The third volume in the author's monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, following The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, describes the future president's career in the U.S. Senate, from breaking the southern control of Capitol Hill to passing the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.
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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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.
I await Volume 4.
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).
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.
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?