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

The Years of Robert Caro – A review of his Lyndon Johnson biographies
Part Two
            Volume Two of Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Means of Ascent(Albert A. Knopf, 1990; ISBN # 0-394-49973-5) was the first book of the biography series that I purchased. It was in the bargain bin of the Wal-Mart in Murphysboro, Illinoisduring the spring of 1992. I took it with me to read in the lobby of one of the law firms with which I interviewed (and got the job). It was snowing heavily and I dropped the book in my driveway when I got home. The dust-jacket was off (I always take off the dust jacket) and the black cover bled onto my hands and shirt. Good thing it happened after the interview.
            It is the shortest of the four volumes published to date – 412 pages not counting index, bibliographies and annotations – just over half the page-count of the previous volume (and the fourth) and 2/5th the length of Master of the Senate.
            That is because it covers the nadir of LBJ’s political career. It begins just after his defeat at the hands of Governor Pappy O’Daniel for Texas’ open US Senate seat and concludes with his successful second Senate run – from 1941 to 1948.
            The introduction is a masterful retelling of LBJ’s call to arms for civil rights as president in the 1960s.  The author tells us he intends to take us back to show the means that led to this noble end; means which were far from noble. We see a Lyndon Johnson beginning to amass his fortune, his ruthless style of running his Congressional office, and his do-or-die attitude in his second bid for the Senate. This is not the Lyndon Johnson of the introduction; this is a vicious opportunist at the start of his climb to power.
            What changed? Future volumes will show. In the meantime we the readers can watch his climb – and watch as he uses everyone he meets as an expendable rung.
            He had his plan to power: the House of Representatives to the Senate to the Presidency. He made no bones about the desire to become a Senator, but more-or-less kept his presidential ambitions secret. Occasionally the plan would slip out. The book mentions LBJ looking upon the House gallery muttering, “too slow, too slow…” Because of the unbreakable tradition of seniority of House committee chairmanships, he would be an old man before he achieved anything close to power in the House. And Congressmen rarely made it directly to the White House. He needed, NEEDED, to go to the Senate.            
            Challenging incumbents were futile; he had to wait for an opening as was the case in 1941 (and as was the case for his House seat in 1937). So what to do in the meantime?
            Amass his fortune.
            The introduction of Path to Power revealed the beginnings of his association with Brown & Root, a Texascorporation that helped finance his elections and begin his financial career in exchange for votes favoring their schemes. They were involved in construction, engineering and military contracts. LBJ’s influence in the House helped them get their contracts, and in exchange … well, LBJ didn’t get a kickback, but did get to ride their coattails in B&R’s financial ventures. Eventually Johnson bought a radio station where his new friends would advertise. In later volumes, we discovered that if anyone – anyone – wanted a political favor from the Congressman-then-Senator would require they buy advertising on his now-network of Texas stations. Even if the business was an insurance firm in North Carolina– they advertised in Texas in exchange for favorable passage of their pet projects.
            During WWII he finagles a commission in the Navy and, during a House junket, sees genuine combat, from which he was awarded the Silver Star.
            The other two-thirds of the book show the details of his 1948 Senate run.
            The author gives us a biography of his opponent – then-Governor Coke Stevenson. His last Senate run was against a sitting governor as well, showing the reader the importance of the seat.
            Coke Stevenson, Mr. Texas, is given all the respect that was his due (supposedly, he was a raging bigot). Caro also shows Johnson slowly, ever so slowly, chipping away at his huge lead.
            LBJ campaign used modern technology – using a helicopter to enter towns and villages in the most dramatic fashion, and using telephone solicitations and polls.
            And he cheats.
            Oh how he cheats.
            His moniker “Landslide Lyndon” came from this campaign and election. Caro vividly explains how politics work in the most southern counties in Texas. We learn about Alice, Texasand Jim Hogg County as well as short bios of “The Duke of Duval County”, his ilk and their fiefdoms. Caro shows how they work, and decide, elections.
