Among people of a certain age, there's just no getting over Lyndon Johnson. For a generation of Americans who were subject to the draft during the Vietnam War, Johnson is a liar and manipulator with blood on his hands: "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"
But I'm just a little bit too young for that. I'm fascinated with politicians and how they gain and use power, and for me, Johnson is a deeply flawed hero.
I have read every word of Robert Caro's four-volume epic The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and a clear pattern emerges. If Bill Clinton's pattern was to gain success, then squander it, only to fight back to the top again, Johnson's pattern was to be ruthless in his pursuit of power - and then to use it, every chance he got, to help the poor and forgotten people in the desolate places he came from.
Caro's latest installment, in what now will be at least a five-part series, is titled The Passage of Power (Knopf, $35). It covers 1958 to 1963, when Johnson, the master of the Senate, balked at openly working for the prize he wanted, the presidency, and then lost it to John Kennedy, a man he considered, with plenty of good reason, to be a policy lightweight.
Once in office, Kennedy and Vice President Johnson treated each other with cool respect. Not so with the president's brother. The blood feud between Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy is portrayed by Caro as a much more one-sided affair than is commonly thought, with Johnson pleading to RFK at one point, "Why don't you like me?" The answer goes way back to the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and patriarch Joe Kennedy. Bobby believed that as a young congressman and FDR protégé, Johnson piled on when Roosevelt fired Kennedy as ambassador to Great Britain.
As with all Caro books, there are biographies within the biography, so that at times you forget that the book is supposed to be about Johnson. But Caro is so skilled at the literary cul-de-sac that the reader doesn't mind.
This book is not without flaws. Caro has become self-referential, constantly quoting from his previous works. And there is a lot of old ground that gets covered again.
Nonetheless, even Robert Kennedy is quoted as saying that Lyndon Johnson is one of the most consequential politicians of his time. Caro's latest work underscores that point and makes the reader hope, with Caro in his mid-70s, that we won't have to wait another decade to read about Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam.