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The Passage of Power

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

A few months ago, I was trying to arrange my reading so that when the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, came out on May 1, I would be ready. However, when the time came, I kept finding other books to read, in part because the length of the Caro book (700+ pages, though less when you omit the notes) made me fear that I would get bogged down. There was always another book to read instead. And anyway, it’s not like I didn’t know what happened in US politics between 1958 and 1964, the years covered by Caro’s latest installment. As spring turned to summer, I began to wonder if I would ever get around to reading it.

A couple of weeks ago, as our Nantucket vacation approached, I had begun two books that I anticipated finishing during the trip. What could be more perfect than James Sullivan’s account of the Nantucket-Martha’s Vineyard high school football rivalry, Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean, and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry, which I wrote about in mid-July? And then there’s Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, which I wrote about just before our departure. Although it had no Nantucket connection, my reading of it was timed perfectly in other ways. For one, as I noted in my post, the first of the trips Lewis-Kraus writes about is the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, which matches up surprisingly well with the route for this year’s version of the Vuelta a España, the annual three-week cycling race around Spain that started three weeks ago and concludes tomorrow.

Not only that, a week ago today, when we were in New York, we went up to The Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the northern end of Manhattan that houses much of their Medieval collection. And what did we see there? Among other things, columns (below) from a church in Santiago de Compostela, the terminus of the Santiago pilgrimage.

I had surely chosen the right books for this trip.

Once in New York, I put aside the pilgrimage book so I could learn about island football before arriving in Nantucket. As I explained two weeks ago, “my interest in high school football is close to zero. But my interest in Nantucket is high, and what especially appealed to me was the opportunity to learn about year-round life on the islands. … Island Cup would be useful remedial reading.” At first, this worked out well. Once we were up here on Nantucket, it was fun to learn about local lore, to look around at places and people and feel I had a better sense of them. But ultimately I wanted to read something meatier during this prime reading opportunity.

You know what would be perfect? Lee Child’s latest thriller. I’ve read Lee Child during past Nantucket trips. Why not during this one? The problem is, the latest — A Wanted Man, doesn’t come out until this coming Tuesday. Darn.

Or, what about a Michael Chabon novel. I read his The Yiddish Policeman’s Union a few years ago on Nantucket. There’s that new one, Telegraph Avenue. Sigh. It, too, won’t be available until this Tuesday. (Jennifer Egan reviews it in tomorrow’s NYT.)

As I wondered what I might read, the Democratic convention was going on in the background, and suddenly I remembered Caro’s book. Wouldn’t it be interesting, as the convention took place, to learn about the 1960 Democratic convention? I’ve read the story before, but this would be a good time for a refresher. So it was that I downloaded Caro’s book at last and began reading it.

Why did I wait? Boy, can he write. What a storyteller! I’m just past the halfway point and loving it.

The book has five parts. The first covers 1958-1960, focusing on the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kennedy’s selection of Johnson as his running mate, and the election. Part II, which I finished earlier this evening, covers Johnson’s years as vice-president. You may wonder how that can be interesting, when he didn’t do anything. It is because Caro focuses equally on Johnson, John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. For example, the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis is retold with emphasis on the roles of Robert Kennedy and LBJ. The chapter I just finished discusses autumn of 1963, with the developing Bobby Baker scandal and LBJ’s tenuous hold on the vice-presidency. Will Kennedy keep LBJ on the ticket, or look for someone who can help more in the 1964 election?

Caro argues convincingly earlier, in his account of the 1960 election, that LBJ made all the difference, allowing Kennedy to regain Texas and other southern states that Eisenhower had pulled over to the Republican side. Three years later, JFK’s actions in the civil rights battles of the day may have lost him the south for 1964 regardless of running mate. Should he drop LBJ in favor of someone who can help pull in other states, such as California? What will the electoral calculations dictate?

Part II ends on November 21, 1963, with Kennedy concluding the first day of his two-day sojourn to Texas to raise money and strengthen his position there. We follow Kennedy, Johnson, and the Texas political leaders through San Antonio and Houston in what has been a most difficult day for Johnson, as his diminished role in his home state is laid bare for all to see. The next day will bring breakfast in Fort Worth, a motorcade and luncheon in Dallas, a fundraising dinner in Austin, and then a trip out to the Johnson ranch, where the Kennedys will be guests. A lot is at stake for Johnson. Part III begins with that morning.

I should finish this post so I can find out how the day goes, and how the awkward weekend at the Johnson ranch turns out. Will Kennedy decide over the next nine months to keep Johnson as his running mate? A fascinating political story is about to unfold. Or would have. Now we can only wonder.

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