Robert A. Caro's life of Lyndon Johnson, which began with the greatly acclaimed The Path to Power, also winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, continues - one of the richest, most intensive, and most revealing examinations ever undertaken of an American President. In Means of Ascent, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer/historian, chronicler also of Robert Moses in The Power Broker, carries Johnson through his service in World War II and the foundation of his long-concealed fortune and the facts behind the myths he created about it. But the explosive heart of the book is Caro's revelation of the true story of the fiercely contested 1948 senatorial election, for 40 years shrouded in rumor, which Johnson had to win or face certain political death, and which he did win -- by "the 87 votes that changed history."
Caro makes us witness to a momentous turning point in American politics: the tragic last stand of the old politics versus the new - the politics of issue versus the politics of image, mass manipulation, money and electronic dazzle.
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"If You Do Everything, You'll Win"
The second installment of Robert Caro's "The Years of Lyndon Johnson" is, in essence, an exposé.
Robert Caro's almost singular focus on LBJ--he has spent over 40 years chronicling events of the 36th president's life--has resulted in Robert Caro himself becoming part of the story. He has been accused of bias and thinly veiled contempt, for going out of his way to make his subject a caricature and a spectacle for his readers. While I do not agree with such assessments, this volume is Exhibit A for Johnson apologists who prefer to view the 36th president through rose-colored glasses.
Caro is very careful to document Johnson’s monumental impact on the body politic and recognizes that he is a seminal figure in American history. There are noble achievements that are diligently fleshed out and contextualized for the reader in order for their remarkability to be noted. In the first volume (The Path to Power) he shows how Johnson transformed the lives of poor farmers in the Texas hill country by means of rural electrification. In the third volume (Master of the Senate-broken up into three volumes here on Audible) he shows how Johnson tamed the nearly ungovernable Senate to have the first civil rights legislation passed in nearly a century at that time. In the fourth volume he shows how Johnson was the one who made Kennedy’s idealism begin to have concrete legislative movement once the presidency devolved to him and he occupied the oval office. However, Caro freely admits to the reader in the second volume that the complex alternation of light and dark is not present during this segment of Johnson’s life. It’s all dark.
This volume is a story of Johnson’s time in the military (Johnson saw one day of actual combat and only as an observer); how Johnson used political influence to amass an immense fortune (when Johnson became president he may have been the richest man to do so up to that point); and how Johnson won the democratic primary for the open senate seat in 1948. In a one-party state as Texas was at that time, winning the primary was tantamount to winning the election. (I leave it to the listener to find out how he did that.) And, sadly, Johnson’s treatment of his wife, Lady Bird, is on full display here and will make the listener wince--often.
All that being said, this volume is so funny in spots I needed a tissue to wipe the tears from my eyes. There is a reason Caro has devoted most of his professional life writing about Lyndon Baines Johnson: he is a complex man, a larger-than-life figure, a man with an indomitable will to power, a man who wanted the presidency his entire life, a man who said, “If you do everything, you’ll win” and DID do everything. The roman orator Cicero wrote that no immoral act can be expedient. Johnson did NOT read Cicero…
- Abdur Abdul-Malik
LBJ and the New Politics
This volume is the narrowest in scope of the four volumes. But it is not a lesser book. It focuses on the Texas Senate race between LBJ and Coke Stevenson in 1948. That may sound boring but it is far from that and resonates today. Caro is a master biographer and his portrait of Coke Stevenson is perhaps my favorite of the many portraits contained in any of the four volumes.
The penultimate chapter in which Coke Stevenson retires to his Texas ranch to live out the remainder of his life.
I think Grover Gardner was perfect for this project. He's not flashy but he is there for the distance. He's a great traveling companion who never annoys.
The price of victory. The consolation of defeat.