With his third volume on LBJ, Caro is a master of biography

The Argument

Robert Caro's 25-year pilgrimage into the mind and heart of President Johnson pays off in full.

Books

April 28, 2002|By Paul Duke | By Paul Duke,Special to the Sun

The first two books in Robert Caro's monumental study of Lyndon Baines Johnson were greeted with outrage from many long-time friends and associates of the 36th President. Much too negative, they groused.

The angry partisans accused Caro of making Johnson out to be an unprincipled monster whose Texas political career had been launched on a wave of questionable and corrupt actions. Now, in the third volume in the series, Caro has moved on to Johnson's arrival in the Senate in 1948 and his rapid rise to national fame as Democratic leader from 1953 to 1961. And, if anything, Master of the Senate (Knopf, 1167 pages, $35) is even more revealing than The Path to Power (1982) and Means of Ascent (1990).

Hence, the Johnson claque is unlikely to be any more assuaged despite Caro's generous assessment of the Senate accomplishments. But this reviewer, who observed the LBJ machinations first hand as a young Capitol Hill reporter in the late 1950s, can testify that the portrait thoroughly matches my own recollections of that period.

As in the earlier volumes, Caro is unsparing in his judgment of the essential Johnson -- devious, ruthless, mean, untruthful, vindictive, manipulative, immoral, crude, vain, autocratic and domineering.

He also was a political genius. And as a virtuoso in the legislative arts, he was the greatest of all Senate leaders. Certainly no one in recent times has come close to possessing Johnson's persuasive skills in shaping the congressional agenda. Nor has anyone so revolutionized Senate procedures to make the institution bend to his will.

Caro has been researching and collecting material for his massive opus for 25 years, with one more volume, the presidential years, still to come. Master of the Senate has been a 12-year production and is a dazzling tour de force that certifies Caro as the country's preeminent specialist in examining political power and its uses for good and ill.

Of all the many Johnson biographies, none approaches Caro's work in painstaking thoroughness, meticulous detail and the capture of character. The author waded through a million pages of documents at the LBJ library in Austin, Texas, and interviewed 263 politicians, congressional aides, journalists and friends of Johnson. The Senate historian confided that he'd had "hundreds and hundreds" of conversations with Caro. The result is another rich chapter in the career of one of America's most complex and creative political giants.

With his Tolstoyian touch for story telling and drama, Caro gives us a fascinating ride through the corridors of Senate sovereignty, much as Francis Russell did with his mesmerizing journey through the 1920s in his epic chronicle of Warren Harding and his times in The Shadow of Blooming Grove (1968).

The Senate years exposed the Machiavellian Johnson in all of his many contradictions, operating as both a constructive force and a destructive force, driven always by an insatiable passion for power. He was gifted with remarkable talents -- ingenuity, resourcefulness, timing, the kind of talents that provided a rare mastery of the mechanics of politics.

As Caro observes, the basic philosophy was an unfailing faith in the possible. Hence, in assuming his leadership role Johnson immediately grasped what his predecessors had not -- that the independent-minded Senate could be transformed into a fiefdom of greater governmental power and that "he could reap from the transformation substantial personal power for himself."

There was never any secret about the Johnsonian goal. "No man in American history became President with a greater relish for power or with more experience in its exercise," concluded Rowland Evans and Robert Novak in their authoritative 1966 work Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power. As it turned out, the Senate was the perfect battleground for honing his flexible, non-doctrinaire brand of lawmaking and for proving his wizardry at maneuvering through the treacherous political shoals, appeasing conservatives and liberals, labor and business, states righters and civil rights groups.

It was, in fact, the bitter civil rights battle of 1957 that brought Johnson's pragmatism to full flower. It was here that he established his credentials as the great compromiser on segregation just as Henry Clay had been on the 19th century issue of slavery. And it was here that Johnson began to cast off his Southern shackles and join the march for racial fairness.

He not only astutely pushed through the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction days -- "he pleaded and threatened and stormed and cajoled," recalls one Senate aide -- but in the process gave the first hint that he would become a champion of the oppressed and downtrodden. As Caro writes, "it was Lyndon Johnson among all the white government officials in twentieth century America who did the most to help America's black men and women in their fight for equality and justice."

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