Former president Bill Clinton has penned a glowing review of "The Passage of Power," Robert Caro's newest book on Lyndon B. Johnson, for the New York Times.
In his review, which comes out in the May 6 "Book Review" section, but was published online Wednesday morning, Clinton lauds Caro for a "fascinating and meticulous account" of Johnson, which covers his years as vice president leading up to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It continues with Johnson being sworn in as president "without the pomp of an inauguration, but with all the powers of the office." (The book is the fourth installment in Caro's ambitious L.B.J. biography series.)
"Robert Caro has once again done America a great service," Clinton writes.
Clinton was fascinated by the account of Johnson's ability to save the 1964 Civil Rights Act from a Congressional bottleneck:
You don't have to be a policy wonk to marvel at the political skill L.B.J. wielded to resuscitate a bill that seemed doomed to never get a vote on the floor of either chamber. Southern Democrats were masters at bottling up legislation they hated, particularly bills expanding civil rights for black Americans. Their skills at obstruction were so admired that the newly sworn-in Johnson was firmly counseled by an ally against using the political capital he'd inherited as a result of the assassination on such a hopeless cause.
According to Caro, Johnson responded, "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?" This is the question every president must ask and answer.
Clinton recounts how Johnson's civil rights work inspired his political career.
Even as Barry Goldwater was midwifing the antigovernment movement that would grow to such dominance decades later, L.B.J., [Sargent] Shriver and other giants of the civil rights and antipoverty movements seemed to rise all around me as I was beginning my political involvement. They believed government had an essential part to play in expanding civil rights and reducing poverty and inequality. It soon became clear that hearts needed to be changed, along with laws. Not just Congress, but the American people themselves needed to be got to.
And the 42nd president writes that he always admired Johnson, a fellow Southern Democrat, despite a diverging opinion on Vietnam:
Even when we parted company over the Vietnam War, I never hated L.B.J. the way many young people of my generation came to. I couldn't. What he did to advance civil rights and equal opportunity was too important. I remain grateful to him. L.B.J. got to me, and after all these years, he still does.
It appears to be the first time Clinton has written a book review for the Times. It is not, however, the first time the paper has published a review of Caro's book. On April 30, the Times published a similarly glowing review of "The Passage of Power" by Michiko Kakutani.
It could be Clinton's way of thanking the Times for its equally sparkling review of his 2004 memoir, "My Life."
"William Jefferson Clinton's 'My Life' is, by a generous measure, the richest American presidential autobiography," Larry McMurty wrote in the paper shortly after its publication. "No other book tells us as vividly or fully what it is like to be president of the United States for eight years."
But, it's worth noting, Kakutani slammed "My Life" in his Times review: