Review of The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Vol. 1, 2, 3) by Robert A. Caro
NOTE: The fourth volume will be reviewed in a future post.
By KENDRICK KUO
When The Passage of Power hit the shelves in May this year, every major literary magazine, political blog, and newspaper with an opinion column, felt obligated to comment. Everyone anticipated this fourth installation to be the grand finale of Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, but Alfred Knopf surprised us all when it announced, weeks before publication, that the series was being extended to a fifth volume. Caro was only able to squeeze the Vice Presidency into the fourth volume, estimating two more years before the Presidency can receive proper treatment. And here we thought only movie franchises would pull such a stunt. But what franchise could, like The Years of Lyndon Johnson, be sustained over the course of three decades?
It might be tempting to dismiss Caro as obsessed with Lyndon B. Johnson. This man has spent the last thirty years researching and writing about LBJ’s life, with his faithful wife by his side as an invaluable assistant. But it would be more accurate to label Caro as enthralled with the study of power. Over at the The New Yorker’s “Page-Turner” blog, Amy Davidson insightfully commented, “It is his thesis that power reveals.” The corrupting tendency of power does not function in a vacuum. It operates on a human heart, and it merely corroborates what’s already there.
Oftentimes, a biographer will cause readers to admire, in spite of realistic flaws, the historical figure being unveiled. Think of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals or Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. In Chernow’s book, not only do you end up approving of almost everything Hamilton does, but it becomes difficult to see Jefferson in a kind light. So it’s odd that readers of the first three volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson series express ambivalence toward Johnson. We are taken aback by his animalistic thirst for authority and the limelight. He was pragmatic to the core, maneuvering to make his way up the U.S. House of Representatives (he hardly voted on any legislation and both conservatives and liberals believed him to be on their side). Not one to shy away from obvious pandering, he ingratiated himself to the point of physically sitting at feet of mentors—only to turn around and berate his underlings, from whom he required absolute subservience. Johnson began to steal elections at a young age, whether for the office of college student president or to wield the gavel at the Little Congress for congressional pages.
In The Path to Power (Vol. 1), Caro describes how Johnson failed to steal a Senate seat the first time he ran, in 1941, but not for lack of trying. Ballot boxes were stuffed and ready to go, but he was bested by a more experienced cheater. In Means of Ascent (Vol. 2), Johnson learned his lesson and successfully stole the 1948 Senatorial election. The Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library found Caro’s work so negative that some of its staff allegedly treated him unkindly and he never received an invitation to speak at the Presidential Library until a change of the guard in 2002. In Master of the Senate (Vol. 3), we see a political genius at work, forcing his way up a hierarchy where seniority was everything and freshmen waited for decades to be acknowledged. Johnson feared that he would die (Johnson men had a history of dying young) before he reached the Oval Office. Decades were too long. But as his star rose within the Senate chamber, his office remained the same. That is, a place where his staff were abused, forced to take dictation while he relieved himself in the restroom, exercising his authority over them through humiliation. Lady Bird didn’t escape such appalling treatment either. In public, in front of friends, Johnson would compare her to the other wives and exclaim how shabby she looked.
What you remember after reading the first three volumes is the personality of LBJ, not the legislation he voted on; the politicking, not the results; the abuse, not the power. Caro has written a testament to the corruption of man already present in his nature before he can be corrupted by fame or money. Johnson’s father was a straight-laced state congressman who refused to be bought by the railroads. Johnson’s mother was a genteel, educated lady. And yet LBJ was who he was. Without much of a strong politico-moral compass, it would appear that Johnson yearned for power for its own sake.
Caro doesn’t spend much time discussing Johnson’s exposure to Christianity, other than its usefulness in political campaigns. Not surprisingly, Johnson’s enslavement to the quest for power left little room for a Galilean carpenter. When LBJ got power, he wanted more—he was on mad race to the top. Jesus didn’t consider his divinity something to be grasped, but became a servant, submitting himself even to death on a cross. Power revealed that Johnson was a greedy sinner. Yet power in the hands of Jesus, used graciously to save greedy sinners, demonstrate how worthy Jesus is of our trust and love.
It is, in some ways, unfortunate that Caro’s mighty pen has been dedicated to the life of Lyndon Johnson; a life that teaches us to distrust those in authority. A healthy suspicion of power can easily slide into a blanket condemnation of any limitations to our freedom, to the censure of authority even properly exercised. But power is not inherently evil. Rather, it can so easily be abused that we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s best to keep as much authority as possible in our own hands.
But what do we learn when we self-servingly accrue this authority?
Power reveals as much as it corrupts.