Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Robert Caro’s study of Lyndon Johnson

Since being laid off from the newspaper, I have changed some habits, and one of them is to no longer make those raids to the bookstore in which I would walk out with some of the latest tomes and take them home for my reading pleasure, then put them into my personal library.

Local public libraries are being slashed and burned by budget cuts in Manatee County, Fla., but I have decided that I will just have to avail myself of their services until I land employment that allows for more luxuries again.

Books are so important in my life. In my moves in the past few years, the biggest part of the household goods being transported were the 30 boxes of books and the bookshelves. Even then, I still have some books packed away in the garage.

In this category, “Vinny’s Book Club,” I’ll be writing about some of the books I own and what they meant to me.

This time around, we’ll start with three books, Robert Caro’s three-volume (so far) work: “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.”

The first volume, “The Path to Power” (1982), documents LBJ’s life and that of his parents from the arrival of the family in the Texas Hill Country, through Johnson’s childhood, adolescence, college and post-college years, to his service for a member of Congress, then getting elected to Congress himself, and finally his unsuccessful 1941 campaign for the U.S. Senate in the special election held after one of Texas’ senators died.

We see the young LBJ working like few people have worked since, coming up from his family’s poverty and riding the Democratic wave of the Depression years. We also see his ruthlessness, his ambition, his use of others to get what he wants.

But Johnson soon decides that even being a member of the House of Representatives is not enough, and he starts angling for a seat in the U.S. Senate. His chance seems to arrive when a senator from Texas dies, and he runs in a special election but loses to the sitting governor of Texas, who special interests wanted out of the way.

The election was stolen, and Johnson assuaged his anger with the knowledge that the seat would come up again in the 1942 election cycle, and he’d have a shot at it.

But Pearl Harbor intervened, and we see in volume two, “Means of Ascent” (1990), that these are frustrating years for LBJ as he cannot run for Senate. The story of his Silver Star is recounted and his other experience as an officer in the Navy is told.

Johnson is shown as a remarkably ineffective member of Congress, with few records of him speaking or writing bills. He works during the war years and after to build a personal fortune, and Caro tells of the maneuvers that enabled LBJ to buy a radio station and parlay it into an empire via his personal influence on Capitol Hill.

Volume two ends with the bitter campaign for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination against legendary Texan Coke Stevenson, and the court fight over ballots that ended with Johnson winning by less than 100 votes. (In Texas elections then, the Republican Party and general election were anti-climactic; the primaries were the main battlegrounds)

The third volume is “Master of the Senate” (2002), in which Caro gives a history lesson of the U.S. Senate and how Johnson masters the body.

He starts as “Landslide Lyndon,” as he jokingly tells everyone, and ends up as Majority Leader, the man who started out the defender of the Jim Crow South but eventually pushes a civil rights bill to passage.

At the end, he is vice president of the U.S.

Caro is working on a fourth volume, about LBJ as president. It is tentatively titled “The Presidency.” I have no idea when it might come out.

My impressions of the series are that it presents the good, the bad, the ugly and the really ugly of Lyndon Baines Johnson. All politicians that attain great power are complex people, and LBJ was, I think an idealist at first but someone who believed that attaining power would benefit many others in the long run. He made deals, had an election stolen from him, stole one himself, assassinated the characters of his opponents and fought for real change in the lives of people, black and white.

His escalation of the war in Vietnam and the result overshadowed so much good that he did.

It takes many years to really decide how history will view a president. Some have even started to rehabilitate Lyndon Johnson. Me, I’m too young to have an opinion beyond what I’ve read since he left the White House when I was 8 years old.

I highly recommend this series to anyone who is interested in political biography and history.

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September 25, 2008 - Posted by | Politics, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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