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.
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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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?
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.
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.
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).
The most fascinating part of Master of the Senate to me was Caro's explanation of LBJ's lifelong tension between a very real compassion for the oppressed in our country (because he was a Texan, to him these were primarily African-Americans and Mexican-Americans) and his desperate need for power. He wanted very much to have the Democratic nomination for President in both 1956 and 1960, but realized that to get it he would have to rise above the Southern racism that virtually all Southern politicians adhered to in those days. His chance came with the 1957 Civil Rights Act, an Eisenhower Administration bill sponsored by Republicans. (Yes, things have changed a lot since then.) Although the bill was stripped of several of its original provisions, the voting rights section was retained, and as Majority Leader of the Senate, Johnson is due much of the credit for its passage. At this juncture in his life, his compassion and his ambition worked together.
The story of Lyndon Johnson is one of the great tragedies of American history. To go from passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a landslide victory in the '64 election to being the subject of chants like "Hey, Hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?" and the cheers on my college campus when he announced he wouldn't be running in the 1968 election, followed by his death only four years later, is almost a textbook definition of tragedy; and hubris LBJ certainly had. I'm beginning to think that one of the reasons for his fall was that, if Caro hasn't left anything out (and it's hard to believe he has), LBJ was not that interested in foreign policy until he became President. Caro mentions in Master of the Senate, almost as an aside, a conversation that took place while Johnson was on a Senate junket to Paris -- which he had "reluctantly" been persuaded to participate in. Reluctantly! Paris! The Korean War and Sputnik seem to have been the only events that turned him from his focus on domestic affairs, and his main interest in them appeared to be holding hearings on preparedness in the first case and the "missile gap" in the second. This could not have served him well in the quagmire of Vietnam. (My take on it, and I'm open to correction.)
I'm going to catch up on some other reading for a while, but I already have an audio file of Passage to Power, the next volume in The Years of Lyndon Johnson. I consider this one of the greatest works of history and biography that I have come across and I urge everyone who can to read it.
I await Volume 4.