For the past 37 years, Robert Caro has devoted his life to writing the definitive biography of Lyndon Johnson. So far, The Years of Lyndon Johnson has four acclaimed volumes and has shown readers just how complex the 36th president was, as both a politician and a man There was the Johnson who grew up poor in the Texas hill country; the Johnson who blackmailed a fellow student to win a college election; and the Johnson who, as a Congressman, humiliated loyal aides for fun, and brazenly stole votes to get into the Senate. And yet there was the Johnson who worked long hours teaching poor Mexican American children in South Texas, and who believed passionately in government’s obligation to help people.
The fourth — and latest — volume in The Years of Lyndon Johnson is The Passage of Power and, having won the 2012 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award, it is now out in paperback. It covers the years 1958-1964. During this time, Johnson goes from being the powerful Senate Majority Leader to a powerless vice president who is mocked by the Kennedy brothers, to again being handed the reins of power when he assumes the presidency in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Caro says that from the moment in that Dallas hospital when Johnson was first told that JFK was dead and he was President, the change in his demeanor was visible and immediate.
“Johnson during the vice-presidency had been so humiliated that he had a hangdog look,” Caro tells Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies. “His shoulders slumped. He lost a lot of weight. He was downcast. … As he’s standing there in this little cubicle [in the hospital] for about 40 minutes, wondering what fate has in store for him, [those around him] see a transformation in Johnson back to the old Lyndon Johnson who ran the senate as no one has ever run it before. Ladybird says his face turned into a … bronze image.” The change was not just physical. Johnson returned to leadership full-throttle. The first few months of his administration saw historic civil rights legislation that had stalled under Kennedy passed through Congress. Caro, who also wrote The Power Broker, the 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of New York City urban planner Robert Moses, argues that Kennedy simply wouldn’t have been able to do what Johnson did to advance social justice and economic equality in America. MORE