Bill Clinton Reviews LBJ Biography for The Times

PHOTO: Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks during a Clinton Foundation event at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in this Oct. 28, 2011 file photo.Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks during a Clinton Foundation event at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in this Oct. 28, 2011 file photo.

It's a new role for Bill Clinton: book reviewer.

The globetrotting former president took time out from his schedule to write a 1,500-word review of a long-awaited biography about one of his predecessors, President Lyndon B. Johnson, for the New York Times.

Clinton praises the book, Robert Caro's "The Passage of Power," and the 36th president in his review, which was posted online today and will appear on the cover of The Times' Book Review section this Sunday.

"With this fascinating and meticulous account … Robert Caro has once again done America a great service," Clinton writes.

As a politician, Clinton was notorious for running late and speaking well past the allotted time. His infamous speech at the 1988 Democratic went on for so long, it nearly wrecked his national political career before it began.

But Clinton was a model freelancer for The Times, meeting all deadlines and submitting a tightly organized and written essay after he was told "he could have as much space as he wanted," said Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The Times Book Review.

"We hardly touched it," Tanenhaus added. "We do a vigorous fact check of every review. This one barely needed it. There was almost no work to do. He gave us a finished piece of copy."

Tanenhaus said he has no reason to believe that a member of Clinton's staff wrote the review for him, adding that Clinton was so involved, he sent word to the Book Review staff that he wanted to write the headline for his piece. "We were happy to consider it," but it didn't quite work, Tanenhaus said.

He said the seed for the review was planted a few years ago when a member of Clinton's staff "came in and said Clinton is a voracious reader and might be interested in doing something for us."

Asking Clinton to critique Caro's book seemed like a natural because presidents have an interest in reading about their predecessors and because Clinton's political talents often have been compared to LBJ's, Tanenhaus said.

"The Passage of Power" is the fourth installment of Caro's acclaimed series about Johnson. It covers the years of Johnson's vice presidency under John F. Kennedy and the beginning of his own years in the White House after Kennedy's assassination.

In his review, Clinton zeroes in on Caro's account of how Johnson used his legendary political skills to push the landmark Civil Rights Act through a reluctant Congress in 1964.

Clinton writes, "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 goes on to praise the book for capturing Johnson's "genius for getting to people -- friends, foes and everyone in between -- and how he used it to achieve his goals."

"He knew just how to get to you, and he was relentless in doing it," Clinton writes.

"If you were a partisan, he'd call on your patriotism; if a traditionalist, he'd make his proposal seem to be the Establishment choice. His flattery was minutely detailed, finely tuned and perfectly modulated. So was his bombast -- whatever worked."

Clinton adds that he always admired Johnson, even though the two "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," Clinton writes. "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."