NYT: Caro learns to write with nuance

Historians in the News

... At the heart of “The Passage of Power,” the latest installment of Robert A. Caro’s magisterial biography of Johnson, is the story of how he was catapulted to the White House in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, how he steadied and reassured a shell-shocked nation, and how he used his potent political skills and the momentum generated by Kennedy’s death to push through Congress his predecessor’s stalled tax-cut bill and civil rights legislation and to lay the groundwork for his own revolutionary “war on poverty.”

It’s a breathtakingly dramatic story about a pivotal moment in United States history, and just as Johnson used his accumulated knowledge of the art of power to push the nation along the path he’d envisioned, so in these pages does Mr. Caro use the intimate knowledge of Johnson he’s acquired over 36 years to tell that story with consummate artistry and ardor, demonstrating a tirelessness — in his interviewing and dissection of voluminous archives — that rivals his subject’s.

This engrossing volume (spanning 1958 to 1964) is the fourth and presumably penultimate volume in a series that began with “The Path to Power,” published back in 1982, and it showcases Mr. Caro’s masterly gifts as a writer: his propulsive sense of narrative, his talent for enabling readers to see and feel history in the making and his ability to situate his subjects’ actions within the context of their times. Of all the chapters in Johnson’s life, this is the one most familiar to most readers, but Mr. Caro manages to lend even much-chronicled events, like the Cuban missile crisis and Kennedy’s assassination, a punch of tactile immediacy.

The first and second installments of Mr. Caro’s biography of Johnson could be gratingly Manichaean and moralistic, portraying him in judgmental and almost unremittingly negative terms as a ruthless, Machiavellian and power-hungry pol. This volume creates a more measured portrait. In these pages Johnson emerges as both a larger-than-life, Shakespearean personage — with epic ambition and epic flaws — and a more human-scale puzzle: needy, deceitful, brilliant, cruel, vulgar, idealistic, boastful, self-pitying and blessed with such titanic energy that Abe Fortas once remarked, “The guy’s just got extra glands.”

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