The years of Lyndon Johnson. [Volume 3], Master of the senate

by Robert A. Caro

Paper Book, 2002




New York : Vintage Books, c2002, 2003.


Master of the Senate, Book Three of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, carries Johnson's story through one of its most remarkable periods: his twelve years, from 1949 to 1960, in the United States Senate. At the heart of the book is its unprecedented revelation of how legislative power works in America, how the Senate works, and how Johnson, in his ascent to the presidency, mastered the Senate as no political leader before him had ever done.   It was during these years that all Johnson's experience--from his Texas Hill Country boyhood to his passionate representation in Congress of his hardscrabble constituents to his tireless construction of a political machine--came to fruition. Caro introduces the story with a dramatic account of the Senate itself: how Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun had made it the center of governmental energy, the forum in which the great issues of the country were thrashed out. And how, by the time Johnson arrived, it had dwindled into a body that merely responded to executive initiatives, all but impervious to the forces of change. Caro anatomizes the genius for political strategy and tactics by which, in an institution that had made the seniority system all-powerful for a century and more, Johnson became Majority Leader after only a single term-the youngest and greatest Senate Leader in our history; how he manipulated the Senate's hallowed rules and customs and the weaknesses and strengths of his colleagues to change the "unchangeable" Senate from a loose confederation of sovereign senators to a whirring legislative machine under his own iron-fisted control.   Caro demonstrates how Johnson's political genius enabled him to reconcile the unreconcilable: to retain the support of the southerners who controlled the Senate while earning the trust--or at least the cooperation--of the liberals, led by Paul Douglas and Hubert Humphrey, without whom he could not achieve his goal of winning the presidency. He shows the dark side of Johnson's ambition: how he proved his loyalty to the great oil barons who had financed his rise to power by ruthlessly destroying the career of the New Dealer who was in charge of regulating them, Federal Power Commission Chairman Leland Olds. And we watch him achieve the impossible: convincing southerners that although he was firmly in their camp as the anointed successor to their leader, Richard Russell, it was essential that they allow him to make some progress toward civil rights. In a breathtaking tour de force, Caro details Johnson's amazing triumph in maneuvering to passage the first civil rights legislation since 1875.   Master of the Senate, told with an abundance of rich detail that could only have come from Caro's peerless research, is both a galvanizing portrait of the man himself--the titan of Capital Hill, volcanic, mesmerizing--and a definitive and revelatory study of the workings and personal and legislative power.… (more)

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It makes a wonderful, a glorious tale. The book reads like a Trollope novel, but not even Trollope explored the ambitions and the gullibilities of men as deliciously as Robert Caro does. I laughed often as I read. And even though I knew what the outcome of a particular episode would be, I followed Caro's account of it with excitement. I went back over chapters to make sure I had not missed a word.
In the 1957 civil rights battle, ambition and compassion were finally mixed in the perfect combination for Lyndon Johnson and the country. The same can be said for Robert A. Caro, whose chronicle of Lyndon B. Johnson's outsize life has finally, too, been told with perfect balance.

