Years of Robert Caro – A review of his Lyndon Johnson biographies Part One

Years of Robert Caro – A review of his Lyndon Johnson biographies
Part One
            Lyndon Baines Johnson won the 1964 presidential election of the United States on November 3, 1964; two days before my birth.  Both events mark their 50thanniversary in 2014.
            Last night, March 22, 2014, I finished Robert Caro’s fourth volume of his masterful biography of the man who was president on the day I was born. The book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power (2012, Alfred A Knopf – all the books are by Alfred A. Knopf; the hardback volumes that I own at any rate), ISBN # 978-0-679-40507-8 covers his time as Vice-President until the passage of he Civil Rights Act of 1964 in July of that year. The book touches on later events, but more as a precursor of the fifth (and presumably final) book of the series.
            As with the prior volume, just before The Passage of Power (as with all his LBJ books, they are titles The Years of Lyndon Johnson: …; I will refer to the four books by their secondary title to avoid writer’s cramp), I read the previous books to get back into the subject and the writer’s style. I doubt I will do that with the fifth volume. Mr. Caro is already at, by my poor estimation, over 1.1 millions words. I may not live long enough to read through them again, particularly considering the Trollope-an lengths of most of the series.
            The first book was released in 1982 and the author’s style has not changed in the past 32 years. Robert Caro writes as a novelist – dramatic retelling of events and people that figure most prominently in LBJ’s life and surroundings. He quotes directly as often as possible. Although this “leads to … some” creative “sentence (structure) throughout … the book(s)” it does not distract. His chapters and sections sometimes end on the type of cliffhangers or ominous forebodings that would make Dan Brown jealous. That may annoy some people; I find it nail-biting fun! I am sucked into the drama Caro produces.
            An internet search shows Mr. Caro has written only one book other than his Years of Lyndon Johnson series – The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York – so I do not know if the author’s talent for drama (sometimes melodrama) is a talent of his own or based on his subject. Regardless, the style fits in perfectly with his subject. There are not many politicians and no presidents known more for their melodramatics than the 36thPresident. At least, according to this series.
            John Connally, LBJ’s key aide in the Senate, Governor of Texas (he was in the front seat of Kennedy’s limousine on that day in Dallas– he died with shrapnel from the assassin’s bullet still in his wrist, supposedly) and was in the field of Republican nominees for president in 1980, said LBJ …
… was generous and he was selfish, he was kind and at other times he was cruel; at times he was an earthy, crude, active fellow; at other times he was incredibly charming. He could be whatever he wanted to be.  He was a strange complex man who had basically almost a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence.  He was two different people.
(from the PBS program “The American Experience:  LBJ by David Grubin, 1991)
George Reedy, LBJ’s aide and press secretary, said;
What was it that would send him into those fantastic rages where he could be one of the nastiest, one of the most insufferable, sadistic, SOBs that ever lived; then a few minutes later really be a big, magnificent, inspiring leader? 
            Robert Caro’s one million words show us the answer by giving us glimpses of his family, the land that family came from, his triumphs and tragedies, and his public and private face.
            1982’s The Path to Power (USBN # 0-394-49973-5) is, to me, the most interesting of the volumes to date; if only because it covers the part of LBJ’s life of which I know the least: his upbringing and childhood.
            The book sets the tone for the rest of the series. It contains mini-biographies of the people and places that were vital to his life at the time; or in this case, to the development of his personality.
            The book begins with the “settlement” of the Hill County of Texas and the hard-scrabble life of anyone foolish enough to believe one could prosper there. The book looks at LBJ’s Bunton ancestry – the “Bunton strain” – the fierce eyes, the temper, the ambition, the shrewdness and toughness. But when Johnson blood was mixed with the Buntons, with the Johnson’s unrealistic idealism and dreams of success without the Bunton pragmatism, the family’s life slid into poverty and humiliation.
