The Passage of Power
Robert A. Caro
Alfred A. Knopf, $35, 712 pp.
In the heady days of JFK and Camelot, young Ivy Leaguers on the Washington social circuit regaled themselves with a snide one-liner: “Whatever happened to Lyndon Johnson?” The answer of course was that LBJ, whose life ambition was to win the office once held by his hero FDR, now occupied instead the mostly ornamental vice-presidency. A once larger-than-life figure, who had mastered the Senate when John F. Kennedy was just an upstart rendering undistinguished service there, had become the butt of cocktail-party humor. That did not sit well with a man driven by the need for power and recognition. By turns sulky and resentful, effusive and sycophantic, Johnson could not accept the fact that, as he once bitterly put it, “my future is behind me.”
Robert Caro, a superb storyteller with a stunningly acute political sense, lays bare the shrewd stroke of genius behind Kennedy’s surprise choice of Johnson as his running mate in 1960. Other, more likely seeming candidates lacked LBJ’s key asset: a Southern pedigree and a political network that could battle old-boy opposition to the presidential ambitions of a northeastern liberal. It wasn’t going to be easy. Texas had gone solidly Republican in 1952 and 1956, and many...