User reviews

LibraryThing member LizzieD
This book is absolutely magnificent! It's not the kind of thing I want to reread, but I will cherish my copy for reference any time at all that I need to refresh what was happening politically from 1948 through 1960 or thereabouts.
LBJ himself was such a complicated person: totally vulgar, opportunistic, disgusting, mendacious, obsequious, ruthless - passionate, compassionate, sensitive, brilliant. He could make and remake himself in a matter of moments into whatever person was needed to advance his ambition, and his ambition was always to become President. His problem in this book was managing to hang on to the support of the Solid South while distancing himself from his southern roots in order to become a viable national candidate - and he did it. I think that Caro is onto something when he discusses LBJ's compassion for the poor. It was there, and it was deep and real. It was also always less important to him than his ambition. He had, however, an ability to believe what he said he believed because that was the only way to persuade somebody else to change his mind. (Here's Caro quoting George Reedy:
"'He had a remarkable capacity to convince himself that he held the principles he should hold at any given time, and there was something charming about the air of injured innocence with which he would treat anyone who brought forth evidence that he had held other views in the past. It was not an act.... He literally willed what was in his mind to become reality.'") The fact also remains that as ruthless and subservient as he was in the interests of the Texas oilmen who supported him, he also was able to grow into the single figure who achieved the most for the poor of this nation when he finally became President.
The other focus of the book is the Senate of the period. I lived through it, but I was too young to pay much attention at the time, so this book's survey of the early civil rights movement was a revelation that I needed. Likewise, I didn't realize how little about the workings of the legislature I understood until I read this series.
I'm thrilled to have read it and happy to finish it. I'll rest before I go on to book 4, but I'm eager to get to it.
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LibraryThing member Oregonreader
Caro's writing has improved with each volume of his LBJ biography and this third book is magnificent. He has done what a good biographer must do, describing LBJ and all his contradictions without choosing which to emphasize for effect. We see LBJ in his complexity, unprincipled, ambitious, brutal, bullying, obsessed with power and manipulative. But also brilliant, insightful, and having an instinctive desire to help the impoverished as long as it didn't interfere with his ultimate goal of becoming president. The last section describes the Senate fight over the Civil Rights Bill of 1957 with an immediacy and drama that held me spellbound. I have learned so much about how the senate functions on the most basic level. Caro has said that he intended the book to be about power and how it is used in politics and he has brilliantly accomplished that.… (more)
LibraryThing member jensenmk82
It's amazing! After reading 2,260 pages about LBJ, the man remains mysterious... This volume could be read on its own, as Caro gracefully integrates the findings of his earlier volumes into this one. But it's much better to begin with Volume One -- particularly as Volume Three begins with a lengthy history of the Senate that might have been better relegated to an appendix or published as a separate volume. Caro's organizational talents are remarkable parceling the various aspects of Johnson's life in different parts of the book. But he always remains the scrupulous historian, and does not purport to explain what he doesn't know -- for example, what it was in the spring of 1957 that caused him to dedicate himself to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, after for months seeming to abandon that cause. This is a glorious work of history, but one with many dark shadows.… (more)
LibraryThing member labwriter
Robert Caro is a master of the biographer's craft. I would read ANYTHING he writes. I've read all three and can't wait for the fourth volume.

Caro is 73 years old this year (I can't believe it, but I guess it's true since he's been working on this project for some 30 years). A fairly recent Newsweek article ("Marathon Man," 7 Feb 2009) about Caro and Vol. 4 says he doesn't use a computer. How is that possible? On one wall of his office is a "giant outline--20 pages that get Caro from the beginning to the end of each book." His wife Ina helps him with his research: "I know what he's looking for without him telling me."

Whether you care all that much about Johnson or not (Caro will make you care), if you enjoy biographies, you owe it to yourself to read not only this Volume 3, but the other two books as well. Then you'll be ready for Volume 4 which is sure to be as great a book as the others.
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LibraryThing member kbergfeld
As the fifth person to the read the copy of the book I had, it fell apart at the seam, but the story just kept getting better. Having no experience of the times when LBJ ruled DC, Caro's series gives me the opportunity to not only understand the concepts that existed, but his descriptions go so far as to have me imagine the smell of the Senate Chamber. I cannot wait for the fourth and final book in this series.… (more)
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Massive, impeccably detailed and researched third part of a planned 4 volume set on the life of LBJ. Incredibly fascinating and detailed, with Johnson's notorious faults and brilliant achievements portrayed with a wealth of detail.