            Johnson lost his last run for Senate by reporting their returns first. His opponent then reported their returns – not coincidentally reporting more votes for their candidate.
            He would not make that mistake in this election. He won by 47 votes. Some people voted in their precincts in alphabetical order.
            Caro discusses Stevenson’s challenge and his dislike of LBJ for the rest of his life (he supported Goldwater in 1964). But in the meantime Stevenson found the love of his life and retired from public life as a rancher. It was, after all, a happy ending for Mr.Texas.
            And a happy ending for LBJ. He was a Senator now, on the second rung of his ultimate plan for power. He was happy and rich. The scorched bodies he left behind are irrelevant.
            Aren’t they?
            Master of the Senate (2002, USBN # 0-394-52836-0) picks up immediately after the second volume. First, though, Caro gives us a superb history of the US Senate and its role in UShistory through its legislation as well as its lack of legislation. Caro shows us a history of the radical House as well as the Executive Branch proposing bill after bill reflecting the changing attitudes of the country. Civil rights, labor reform, environmentalism, care for the poor and aged. Wave after wave of legislation smashing against the unmovable dam of the US Senate – the keeper of the status quo – all to no affect.
            You shall not pass.
            Attaining power in the Senate would take almost as long as in the House, despite there being only 95 men to leap-frog on the way to power. Johnson would have to suck up to the committee chairmen; some of which had been chairmen for decades (during the times while the Democrats held the majority). Fortunately Johnson had a leg up here – most of the chairmanships belonged to the longest-serving senators. And all of them were from the south. They belonged in what was called the Southern Caucus – fiscally and culturally conservative Democrats. Put another way – the only black they like is the color of ink on a ledger; as opposed to the color of one’s skin.
            In Means of Ascent, Caro provided a thorough biography of Sam Rayburn – the Speaker of the House. Here are meet Richard Russell – the “head” of the Southern Caucus. Russell did not have a title equal to Rayburn, but he had equal power. Johnson sucked up to Russell in the same way he had Rayburn. LBJ became his sycophant; and then his second-in-command. Russell was priming Johnson to become the leader of the Southern Caucus. This was as high a position as a senator from the south can become.
            So other than an informal position with nose firmly implanted in Richard Russell’s bottom, how can LBJ gain power not just over the Southern Caucus, but the rest of the Senate? How will that help him with his ultimate goal? Caro marks the parallels with Johnson’s first days in the Senate with his days in the House and before that as a Congressional aide. He takes a little-used office – Minority Whip – and transforms it into a title that brings him power; just as he did in college and in the “Little Congress”.
            He took command of the disbursement of funds for election campaigns. Those he instinctually knew would lose their seat either in a primary or general election got little money. Those who would win got more. Those who begged – those who kissed ass – got even more. He wielded his power with the strict purpose of gathering more power.
            He transformed the post of Minority Leader and, soon, Majority Leader. He brought the Senate to a level of power not seen since before FDR’s presidency. And with the rise in the power of the Senate, came a rise in his power and influence.  No bill passed that he did not want passed; no bill failed that he wanted to fail.
            Before becoming the second most powerful man in Washington, though, we learn about Johnson’s rise in the Senate. He firmly planted himself with the Southern Caucus with his “We of the South” speech. Before the senate and the nation he explained the unwritten mandate of the Caucus and showed that he firmly stood with them.
            And yet in the presence of northern liberals he stated he was in favor of their policies, too. All things to all people; keeping all options open; keeping your political aspirations multiple choice.  
            He enmeshed himself with his Texas oil benefactors by destroying the career of Leland Olds – painting him as a communist with a McCarthy-like precision. Caro spends more time than was probably necessary focusing on LBJ’s hatchet job. I became bored with it after a while.
            Speaking of McCarthy, Caro shows us an LBJ conspicuously silent during Tailgunner Joe’s red-baiting rampage. Johnson said he would wait to allow the Wisconsin Senator to self-implode. This would keep Johnson from taking sides. History proved LBJ right, fortunately for him.
