In Means of Ascent, Book Two of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert A. Caro brings alive Lyndon Johnson in his wilderness years. Here, Johnson's almost mythic personality--part genius, part behemoth, at once hotly emotional and icily calculating--is seen at its most nakedly ambitious. This multifaceted book carries the President-to-be from the aftermath of his devastating defeat in his 1941 campaign for the Senate-the despair it engendered in him, and the grueling test of his spirit that followed as political doors slammed shut-through his service in World War II (and his artful embellishment of his record) to the foundation of his fortune (and the actual facts behind the myth he created about it). The culminating drama--the explosive heart of the book--is Caro's illumination, based on extraordinarily detailed investigation, of one of the great political mysteries of the century. Having immersed himself in Johnson's life and world, Caro is able to reveal the true story of the fiercely contested 1948 senatorial election, for years shrouded in rumor, which Johnson was not believed capable of winning, which he "had to" win or face certain political death, and which he did win-by 87 votes, the "87 votes that changed history." Telling that epic story "in riveting and eye-opening detail," Caro returns to the American consciousness a magnificent lost hero. He focuses closely not only on Johnson, whom we see harnessing every last particle of his strategic brilliance and energy, but on Johnson's "unbeatable" opponent, the beloved former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, who embodied in his own life the myth of the cowboy knight and was himself a legend for his unfaltering integrity. And ultimately, as the political duel between the two men quickens--carrying with it all the confrontational and moral drama of the perfect Western--Caro makes us witness to a momentous turning point in American politics: the tragic last stand of the old politics versus the new--the politics of issue versus the politics of image, mass manipulation, money and electronic dazzle.
Means of Ascent focuses solely on two events: LBJ's acquisition and growth of his broadcasting empire (the source of his wealth), and the 1948 Senate election, which he won by 87 votes, leading to the nickname "Landslide Lyndon" which plagued him the rest of his life. Caro's meticulous detailing of the facts surrounding these events will leave any reader with no doubt that LBJ used his political power and influence, probably illegally, to acquire and build the broadcasting empire, and no doubt that LBJ stole the 1948 election.
LBJ maintained throughout his life that the initial radio station was Lady Bird's acquisition, and that she ran and expanded the business. He claimed to have played no part in securing the various FCC permits and waivers for this and any subsequent acquisitions and expansions. Caro methodically rebuts LBJ's claim, and shows the LBJ was always the driving force behind this enterprise, and that clear illegalities were involved. The detail and minutiae of LBJ's machinations as set forth by Caro are necessary to expose the truth, but can nonetheless lead to some tedious reading for a casual reader.
The events surrounding the 1948 election are perhaps more colorful, but no less detailed. Caro presents the 1948 election as one in which the old methods of campaigning gave way for the first time to campaigns in which the media began to play an all-important role. LBJ's broadcast empire allowed him to fully exploit the media, and made his run against a candidate previously thought to be unbeatable, the extremely popular ex-governor of Texas Coke Stevens, viable, since he was able to reach far many more voters than could Stevens. There is a lot of fascinating detail in Caro's blow-by-blow account of the campaign, including LBJ's use of the "new-fangled" helicopter, which as a novelty attracted hordes of voters whenever LBJ appeared, but which also, as a still experimental vehicle, put LBJ's life at risk more often than he was aware.
A large portion of this part of the book relates to the actual counting of the vote--the how, who and when of the stuffing of the ballot boxes, the coverup of these actions, the court battles, and so forth, including just how narrowly the LBJ faction escaped detection of the absolute proof of their fraud. The facts discovered and exposed by Caro leave no doubt that LBJ stole the election. Although LBJ never admitted to election fraud, the circumstances were such that the 1948 election remained a cloud over his head that emerged from time to time in his future career.
Caro devotes a fair amount of the book to LBJ's opponent Coke Stevens, who despite coming from a background similar to LBJ's was his polar opposite. The story of his poverty-stricken childhood, his years of self-education, and his amazing rise to power through small town lawyer, to D.A., to state representative, and ultimately to Texas governor makes for very good reading. Unlike LBJ, Coke was scrupulously honest, kind, considerate and well-loved. By the end of Means of Ascent, on the other hand, LBJ has become more and more dishonest, cruel and self-centered---a thoroughly unlikeable character.