I await Volume 4.
LibraryThing member patience_crabstick
Yikes! 1040 pages! In the third volume of his biography, Johnson as just been elected senator for Texas, and immediately starts working to procure as much power as possible. When I read how LBJ smeared Leland Olds as a communist, I wished that dueling were still socially acceptable. Perhaps if it were, politicians would think twice before attacking others' honor in such an execrable manner. And yet, one builds up a grudging respect for LBJ as the book progresses. He knew how politics worked--and from reading about his maneuvers I learned a lot more about it as well--and successfully steered a course between conservative Southern democrats and liberal northern democrats to get a civil rights bill passed. A weak and meaningless bill, to be sure, but LBJ saw it as the thin edge of the wedge, paving the way to to a more effective civil rights bill in the 1960s. I confess, I skimmed a lot, but some chapters, such as those about the struggles of blacks to exercise their right to vote, are fascinating and horrifying. There is still another volume to come, since this one ends just as LBJ has been elected VP.… (more)
LibraryThing member JBD1
One of the best biographies out there, of anyone. Caro is a masterful craftsman.
LibraryThing member jmcdbooks
Rated: A-
Wonderful history of LBJ's rise to power in the Senate and the passage of the Civil Rights bill. Love the expression LBJ used concerning idiots (he's so dumb that he couldn't pour piss out of a boot even if the instructions were on the heal).
LibraryThing member DanTarlin
While I really loved the first two books in this epic biography, this one was more of a slog for me, even though it won a National Book Award. It's ridiculously researched and dense with primary source material. But because there is so much material to work with once one is in the US Senate, that makes it really long. Caro very cogently lets us see how sausage is made in the Senate, and how LBJ transformed that sausage-making, but he loads it down with so much detail that I just ended up skimming and calling out "yeah, I get the idea!!"

As with previous books in the series, I'm struck by the degree to which Caro sees Johnson as a naked power-groveler, with ambition overriding every other consideration. But in this volume he starts to show that maybe at his core LBJ really did have some liberal beliefs all along, and was really using his ambition to serve this noble end. Given the Civil Rights Acts of his presidency, I'm willing to buy this explanation.
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LibraryThing member anitatally
This series of books has forever changed my outlook on politics.
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
This was a chore for me. For one, I have never been a huge history buff. Secondly, Caro painted Johnson to be such a lying and bullying politician in the first book that I didn't think I wanted to know anything more about him, as master of the senate, future president, or not. To say that Master of the Senate is well researched is an understatement. This biography goes well beyond Lyndon's life. Like Path to Power and Means of Ascent before it, Master of the Senate broad in its scope and extremely thorough.… (more)
LibraryThing member gbelik
I made my way rather slowly through this 3rd volume of Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography, loving most of it. There were some areas where I grew impatient and wished his editor had been a little tougher on the amount of detail (the Leland Olds hearing and the battle for the 1957 civil rights bill come to mind, but, all in all, it sets the standard for what a biography can do. I think I'll take a break before heading on to the next volume.… (more)
LibraryThing member brianjayjones
Think the legislative process sounds boring? Think again. Using the crafting and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to frame the story of Johnson's Senate years -- during which he practically invented modern Senate procedure -- Caro makes lawmaking look downright dramatic. Which it is, especially when the stakes are so high.

Johnson doesn't come across as a hero in the practical sense -- he's a boor, unfaithful to his wife, an opportunist, and, at times, doesn't appear to have any real core beliefs. Whether it's speaking to Southern senators with a deep drawl before turning around and talking to New England progressives without a hint of an accent, or kissing the appropriate backsides to secure plum committee assignments and roles in the Senate leadership, Johnson appears to bend his own personality -- as well as the personalities of others -- to fit his own purposes.

But whether you like him or not, he understood politics, and process, like no one else before him (and perhaps better than any since). And once he became committed to a cause, he was a dangerous man to cross; no one could kick your teeth in quicker using parliamentary procedure than Lyndon Johnson. You'll genuinely cheer when he finally steers the Civil Rights Act to final passage.

Caro ends the book with a cliffhanger, as Johnson angles toward the Vice Presidency -- and Caro's next book will take things from there. Don't rush things, Caro, but really, hurry up, won't you?
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