The Years of Lyndon Johnson

This is a book review of the first four volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro. As the title of the series suggests, these volumes constitute a biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson. But the title of each volume is about something else:

  1. The Path to Power
  2. Means of Ascent
  3. Master of the Senate
  4. The Passage of Power

What comes through relatively early on in reading these books is that LBJ is only the lens through which the author Robert Caro chose to analyze the way in which political power is accumulated, maintained, and wielded in the United States. As you read you may discover that like me, and I presume also the author, you don’t even particularly like LBJ. He was a deeply flawed person. This is not a hagiography. This is not a collection of anecdotes and post-game commentary about the many rivalries, the many victories and defeats that LBJ had in his life. This is instead a laborious and exhaustive accounting of the genetic, personal, cultural, economic, political, and even geographical influences that shaped LBJ into the person he was, as a child, adolescent, young adult, and finally mature adult and leader of the free world. I have never read anything like these books. Sometimes you hear people say about a person, they’re “doing God’s work” — by which I take them to mean that the person is working on an important task that is nonetheless so huge, so complex, that only God himself could hope to ever see it accomplished, a task that anybody else would find too daunting to even dare an attempt. Robert Caro is doing God’s work here.

And part of that work since he’s writing about a former president is tracing back to primary sources the story of how LBJ got to be the president, and how after he became the president he was able to wield his power. These primary sources, drawn together into a cohesive and coherent narrative, help us to understand at a nitty-gritty level how a person like LBJ was able to take power in the United States, first as a Congressional assistant, later as a Congressman, still later as a Senator, and finally as President of the United States. Along the way we get intimate portraits of the men and women who LBJ was closest to, and of how they acted in their dealings with LBJ.

The Path to Power starts with LBJ’s ancestors from the hill country of Texas, and traces through them and the story of that geographical region to an explanation of how LBJ’s father, for a time a successful Texas state legislator and businessman, eventually lost the family fortune, his reputation, and health on a quixotic attempt to turn their ancestral home in hill country into a cotton farm. This story is important because of how foundational the reversal of fortune LBJ experienced — and the lessons about social life he drew from that reversal — were to his personal motivations and behavior. We often speculate on how early childhood experiences may have formed us or people we know into who we are. Never have I seen a more thorough accounting of how that came about for a specific person. The volume ends with a description of his educational experience at the Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College in San Marcos, where LBJ basically invented student politics in fulfilling his ambition to be recognized as a leader among his classmates when he was not accepted socially among the athletes and children from wealthier families. His experience with student politics was exactly what an education should be: an opportunity for him to learn and hone his skills, which he did with a singular focus and doggedness driven by a haunting fear of failure. He stole elections, blackmailed students on the newspaper, and conspired to manipulate whomever he could into accomplishing his ends. The basic tactics and strategy he developed as a student were the same that he used to form a team around him as a Congressional assistant in Washington D.C., a team he leaned on to help him win election to a seat in Congress himself at the age of 32 after a campaign in which he nearly worked himself to death.

Means of Ascent tells the story of LBJ’s years in the House of Representatives, and of how he took power there by (1) positioning himself as the gatekeeper to funds from Texas oil and gas money for the rest of Congress, and (2) shamelessly and endlessly kissing the ass of the Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn. Woven into these accounts are explanations of how campaign contributions led to legislation that put money back into the pockets of his wealthiest supporters, including especially Herman and George Brown of Brown & Root. Also described in this volume is the story of how he met, courted, married, and then used Lady Bird as almost a slave. Lady Bird comes across as one of the most, if not the most, heroic characters we meet in all four volumes, and the stories of the sacrifices she made and her accomplishments under the conditions in which she found herself brought tears to my eyes many times. An extreme introvert, she nonetheless found it within herself after a car accident in which the car had rolled twice to finish a trip from Austin to San Antonio to give a speech before thousands of people without even telling her husband (so that he wouldn’t be distracted). She merely deposited her driving companion at the hospital, and continued on alone to give the speech at his closing rally, a speech that was broadcast on the radio and that many women credited as persuading them to vote for LBJ. She didn’t even tell LBJ what had happened until he saw the bruises while she was changing to drive back to Austin the next day. This book concludes with the story of how LBJ stole the 1948 senate election from Coke Stevenson. This is a gripping story that involves both organized crime who controlled votes in south Texas and brilliant lawyers who managed the legal strategy running up to the date on which the party’s nominee had to be certified, and includes litigation in state and federal courts at all levels. We can only know as much as we do now thanks to Robert Caro’s interviews of one of the principals involved in stuffing the ballot box, who gave him his written confession shortly before he died.

Master of the Senate tells the story of LBJ’s years in the Senate, where he went from a freshman senator with no real power to the second most powerful man in the United States between 1948 when he took office in the Senate and 1960 when he gave up his Senate seat to serve as Vice President under John F. Kennedy. The exhaustive accounting that went into volumes 1 and 2 really pays off in volume 3 as we see how the same playbook that gave LBJ power in college and as a member of the House of Representatives was run again in the Senate. This time he leveraged (1) his control of the scheduling of hearings of legislation on the floor as a minority whip and later majority leader, and (2) his relationship with Richard B. Russell Jr., which he cultivated in much the same way — including leveraging Lady Bird in much the same way — as he did Sam Rayburn and others from whom he needed to secure power and influence. A significant chunk of this volume is also devoted to a retelling of the history of the Senate as an institution, and if you read nothing else then the few hundred pages devoted to that history in this volume are worth your time if you have any interest whatsoever in politics in the United States. I’m a lawyer and have been reading American history for over 20 years. Nothing has been as clarifying as the history of the Senate compiled in this volume. The volume concludes with the story of how LBJ lost his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, but nonetheless was placed on the ticket as Vice President. It gives some explanation also of why he chose to give up his position of power in the Senate (he knew he needed to move away from the Southern bloc if he had any hope of being elected President). It tells also of the rivalry between him and Robert Kennedy, two powerful and charismatic men who could not have been more unlike.

The Passage of Power tells the story of his years as Vice President, transition to President as a result of Jack Kennedy’s assassination, and tenure as president through his nomination by the Democratic party for reelection in 1964. As the previous volume devoted a substantial chunk of space to a retelling of the history of the Senate, this volume devotes a substantial chunk of space to a retelling of the history of President Kennedy’s rise to power and tenure in office, along with his horrible assassination on November 22, 1963. This was the real page turner of the four volumes. I’ve watched movies and plays that had nothing on the drama and plot going in this volume, which are only heightened by the recognition that the description is of events that actually occurred. One takeaway: It is a miracle that Jack Kennedy was in office during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We might not be around to read books today if his cooler head had not prevailed in October 1962. Another takeaway: If LBJ had not taken office on November 22, 1963 as a result of President Kennedy’s assassination, there is a very distinct possibility — even probability — that civil rights legislation would not have passed.

These volumes are not for everybody, but if you are interested in human nature, and in particular the capacity we have to grow and evolve over time — our malleability to the influences of other people, our social, cultural, economic, and political circumstances — then I expect you will not find many, if any, books that can in the same way satisfy your curiosity about these phenomena with cold, hard facts. I recommend them highly to anybody even tempted to consider reading.

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