A place for FF's to write and read brief reviews of books and films for the benefit of other FF's.

A place for FF's to write and read brief reviews of books and films for the benefit of other FF's.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert A. Caro

From May through October, I read more than 3,000 pages by Robert Caro, all on the subject of Lyndon B. Johnson.  (Yes, that is a boast.  Among the many lessons I learned from LBJ is the importance of shamelessly trumpeting one's accomplishments, no matter how insignificant.)  All four volumes in the series are incredible, each in its own way.  But when you get right down to the nut-cutting (one of the many wonderful turns of phrase found in these pages), what you want is rankings.

1. The Passage of Power (2012)
This volume covers the 1960 election, Johnson's years as Vice-President, and (spoiler alert) his first several months as President.  It completely rules.  Particular highlights include the descriptions of Johnson at Washington parties during the Kennedy years, when he became a figure of ridicule (nicknamed, by a bunch of Harvard assholes, "Rufus T. Cornpone"); the account of Johnson's procrastination, fueled by an all-consuming fear of losing, during the run-up to the 1960 presidential race; and of course the Kennedy assassination, and Johnson's immediate transformation into a kind of superhero (or possibly the most evil supervillain in American history).

2. Means of Ascent (1990)
This volume covers Johnson's naval service during World War II, the buildup of his massive fortune, and the 1948 Senate race.  It's also amazing.  The war section mainly describes how Johnson and one of his aides drove up and down the California coast, partying at night clubs.  (He did fly in one actual mission, which sounds legitimately scary.  For that he got a Silver Star.)  Then comes a fascinating explanation of how Johnson became a millionaire just by exploiting his influence as a congressman.  But my favorite part is the 1948 Senate race, which Johnson (who campaigned by flying all over Texas in a custom helicopter) indisputably stole, through rampant voter fraud, from Coke Stevenson, a self-educated lawyer, judge, and former Texas governor who comes off as the absolute best dude ever.

3. Master of the Senate (2002)
Honestly, I can't believe this volume is only in third place.  It's awesome.  Caro starts with a 100-page history of the Senate that establishes how dysfunctional it is.  From then on, it chronicles Johnson's unbelievably fast climb to Majority Leader, a position that no one else even really seemed to understand.  Caro portrays the 1950s southern democrats as a bunch of racist pricks who were nonetheless much smarter than the northern liberals in terms of planning and executing legislative and procedural strategy.  LBJ, meanwhile, outsmarts the southerners by essentially tricking them, through a complicated long con, into voting for a Civil Rights bill.  There is also a section about Johnson's penis, which he calls "Jumbo" and frequently shows to horrified subordinates.

4. The Path to Power (1982)
This volume may be ranked last, but it's still really great.  It covers Johnson's youth in the Texas Hill Country, his time at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, and his rise to national power as a New Deal congressman.  Most interesting to me is the account of Johnson's relationship with his political patron, Herman Brown, the founder of Brown & Root, which eventually became a subsidiary of Halliburton, which etc. etc.  Also great is the story of Johnson's long, secret affair with the wife of one of his other financial backers.  And how he immediately turns against the New Deal as soon as FDR dies.  My only complaint, really, is that Caro's account of how insanely boring and awful the Hill Country was tends at times to be just a bit too evocative.

In general, I love how Caro introduces key figures in Lyndon Johnson's life (Richard Russell, Sam Rayburn, Coke Stevenson) with chapters of their own, only to show later how Johnson ultimately either betrayed or destroyed them.  LBJ is a truly fascinating character, Caro is a genuinely terrific storyteller, and together these two assholes kept me reading all summer when I should have been outside enjoying nature or meeting new friends or something.  Thanks a lot, dicks.  See you in 2022.