I generally tend to be somewhat sceptic towards biographies because just by virtue of their genre alone they tend to propagate a "great men" theory of history, literature, or indeed whatever field their subject was active in. Occasionally however, there are biographies whose ambition reaches beyond their immediate subject, taking the individual they write about as representative for a wider question, and that is where things start to get interesting. That Caro's biography of Lyndon B. Johnson belongs to that category was already striking in its first volume, The Path to Power, which over the course of its almost 1,000 pages paints a vivid and detailed portrait of the United States during the Depression era, a portrait which, while centred around the early career of an aspiring politician from Texas, provided a sharp-eyed analysis of the society and the political system Johnson lived and worked in.
Means of Ascent continues in that vein, although the emphasis is somewhat different here: Not only does this second volume concern itself with only seven years in Johnson's life from 1941 to 1948 but he also sets out to make and prove a very specific point; where the first volume was a grand, panoramic painting, this one more resembles a narrative.
To narrow the focus even more, Caro really only treats of two major events during the period of Johnson's life under scrutiny here. One of them are his wartime experiences - or rather, lack thereof. While Johnson used to make a lot of his having been at the front lines during World War II, closer inspection shows that what it factually boils down to is a single bombing flight he took part in as an observer. Admittedly, it was a dangerous flight which not all planes came back from, but it still seems hardly to justify the extravagant claims Johnson used to make about his wartime heroics in later years which at best appear to have been vast exaggerations and at worst blatant lies.
The main emphasis of this volume, however, is on the Senate elections of 1948 which mark a turning point in Johnson's life and career. They were his last chance to enter the Senate and continue his political career, a career which according to Caro had the presidency of the United States as its aim from the very beginning. That career had been stalled due to Johnson losing the previous elections and to the war; another loss would have meant that he'd never go beyond congress. Johnson, then, was desperate to win the 1948 elections, and willing to use every means at his disposal to gain a seat in the Senate.
And this is where Caro's point comes in and where this volume's main narrative unfolds: the central thesis is that Johnson in his reckless bid for power created a new type of politician, a politician who did not view power as a means to achieve his political goals but instead used political goals as a means to claim power for himself. And in the wake of this, Lyndon Johnson also changed election campaigning, moving it away from actual political issues into the realm of entertainment, where it does not matter who has the better arguments but who has more money and better showmanship, and ultimately who is ruthless enough to outright steal the elections if everything else fails. Caro builds his narrative on this foundation, and it is a narrative with a villain (Johnson) and a hero (Johnson's opponent, Coke Stevenson), and is this latter trait which garnered him some criticism among the otherwise unanimous praise for his work, namely that he has painted Johnson too negatively and Stevenson too positively. For my part, do not think the former sticks: While Caro does not leave any doubt that he does not like his subject much, my impression was that he treats him very fairly, never failing to point out all of the civil rights improvements he introduced as well as the astounding unflagging energy with which Johnson pursued his goals. Caro's treatment of Coke Stevenson, on the other hand, does appear somewhat over-generous. It's not all bathed in rosy light - Caro makes it clear that Stevenson was a staunch conservative and that his political ideas were often quite reactionary but the degree of personal integrity Caro ascribes to him does seem somewhat unlikely for a politician - any politician - in the 20th century and one can't help but suspect that the author is glossing over some of his faults in the interest of a more dramatic narrative.
Even so, I think that this is a comparatively minor point, as the central question of this book is not which candidate had how many ballot boxes stuffed - although the sheer disregard for anything but his own power grab with which Johnson faked the election is quite breathtaking. But I think Caro aims for a wider thesis, namely that Lyndon B. Johnson's 1948 Senate campaign marks the birth of the contemporary type of politician and changed the political landscape of the USA forever and in my opinion this thesis holds true even if he somewhat arranges the facts for enhanced emphasis. The author's intention may even have been to leave some ray of hope - because in the end, even with all the money he mustered and the show he pulled off (Johnson the first politician ever to use a helicopter in his campaign), in the end Johnson was unable to beat Stevenson with legal means and had to resort to outright stealing the election. All of this makes Means of Ascent a very current book - when everything is said and done, there might not have been a Donald Trump if not for Lyndon B. Johnson, and examining the way Johnson handled this election may give us some idea as what to expect from his spiritual successors today. Spoiler: It's not likely to be anything good.
