April 25, 2002


REVIEW : of Master of the Senate : The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson by Robert Caro : A Soaring Johnson, Ruthless and Crude, but Compassionate ( JILL ABRAMSON, April 24, 2002, NY Times)
The most exciting point of "Master of the Senate" comes as Mr. Caro, in chapters filled with narrative tension, shows how Johnson built the unlikely coalition that finally passed a civil rights bill and broke the historic logjam. He had to make northern liberals like Green swallow an extremely watered-down bill, telling them that the important thing was to pass a bill, not what was in it. His pitch was typically blunt: "Once you break the virginity, it'll be easier next time."

At the same time, he convinced his fellow Southerners that he had not completely abandoned them and that they could accept a weak bill that would leave cultural segregation intact. His equally blunt message to the Southern bloc was remembered by his trusted aide Bobby Baker. "I can see him now, grasping hands and poking chests and grabbing lapels, saying to the Southern politicians something like: `We got a chance to show the way. We got a chance to get the racial monkey off the South's back. We got a chance to show the Yankees that we're good and decent and civilized down here, not a bunch of barefoot, tobacco chewin' crazies."

Johnson's triumph is also Mr. Caro's triumph, for the biographer has at last found something about his subject to unabashedly admire. At 1,167 pages and 12 years in the making, this book is longer, nearly, than Mr. Caro's previous two volumes combined, but it is also much bigger-hearted. In the second volume, "Means of Ascent," which chronicles the ruthlessly stolen 1948 election that took him to the Senate, Mr. Caro portrayed a mostly loathsome Johnson. Garry Wills memorably described Mr. Caro's method, as the "inverse of gilding the lily, this continual tarring of the blackguard."

Here Johnson finally uses the attributes that Mr. Caro despised in his earlier volumes, his ambition and deceit, for a larger, grander purpose.

"It was not until Lyndon Johnson, who had never before fought in their cause, picked up the banner of civil rights that it was carried at last nearer to its goal," Caro writes.

"It took a Lyndon Johnson, with his threats and deceits, with the relentlessness with which he insisted on victory and the savagery with which he fought for it, to ram that legislation through."

At a time when so many historians have focused on the presidency, Mr. Caro has written a panoramic study of how power plays out in the legislative arena. Combining the best techniques of investigative reporting with majestic storytelling ability, he has created a vivid, revelatory institutional history as well as a rich hologram of Johnson's character.

Like many, the Brothers were profoundly depressed when it was announced that William Manchester's health would not permit him to complete the third volume of his Churchill biography. But our spirits were brightened considerably when Sharon Kay Penman recently released the next volume in his historical series on British monarchs. Now comes this happy news, as Robert Caro, whose one volume biography of Robert Moses may be the greatest biography of power ever written, finally delivers the third installment of his LBJ biography. For anyone who has been reading and enjoying the series, which should include everyone who cares about politics, a new book from Mr. Caro is like Christmas in April. And it is particularly welcome because, like Mr. Manchester, Mr. Caro is racing the clock.

A couple years ago, Mr. Caro was on C-SPAN with Brian Lamb discussing the LBJ project. Mr. Lamb was asking about the glacial pace at which the biography is being completed and tried to politely ask if, at the current rate, it will be finished before Mr. Caro goes on to his final reward. I haven't heard whether this is still his plan but at that point Mr. Caro explained that when he was writing about the Vietnam War he planned on going to live in Vietnam for a year and that for the section on the War on Poverty, he planned on living in a public housing project for a year. Distraught callers to the program, less polite than Mr. Lamb, expressed their dismay at this prospect. Mr. Caro, who I believe is in his sixties or seventies now, laughingly shared their concern that he's set himself a task that may be incompatible with his own mortality.

At any rate, we wish him well and look forward to reading his new book.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 25, 2002 9:15 AM
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