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700 pages chronicle 7 weeks of LBJ's passage to presidency

"The Passage of Power," the in-depth telling of Lyndon Johnson's seven-week transition that led to the presidency, is a magisterial reading of political power -- its loss and acquisition -- that rivals Machiavelli's "The Prince."

"Passage" is the latest of four volumes of Lyndon Johnson's rise to political power by Robert A. Caro. The book assesses Lyndon Johnson in the years 1958-64, during which time LBJ traded a powerful post as Senate majority leader for a depressive purgatory as vice president. He triumphed only at the end of that period, projected into the presidency with the crack of a rifle shot.

Caro notes that this book is not the story of Johnson's five-year presidency as a whole, but only its brief first phase -- "The longer story will not be a triumphant one," he says. Vietnam and the credibility gap, loss of trust in the presidency, will be the main ingredients of defeat. They await a fifth volume.

The nub of Johnson's success is described in detail -- the period that began with John F. Kennedy's assassination and ended with LBJ being sworn in as president Nov. 22, 1963. Johnson had more than the usual difficulties after taking office, coping with the animosity of the Kennedy staff, as well as a fallen president's domestic goals that were going nowhere in Congress. But he surmounted these and other challenges, breaking a congressional logjam on the issue of civil rights that he himself ignored for 20 years.

Johnson, "this crude, coarse, ruthless, often cruel man," as Caro describes him, declared a war on poverty in his State of the Union address Jan. 8, 1964, which included these ringing words: "Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope -- some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both."

Caro's earlier books, "The Path to Power" (1982), "Means of Ascent" (1990) and "Master of the Senate" (2002) were satisfying and comprehensive, based upon the artful integration of material and insight. Future presidential scholars will have a high bar to reach if they wish to match the skill and providence of Caro in his decades-long work on LBJ. To begin with, Caro had almost a full deck of historical documents to play with -- as well as the energy and passion to shuffle them almost endlessly in a scholarly way.

Secondly, Caro has developed an appealing way of shaping the unending stories, anecdotes, memoranda and interviews about Johnson. It would be easy to get lost in the sauce of multiple subset stories, but Caro never does. Out of the scholarly parsing, a comprehensive picture of the man appears. LBJ was a conflicted, flawed human being. He could be daring, as in his dealings with Congress, and fearful, as in his pursuit of the Democratic nomination in 1960. LBJ came into his own after Kennedy's assassination in Dallas.

Readers may remember that as vice president, Johnson was an object of ridicule among Kennedy's aides. After the 1960 election, Johnson was called derisive names because his down-home Texas ways didn't match up with the Boston elite's set of manners. LBJ was "Uncle Cornpone" and "Rufus Cornpone" to a White House staff loyal to the president.

Caro notes that the hatred around the White House for Johnson was visceral, a contempt that apparently extended to the president, "remarkable its depth and intensity"; feelings "not at all those that have come down to us in history."

Senior advisers around Kennedy -- particularly his brother, Bobby -- put Johnson in the deep freeze. For example, Johnson, even though he was a member of the group (ExComm, it was called), was excluded from the final meeting where the American response to the Cuban Missile Crisis was decided.

Caro writes that the LBJ-Bobby Kennedy hatred is "one of the great political blood feuds in American history," culminating with Bobby's trying to force LBJ off the 1960 ticket, according to the author, so that Bobby might become president himself one day. LBJ remembered every slight until his dying day.

Johnson tried more than once to get close to the new president, asking at one point to ride on Air Force One. Caro tells us that he was rebuffed. JFK himself asked his secretary in an exasperated tone, "You don't mean that Mr. Johnson is again insisting on riding with me?"

This is an instance of how feeble Johnson's political hand was, Caro writes, after giving up his powerful office as Senate majority leader, for a nondescript role in an administration that ignored him. "Power is where power goes," Johnson had boasted. But it seems he had been wrong.

Johnson's dreams of becoming president were gone. All was gone, all his planning and scheming and working as tirelessly as he could was for naught -- until that fateful day in Dallas.

After the funeral of the fallen president, the arrest of the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby, recorded by NBC's live cameras, American television held the nation together in a rapt horror.

"He's been shot! He's been shot! Lee Harvey Oswald has been shot!" were the words of radio commentator Ike Pappas. Between the Kennedy funeral and reportage on Oswald, Caro says that TV in the average American home was tuned to the Kennedy ceremonies "for almost eight hours a day."

Then, something amazing happened. In what may have been one of the most traumatic moments in American political history, Johnson began his uneasy ascent to the presidency. Caro sums up the paradox of those painful days:

The "story of Lyndon Johnson during the opening, transition weeks of his presidency is a triumphant story, one in which it is possible to glimpse the full possibilities of presidential power -- of that power exercised by a master in the use of power -- in a way that is visible at only a few times in American history."

"The Passage of Power" is written and framed as a Washington insider's document. The introduction subtitled "What the hell's the presidency for?" gives all the major "talking points," similar to material given out by lobbyists to members and staffers on Capitol Hill.

After that, there are five parts to the book that add texture and insight. Part I, Johnson VS Kennedy: 1960; Part II, Rufus Cornpone; Part III, Dallas; Part IV, Taking Command; and Part V, To Become President. Each of these sections has commodious chapters with titles such as "The Prediction" (LBJ forecasting that he'd someday be president); "The Rich Man's Son" (the story of JFK's wastrel years, which seem almost biblical); and "Power Is Where Power Goes" (Johnson's mantra, and so on.)

Finally, if the reader wants a shorthand for the philosophical differences between Presidents Johnson and Kennedy, one frame of reference appropriate to this volume was LBJ's Senate cloakroom dictum. He said, "It is the politician's task to pass legislation, not to sit around and say principled things."

I'm not sure there should be such a disjunction between the two perspectives, but LBJ certainly thought so. It was his way of differentiating himself from the elite, do-nothing Boston crowd that preceded him.

Michael D. Langan went to Washington in 1984 as a chief of staff for Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-N.Y. He later worked at the Labor Department and the Treasury before taking a U.N. assignment dealing with Taliban and al-Qaida issues.

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The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power

By Robert A. Caro

Knopf

712 pages, $35