Caro spends a fair amount of time on Coke Stevenson. I was not familiar with Coke Stevenson, and Caro presents him as a man with no skeletons in his closet. A man with no faults except that he was too nice, and in politics "nice" gets you beat. While I don't doubt he was a decent man, I find it hard to believe he was the saint that Caro portrayed him as. I plan on reading up on Coke from other sources to get a better idea of who he was. He is of great interest to me. For those of us who enjoy reading, you'll be interested in him too as he was a voracious reader.
If there is one thing I took away from this book, it is that I have increased my dislike for LBJ. Granted, Caro is helping with that as he seems to share the same disdain. After the first volume in this series, I was on the fence leaning towards disdain. My disdain has shifted towards disgust after reading the second volume, but you still have to admire LBJ's tenacity. He was a master politician.
But it wasn't Caro's best. The focus is very narrow, zooming in just on the 1948 Texas senate primary election that LBJ stole. There's very little beyond that, particularly if you've already read Caro's standard LBJ descriptions. There's great atmosphere here, especially of the helicopter campaigning and the vote rigging operations. Coke Stevenson is drawn well. Still, it can be too much. Some of the descriptions get repetitive. Books 3 and 4 have a much wider scope, and felt like epics.
> So Woodward ordered Mashman to land on the service station. No one was really sure if the roof would bear the helicopter's weight, and at the last minute Woodward had the roof shored up with beams hauled from a local lumberyard in wagons pulled by muleteams
> The helicopter in which Lyndon Johnson had been riding had fallen like a stone for twenty-five feet, had hit the ground so hard that it bounced higher than a car roof, and then, regaining power, had swooped up into the air again. And, Mashman realized, Johnson hadn’t really noticed.
Here are the "new" parts of Lyndon Johnson's biography. World War II brings Lyndon's "wartime efforts" which, true to form, are grossly exaggerated and evoke feelings of revulsion. At the same time, Caro's depiction of Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson holding down the fort in Washington during this time is poignant. His interview with her is touching.
Although Caro is tighter and more focused in his narrative of Means of Ascent, as with Path to Power, he includes a great deal more information than necessary. Case in point, there are over 30 pages dedicated to LBJ's 1948 opponent, Coke Stevenson and his upbringing. I feel that the only way to make LBJ the ultimate villain is to exaggerate his competition, hence the detail.
He went off to war—in name only—and found himself unable to return and fight for the senate seat he'd failed to win in the special election. And then after the war, he found himself in a different Washington. Without a way into power through FDR's tacit support, he instead turned his attention to wealth, over one million dollars by 1949. And when the opportunity for power came in the form of a 1948 Senate race, he took it despite the odds of winning against Coke Stevenson, the most popular politician in Texas history.
Lyndon used the tactics he'd pioneered in earlier races, but charged with a whole new level of money. Easily hundreds of thousands, and probably millions poured into his campaign war chest and deployed to get him elected any way possible—legally or illegally. Johnson's biggest innovation was campaigning by helicopter, using it to tame the distances between rural towns that kept his advance crews scrambling to outpace his schedule. Campaign literature blanketed the land, whether through pamphlets, "newspapers" printed by the campaign, or actual newspapers entirely co-opted to Johnson's own purposes.
And this unprecedented flurry was put towards the ends of destroying Coke Stevenson, about as close to a cowboy as could be come by. Stevenson was a man to whom integrity meant something, and the law meant something higher than just the letter of government. But Johnson attacked him for positions he didn't hold, and repeated those attacks until they stuck so strongly that Stevenson couldn't throw them aside. And finally, when even that wasn't enough, he gave the final nudge to push his bought votes even further to cover the remaining margin. And when Stevenson tried to get recourse from the courts for having the election blatantly stolen from him, Johnson managed to thread all the needles and survive proceedings with minutes to spare.
Caro is a great biographer, but where he really excels is in telling these wider stories, in showing us the obscure levers of power that these men pulled. Means of Ascent is but the most concentrated of his studies, laying out from start to finish how an election was stolen, and ending with a tease hinting just how far the new owner of that Senate seat was to take it.
This book covers the period 1941-1948, ending with Johnson's successful theft of election to the US Senate. That theft was incredibly bold and shameless, and it's amazing that he got away with it. I guess there has been some doubt over the years about whether it was stolen, but this book leaves no doubt whatsoever.
I still find it amazing that a biographer who has devoted so much of his life to this project finds the object of his work to be such a reprehensible person.
I really liked the description of Coke Stevenson, LBJ's opponent in the 1948 election, a truly amazing and ethical man of whom I had never heard before.