The fourth volume of Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson—the collective title for the still unfinished, seemingly never-ending saga, which is a profoundly eccentric and unbalanced account as well as the finest biography yet written of a 20th-century American political figure—chronicles LBJ’s life from 1958 to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, in July 1964. It follows Johnson as he clumsily seeks the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960; as he is outmaneuvered by John F. Kennedy; as he relinquishes the awesome position he had built for himself as the most powerful Senate majority leader in American history to become JFK’s vice president (and hence an impotent toady in an administration that scorned him)—and as he has the presidency thrust upon him following Kennedy’s murder. It’s a largely familiar story, and one in which, until the final months examined in this volume, its subject is perforce and atypically more acted-upon than acting. Furthermore, this volume and its predecessor—Washington-centric chronicles that cover the years when LBJ came to the fore of national life—lack the richness and vividness of Caro’s first two volumes, set largely in Texas and examining Johnson’s family background, impoverished and striving youth, and political emergence.
Still, Caro’s account takes a crucial turn here. The author has always promised that his multivolume work would reveal the dark and light sides of his subject—a man who possessed perhaps the most idealistic vision of government of any American president, and a man of staggering energy, but also a man of crushing ambition, shocking crudeness, unremitting dishonesty, and terrible cruelty. Until this volume, Caro, as his critics have charged, has mostly revealed the darker aspects of Johnson’s character and actions. But in this book a good deal of light emerges. This volume presents a sympathetic picture of the self-abasing and atypical—indeed slavish—loyalty that Johnson tendered to Kennedy, even as he was snubbed and disdained by such thuggishly pseudo-glamorous JFK hangers-on as that poisonous gossip Arthur Schlesinger Jr.