Friday, September 3, 2010

Robert Caro: The Path to Power

2012 will be a banner year. Besides the long-anticipated apocalypse, Christopher Nolan will release his third “Batman” film, Steven Spielberg will release the first in a trilogy of movies based on Herge’s acclaimed “Tintin” comics, and Pixar will release for the first time two instant-classic animated films in the same year. For those more inclined towards the academic, 2012 is also the year that Robert Caro has indicated the fourth and final volume will be released in his landmark series “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.”

Robert Caro is a political biographer, who won early plaudits for his biography of New York City planner Robert Moses. In 1982 he launched the work that would define his career, and define the legacy of his subject. “The Path to Power” was an exhaustively researched and exquisitely written glimpse into the early life of Lyndon B. Johnson, from his childhood to his failed campaign in 1941 for a U.S. Senate seat. A second volume, “Means of Ascent,” was released in 1990, covering the pivotal seven years from Johnson's 1941 defeat to his successful 1948 campaign. A full twelve years elapsed before Caro released his third volume, "Master of the Senate," covering Johnson’s tenure as Senator and as Senate Majority Leader. His final volume is expected to encompass Johnson’s 1960 campaign against Senator John F. Kennedy for President, reluctant acceptance of the Vice-Presidency under a Kennedy administration, assumption of the Presidency after Kennedy’s assassination, the events of his administration until 1968, and his death four years after leaving office.

"The Path to Power sketches the early years of Lyndon Johnson's life, from his birth until his devastating defeat in the 1941 Senate elections. He outlines a character that is essentially ambitious, dominated by twin appetites for money and power. His father had been a relatively successful Texas legislature before his fall from grace, and had spent his last years as the poorest inhabitant of a poor country village. Like Scarlett O'Hara, Johnson was determined never to suffer his father's fate, to "never be hungry again!" This voracious desire for wealth was only tempered by his hunger for influence and power, which came to a fore in Johnson's college years.

Before Caro, the standard view of Johnson's early life treated his childhood as a beatific thing favored by the gods, or at least by every one of his neighbors. Caro discovered, to the contrary, that Johnson was actually not well regarded by his peers, but had an unbelievable ability to be taken under the wing of his elders. That essentially defined his years at the Southwest Texas State Teachers' College. Johnson had finagled his way into the office of the college's President, and was the trusted adviser when it came to filling various staff positions at the school. It was a rare student who could afford tuition (most who could were going to betters schools), so these jobs were the only way many students could afford to attend... and Johnson controlled the purse strings. He used that influence to buy the loyalties of others, and put himself in a position where he controlled the entire apparatus of student government. Caro is clearly impressed by Johnson's performance, if a little disconcerted by the heartlessness of it.

After graduation, Johnson became a teacher, at one point coaching the debate team at Sam Houston High School. He volunteered briefly for the 1930 campaign of Welly Hopkins for the U.S. House of Representatives, and performed so well that the senior Texas congressman Richard Kleberg hired Johnson as his legislative assistant. This position whetted Johnson's appetite for Washington politics, and gave him to opportunity to secure many connections. Caro documents how Johnson stole the election for the "Little Congress," an association of Congressional aides, and turned it into a well-oiled publicity machine that got the attention of newspapermen, Senators, and Presidential aides. He also secured the patronage of Senator Sam Rayburn, an alliance that would later secure his path to power.

Within five years, Johnson was appointed Director of the Texas National Youth Administration, a prestigious position that let him travel throughout the state and gave him considerable access to the political movers and shakers, particularly the owners of Kellogg, Brown & Root, who would become his sponsors and financiers. However, Johnson made quick work of these opportunities, and soon moved on: within two years, he won a House seat for himself.

Yet the House did not satisfy him. There were too many Congressman, and he could not abide the strict rules that derived power and advancement from seniority. Within three years, in 1941, he made his ambitions clear by running for Senator. It was a special election, and Johnson had the connections and the reputation already in place that would have guaranteed his victory... if the sitting Governor had not thrown his hat into the ring at the same time. "Pappy" O'Daniel was an immensely beloved populist, a former radio broadcaster who hadn't been a terribly effective administrator but knew how to tug on his listeners' heartstrings. O'Daniel had the name and the connections to rival Johnson, and it was a fight for the ages. Ultimately, it came down to who could steal the most votes, and in that O'Daniel had the advantage. Johnson lost the election by 1,306 votes, and it devastated him.

Caro spent his life to explore the character of the man whose portrait he gives in his volume. Fortunately for all involved, this is more than a portrait. This volume draws from a regimen of research that can only be described as exhaustive. "The Path to Power" single-handedly reframed the standard view of Johnson's childhood, every other biographer and Johnson's own memoirs notwithstanding. The writing is vivid, magnifying each vein within Johnson’s complex and devouring personality. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, Caro is not content to merely present the details of a single life, but uses the canvas of that life to portray a much more impressive subject: the very nature of politics. Like Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style,” Caro’s biographies serve as a grammar book on the elements of power. This is the definitive biography of Lyndon Johnson, and the definitive political biography of our time. It is an extraordinary book, and comes with my highest recommendation.

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