Monday, January 14, 2013

Passage of Power

Just finished "Passage of Power," the latest installment in Robert Caro's massive LBJ biography. Very good, but uneven. Parts, especially those dealing with the Kennedy assassination, are brilliant, can't-put-it-down stuff, but other sections drag. Caro unfortunately engages too often in what an editor of mine called "dumping your notebook." Instead of picking and choosing the good stuff, you throw everything into the story.

Unfortunately, this was also true of "Master of the Senate." I have not read the first book in the series, but I can say that "Means of Ascent," Caro's account of LBJ's scandalous 1948 Senate campaign is by far the best so far. The story is so outrageous that it makes your jaw drop, and unlike the next two books, it never, ever drags. I think I read it in a day or two.

Oddly enough, I found LBJ much less interesting once he became president. Of course, the next volume that will talk about the tragedy of Vietnam and is sure to be gut wrenching.

I find LBJ fascinating. He was a vulgar, crude and cruel man who passed some of the greatest social legislation in our history, a man who could never break himself of saying "nigra," but nonetheless did more to assure equal rights than any president since Lincoln. He would be a great president were it not -- and this is admittedly a very big were it not -- for Vietnam.

I have always been fascinated by something I heard Caro say in an interview about one of the books. He dismissed the cliche about power corrupting. The key insight, the key question, he said, is what do people do with power when they get it. By that measure, LBJ, at least on domestic issues, ranks among our greatest presidents.

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