Lyndon B. Johnson. [Library of Congress photo]

Lyndon B. Johnson. [Library of Congress photo]

Listening to Lyndon Johnson

Aug 09, 2012

Robert Caro's The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson has earned accolades and the bestseller status that befits this definitive study of Johnson. I have just finished listening to the book on 27 CDs, a total of 33 hours, on various spring and summer road trips. What an excellent way to use time in the car. In the case of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, there is another major dimension to savor as audio: the 800 hours of conversations, mainly on the telephone, that Johnson secretly recorded between 1963 and 1968, all of which are now readily available.

The reaction to Caro's four volumes has been overwhelmingly positive for his meticulous appraisal of this politician, who was, at his best, nonpareil. Johnson's flaws -- from the tinges of corruption in his early elections and business dealings to his escalation of the war in Vietnam despite private despair over its likely outcome -- have shaped his legacy. Caro's portrait in the four volumes already published -- and no doubt in the still to come fifth volume, which will focus, inevitably, on Vietnam -- has framed LBJ's reputation for insecurity (in his dealings with the Kennedys, for example, who treated him with disdain) as well as his mastery of the role of Senate majority leader. Lately, in large measure because of the attention to The Passage of Power's depiction of Johnson's superb handling of the presidential transition in the traumatic months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a revival of interest is under way about Johnson's record in domestic policy. His commitment to a Great Society agenda that included civil rights legislation, anti-poverty programs, and the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid has begun to balance the generally negative sense of Johnson's presidency that has been the main strain of popular perception. In ways that had stymied Kennedy, for all his glamorous persona, Johnson used his power to make government responsive to popular needs. read more