            In the fourth volume the author surmises this is the base for LBJ’s attitude on fighting war and poverty. He knew what it was like to have no money at hand; to have no credit with the local stores. In current terms he knew the sound of the collection agencies rap at the door and ring on the phone. He knew the neighbor’s disdain of those lazy, no-account, good-for-nothings, despite his father’s success in the Texaslegislature. His father was, by this account, a great man; a progressive visionary. But in the Hill Country, visions don’t feed the family. He had nothing to show for his success at the end of his political career. He was trapped and tricked into get-rich-quick schemes that always failed. He failed. LBJ never forgot – probably never forgave – that. Caro examines the father’s rise and fall politically, socially and economically.
            He also examines LBJ’s mother. By today’s standards she would be prissy and likely would have wanted to belong in the same circles as other presidential mothers Mittie Roosevelt and her distant cousin-in-law Sara Roosevelt. Her devotion to her eldest son is thoroughly verified.
            Thus, LBJ had to work on road crews – back-breaking work paving roads and leading mule teams in sweltering heat. He had to attend a small teacher’s college instead of the more prestigious universities in Austin. He taught the poorest of the poor children in the southern tip of Mexico– the vast majority Mexican children living in the kind of squalor he recognized. He helped them, and their parents, as best he could – such as teaching them English.
            But we also see the Bunton Strain reestablish itself in the family line. If he wasn’t loved by his college classmates, he was determined to make himself respected. In a trait repeated through his life, he ingratiated himself to the powers-that-be in the school. He took a useless elected position in school government and transformed it into a position of great power and influence. Barred from the influential clique of the college? He formed his own and quickly out-cliqued the clique.
            He considered becoming a lawyer and worked in a law firm. He did not like the slow pace to power and respect a career in the law parceled out.
            He was right about that. Trust me.
            He also took a mostly ceremonial group (the “Little Congress”) and transformed into a mover and shaker in Washington – with himself as its head.
            The index says it best: Under Johnson, Character the headings include “need for affection”, “need for attention/prominence”, “need for respect, need to win”, “pragmatism/practicality/realism”, “secrecy”, “self-criticism”, “sensitivity to criticism”, “story-telling ability”, “thoroughness” and “viciousness”.
            The Bunton Strain is strong in this one …
            We see LBJ enter politics as a congressional aide for a man in the next district. We see his election as a member of the House of Representatives for his own district (he had never ran against an incumbent – political suicide in those days (and usually these days, too), bringing electricity to the Hill Country. Along the way we view, for the first time, his absolute tyranny and cruelty to his underlings: the legend of his spouting orders while sitting on the toilet begins here. He would walk past an aid and bark, “I hope your mind isn’t as cluttered as the top of your desk.” When the aide caught up on his work the insult would change to “I hope your mind isn’t as empty as the top of your desk.”
            His mantra of “if you do everything, EVERYTHING, you will win” was proven.
            Until he tried to run for Senate.
            He ran against Pappy O’Daniel, a popular radio personality and current governor, and was taught a lesson of Texaspolitics. His people called in the votes too early – early enough for O’Daniel to call in HIS numbers – just high enough to overcome Johnson’s. It was a bitter defeat – one he vowed never to repeat. EVERYTHING also included out-cheating your opponent.
            The book ends with that defeat, but along the way we are provided biographies of O’Daniel, LBJ’s Texas and Washington benefactors – including Sam Rayburn and various Texas oilmen and, of course, Claudia Alta Taylor – Lady Bird.
            Caro sets the stage for the events of the rest of LBJ’s life – his gruffness and sincerity mentioned by Reedy and Connally above. Most of the history he researches has dimmed with time and LBJ’s own desire to mythologize his past. Caro chips and brushes the small fossils to reveal the truth –a little boy humiliated by his poverty and his father’s (perceived) failures determined – by any means – to do better than him. To show the people of the Hill Country that he will NOT be a failure just like his father. In the meantime, if he can help others in similar situations (in a later campaign speech he referred to the meek, the weak, the poor and the suffering) to “lift them up” and give them a chance to better themselves.
            As long as that “chance” did not conflict with his personal ambitions for wealth and power. For now they did. For the first twenty years of his political career it did. That was to come later. For now, he was still on the path to power.
Original material copyright 2014 Michael G Curry

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