an old maid does about" - well, about those matters that old maids are unfamiliar with.

But now Johnson was vice-president, a position one of his predecessors, John Nance Garner, said was not worth "a warm bucket of spit", and all the power he had so agonisingly accrued evaporated. Johnson spent a grand total of 10 hours and 19 minutes together with the president in all of 1961. By 1963, that figure had shrunk to less than two hours. "Whatever happened to Lyndon Johnson?" wondered a dozen different newspaper headlines. Being vice-president in the Kennedy administration was a death by a thousand indignities, from the president avoiding walking into cabinet meetings by his side, to being left off the guest list for his glittering White House soirées.

Caro makes us feel the isolation of a once-towering political figure, with an impressive title but utterly bereft of responsibility, convinced he has become another version of his father, both powerless and forgotten. Caro is as good a writer as has ever penned a political biography, and The Passage of Power, if by the nature of the story it tells marginally less gripping than Master of the Senate, is still an instant classic, reorienting our understanding of 1960s US politics, of the combustible relationship between Johnson and the Kennedys, and of Johnson's own unstable mix of keening ambition, vote-buying cynicism, and progressive ideals.

The fulcrum on which the book - and Johnson's life - turns is November 22, 1963, and his and President Kennedy's trip to Dallas. The mythology of Camelot, Abraham Zapruder's home-movie of the assassination, Oliver Stone's film JFK - all convince us that we have pondered the Kennedy shooting from every possible angle, considered every permutation of the story. And yet, here is the forgotten vice-president alone in a room at Dallas' Parkland Hospital, waiting silently as doctors struggle fruitlessly to save the president's life: "And then, for long minutes, no one came in. Lyndon Johnson stood with his back against the far wall. It was very quiet in the little curtained space." Then, finally, here is the news Johnson feared and hoped for, tragedy and opportunity rushing in without advance warning: "Then, at 1:20, O'Donnell appeared at the door and crossed the room to Lyndon Johnson, and seeing the stricken face of Kenny O'Donnell who loved him so much, Lady Bird knew. 'He's gone,' O'Donnell said, to the thirty-sixth President of the United States."

Caro's blow-by-blow account of the hours between the motorcade's fateful arrival at Dealey Plaza and Air Force One taking off to head back to Washington "carrying two Presidents, 'one alive and one dead'," is a masterpiece of reporting, the equal of anything Caro has ever done. We see the overly familiar events of that tragic day from the perspective of the man thrust into the presidency by an assassin's bullet, and given only the blink of an eye to steady himself: "One moment he was not President - and the next moment he was. The interval between the moment he arrived in the cubicle at Parkland Hospital and the moment he took the oath on Air Force One - the time he had in which to prepare himself - was slightly less than two hours."

If there is a single political lesson to be grasped from both Master of the Senate and this volume, it is that power is concentrated less with those whose offices demand it than with those who understand its levers. Johnson's lengthy courtship of dyed-in-the-wool Southern racists like Richard Russell and Harry Byrd allowed him to learn the Senate's bylaws as well as any segregationist, and to pass meaningful civil rights legislation, in the face of unified Southern intransigence.

Kennedy's legacy was civil rights because Johnson made it so - because the new president took the tragedy of his predecessor's death and transformed it into an opportunity for the country to begin overcoming its racist past. Johnson was no Kennedy - gawky, unpolished, without the benefit of a Harvard degree. But when it came to the business of politics, Kennedy was no Johnson. "You know," Russell wistfully observed, "we could have beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson."

By concentrating on Johnson's sudden elevation to the presidency, and the first 47 days of his term in office, from his taking the oath of office beside Jackie Kennedy, her outfit splattered with the blood of her murdered husband, to his first state of the union address, Caro is rescuing Johnson from the abyss of forgetfulness that callowly dismisses him as the butcher of Vietnam, and the architect of well-meaning but misguided social policy. He is those things - and Caro promises to deliver as much in his next volume. But he is also the product of Johnson City, Texas, the dirt-poor son of a failed politician, who had served as a human ox, strapped to a plough. Johnson was a racist and defender of the morally bankrupt Southern order, but he was also the man who had "always vowed that if I ever had the power I'd make sure every Negro had the same chance as every white man. Now I have it. And I'm going to use it."

Caro struggles, as we do, to wrap his head around a man of such infinite complexity, ultimately concluding that Johnson's early successes as president were a product of controlling the very flaws - cruelty, bullheadedness - that would mar his term in office. "The story of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson will be different in tone from the story of the transition in part because the elements of his personality absent during the transition were shortly to reappear ... If he had held in check these forces within him, had conquered himself, for a while, he wasn't going to be able to do it for very long. But he had done it long enough."

Caro is 76 years old now, and has been working on his The Years of Lyndon Johnson - the title indicating his focus, more about the world Johnson made than merely Johnson - for 36 years. If Caro occasionally indulges a taste for self-referentiality here, quoting his earlier work, he has earned it: if everyone else instantly turns to Caro as a source, why can't the author himself?

Whatever plans he may have - this reader roots for him to write a dozen more volumes - his literary legacy is likely to consist of The Power Broker and the LBJ biography. It is more than enough. Caro is the preeminent biographer of his time, without doubt. But he is also the preeminent historian of American politics. If you haven't read Caro, you simply cannot grasp how the levers of political power are pulled. Change, in American politics, unfolds with agonising slowness. Understanding just how slowly, in Martin Luther King's famous phrase, "the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice" is a prerequisite to grasping the remarkable accomplishments of Lyndon B Johnson, who, at his best, devoted himself to "trying to bend it faster".

Saul Austerlitz's work has been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and other publications.