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Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson

The New York Times’ picture of Robert Caro from a 2012 profile

The exhaustive research and storytelling powers of the Robert Caro Johnson biographies transfix and spoil readers. Could anyone be more exhaustive, despite having only one researcher – his wife, Ina. Together they’ve been toiling nearly non-stop on this one man for a Biblical forty years. From the footnotes and discussion of sources its clear there are riveting books left out. For example, Ted Kennedy gave extensive interviews about his time in the mountain west rounding up delegates for John. Along with those states’ role in the Civil Rights struggle that as a standalone book would probably make the cover of the New York Times book review. Yet it was left on this cutting room floor. He’s written four books so far on LBJ.

Path to Power sets the tone of investigative rigor. Caro hits the family tree hard like other 800lb biographies in the word processing era. Still his portrayal against the tableau of Texas Hill Country and all the difficulties it presented in life makes knowledge of each distant relative reference seem urgent. The most pressing, the relationship with his father who was a failed state representative, is the central line of the first work. This is poetic in itself, but necessary as the antecedent for understanding Johnson’s unrelenting ambition and identification with the downtrodden.

“Do everything and you’ll win” is the mantra self-instilled into the future president, from birth through his first congressional years. Johnson is presented as both charismatic and repulsive – even pathetic. Through a combination of brown-nosing men in power ahead of him — from the president of Southwestern Teachers’ College to Sam Rayburn and FDR and revitalizing dormant organizations for his political purposes (White Stars at College, Little Congress when a congressional aide) nevertheless he rises. He works harder than everyone else, knows every detail. The affair with Alice Glass – mistress and later wife of a key supporter, Charles Marsh of the Austin American-Statesman hangs over the plot, a bomb seemingly ready to go off at any moment but only does so to Lady Bird, who settles into subservience. Alice was to Lady Bird as Kennedy was to Johnson. The relationship with Brown & Root – (later Kellogg, Brown & Root as part of Halliburton a PR millstone around Dick Cheney’s neck) and other Texas oilmen is profiled. (I don’t recall LBJ making an appearance in Bryan Burroughs’ The Big Rich which was a good account of great early wildcatting fortunes: unfortunately that was published long after Caro’s volume 1.) I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard David Chase modeled Tony Soprano after Lyndon Johnson. Path would be a worthwhile bio even if Johnson faded into the sunset, accepting the lobbying post offered by General Electric.

Means of Ascent is riveting, and likely the best political book I’ve read. After dawdling in congress after Roosevelt’s death (Truman wasn’t a fan, and LBJ barely registers in McCullough’s Truman biography), he gambles on a seemingly impossible Senate race. The detailed accounts – made possible by the unrelenting research to find even minor characters still alive from that race – give cliffhangers from start to finish. Johnson had squeaked to a loss in a Senate special election before in 1941, by reporting his controlled vote totals early against an equally corrupt Pappy O’Daniel. Seven years later, Johnson went up against a beloved governor, Coke “Mr. Texas” Stevenson, and won unquestionably by fraud – 87 votes out of nearly a million cast. It should never have been that close. Ballot recounts came down to a well-crafted gamble by Abe Fortas that resulted in Associate Justice Hugo Black stopping a recount in the nick of time. Stevenson would never reply to LBJ’s negative campaigns (notably, imputations of support from Labor that in fact supported him) nor match his energy (flying via helicopter ceaselessly to drum up support.) LBJ would openly joke about the election himself on Capitol Hill: “Landslide Lyndon.” It would have been impossible in the last forty years much less the social media world today to see a politician straddle populist leftists and archconservative supporters so deftly. This is the most thorough portrait of a pathological campaigner who later came to power we’ll ever get, and maybe the last to cheat so extensively. But he gambled and won.

Master of the Senate is a mini-political science degree, or at least a substitute for collegiate PoliSci 102 – Congress. Johnson repeats the suck-up playbook from Sam Rayburn with Richard Russell: Both men without heirs who treated Lyndon as one, and in the course of less than a decade transforms and controls the Senate. If the 1848 election was a lucky aggressive all-in poker move, this tome reflects steadily accumulating blinds and small victories by transforming the role of Senate leadership roles versus the previously all-powerful committees. The subtleties of putting that power into play for the 1957 Civil Rights Bill are captivating. The book got much attention for the fresh research into blowing up Leland Olds’ confirmation chances to the Federal Power Commission (at the behest of his energy financiers.) The greater consequence of Olds was establishing liberal distrust of Johnson that would go well into his presidency. Eisenhower had begun to peel away the south from the Democratic party, and the electoral balancing act both parties faced (favor urban blacks or rural southerners) as well as Johnson’s own future makes it seem his considerations were nakedly political in an effort to win the Democratic nomination in 56 or 60 after seeing Russell’s failures in 52. There had been no Southern president since the Civil War: how best to rub off the “scent of magnolias” than a Civil Rights bill? MotS largely skips the role of the Supreme Court and Earl Warren but it was enough to set up a next wave of reading for me.

The Passage of Power  carries Johnson from the pursuit of the presidency in 1960 to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This is a lion apparently in winter, over run by the Kennedy mystique, organization and most notably, use of the medium of television to win political glory despite being a relatively unaccomplished Senator. Caro’s focus for the first time substantially veers away from LBJ for extended periods – to understand JFK and then the mutual hate of Robert Kennedy and Johnson. The book was lauded for the account of the hours after the assassination in Dallas but it was the run up to that where the drama was highest. Salacious, even. Johnson had to have been on white knuckles as an affair of “Lyndon’s boy” Bobby Baker was being investigated in Life magazine and the sources of his media conglomerate wealth were being taken up in congressional committee. Insurance fraud, influence peddling, and prostitution rings all were in the air in DC – the day of the assassination no less. One is left wondering if Johnson would have made it to the spring had the investigations continued. Caro like others is briefly mesmerized by Kennedy. Not just for the south pacific heroism but fortitude and ambition under immense personal physical pain and then the wisdom of reticence in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Johnson has met his match for ambition and in part just fearing to lose the 1960 race, enters too late only to lose. Did Kennedy want him off the ticket? Was a VP effort pro-forma? There is lots of new information here and Caro effectively overturns the Theodore White account of the 1960 election contending that without Johnson there would have been no Democratic victory (the Texas ballot boxes likely having been stuffed again.) If there is a criticism, it is the 1964 Civil Rights Act is dealt with far too briefly after elaborating as in the earlier books how a tax cut bill was deftly maneuvered through Harry Byrd of Virginia. Fifty six days of filibuster are dealt with an a sentence or two. It is the first sign Caro has flagged in choices between microscopic focus and big picture. The break with the Southern Senators is now surely all but complete; how did he move Byrd who must have been pressured by his Confederate State peers? What does Richard Russell think of the betrayal of their chosen one? For the first time in the volumes more questions are raised than answered.

But there is at least one book to go to rectify this. An irony pervades that Caro never got to speak with LBJ himself. There are hints of jealousy about this fact, evidenced by some asides about the quality of work of other historians who did get to do so. Perhaps this gives a critical distance Dalleck, Goodwin and others have lacked. Did the focus degenerated a little into myopia? Caro appears to answer the question of whether had Kennedy lived his legislation would have passed in the negative. Does political change take inspiration or mechanics? The Years of Lyndon Johnson is a study of the latter and a parallel work to concentrate on practitioners of the former would pair well. (Perhaps this is an aim of the just released Landslide.)

That could come in the next work(s). Humphrey will grow closer to Johnson and ultimately assume the Democratic mantle in 1968. But the Vietnam tragedy lurks, like a Faustian bargain coming due. I’m dying for the next volume.


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