            We focus next on LBJ’s 1955 near-fatal heart attack and recovery. Johnson lies to the press about relaxing at the Ranch and finally sitting back and reading books. He still controlled the Senate from his swimming pool.
            Johnson tried late in the campaign to run for president in 1956. He was soundly trounced.  But this paved the way for a possible run in 1960. He learned in 1956 that he must prevail over his magnolia taint. How can he as a southerner overcome (no pun intended) his segregationist associations? Did his “We of the South” speech doom his presidential aspirations?
            By passing a civil rights bill for the first time in 80 years.
            When it was time to finally address civil rights and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Caro shows us how LBJ did it against all odds.
            So why, after thousands of pages of ruthless exploitation of some and the crushing of others for his own advancement (and seeming amusement), did LBJ support a civil rights bill?
            As mentioned in the prior blog, Robert Caro is the wonderful writer.  He has a novelist’s skill in inserting drama, cliffhangers and foreshadowing/foreboding in his work.  In addition his books are thoroughly researched and he uses direct quotes as much as possible.
            That being said, Master of the Senate is my least favorite book of this series. Here LBJ is still a ruthless opportunist. He’s still a sycophant, too; but that fades when he becomes Majority Leader. He is the Master now. He still needs the support of Russell and the Southern Caucus – the men that made him Leader. Although he is not as harsh to them as he is to the “northern liberals” – demanding they kowtow to him and treat him deferentially almost to the point of ludicrousness – he no longer completely demurs to them.
            Caro so succinctly shows us LBJ’s use of power offensively that when Masterfocuses on the passage of the first real Civil Rights bill since Reconstruction, I find LBJ’s support of the bill unconvincing and artificial.
            LBJ seemed so villainous and Machiavellian that his concern for passage of the bill rang false. What was his motive? Altruism? Surely not, how will the passage of the bill line his pocket or aid his career in any way?
            We discover it was a way to break out of his “We of the South” mold. How can he have a chance to become president by being associated with the Southern Caucus? Richard Russell’s run for the Democratic nomination in 1952 proved the futility of such hopes.
            LBJ hoped to show that although he may be southern; he was no Southerner. However, Caro’s skill at portraying Johnson made this reader not believe a word of it! If the phrase was around at the time, any speech or quote by LBJ in support of civil rights would have been met with a “Yeah, Right…” by this reader.  The “northern liberals” at the time agreed with me. Caro would change my mind in the fourth book.
            Regardless of his reason why LBJ supported the civil rights bill; we see how masterfully LBJ got the votes to pass it – by co-opting western conservatives into the fight by promising dams, water projects and other programs and by gutting parts of the bill that were found “offensive” by the Southern Caucus. The right to trial by jury was cut – effectively making it unenforceable by federal prosecutors trying to make their case in front of white southern judges.
            So now LBJ can claim to be a champion for civil rights while still being “of the South” – paving a path to a presidential run in 1960. He kept all his options open.
            To repeat: throughout Master, Caro showed LBJ’s ruthless, unquenchable desire for power as well as his ability destroy the lives of anyone in his way with such efficiency that it is hard to believe this is the same Johnson involved in Civil Rights during his presidency. I truly disliked LBJ at the end of this volume. Why did such a self-centered power-grubber later become the champion of civil rights? How is that possible?
            Caro will explain that in his next volume …
            The book more or less ends at the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The next three years are covered by a small chapter and sets the stage for the 1960 presidential campaign. There is also a small addendum of LBJ trying to transform his position as President of the Senate into something more powerful – as he had done with “useless” offices throughout his career. He fails. Senators no longer fawned over him as he entered the cloak room. They have no need to fear him now. 
            More power was yet to come thanks to scheming back-room negotiations during a party convention and, three years later, an assassin’s bullet.
Original material copyright 2014 Michael G Curry

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