Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson , by Robert Caro. Alfred A. Knopf, 1,039 pages, $35.
O.K., it’s staggering, amazing, awesome, horrifying-but is it the book by Robert Caro, or is it Lyndon Baines Johnson himself? Maybe we don’t have to decide; maybe it’s both. As monumental as this biography (now in its third volume) is, as mountainous as Mr. Caro’s research has been, I suspect, as I have long said of Texas politics, that it’s all in the material. All you have to do is get it on the page.
L.B.J. was some sumbitch. Piece of work. Many and varied are the delights of this book, and perhaps the best of them is the long, brilliant lead-in to the great set piece of the book: how Lyndon Johnson passed one bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
For anyone who has ever covered a legislative body, this book is like having an old itch finally scratched. This is how the story should be told-all of it: the drama, the absurdity, the tension, the screaming, the trade-offs, the sweat, the blackmail, the sellouts and the sheer insane complexity of it. Most big legislative battles are in fact like that-just not as much at stake. Look at the legislative history of the McCain-Feingold bill and you’ll see exactly the same Perils of Pauline quality, an old-timey melodrama in which the villain ties the helpless heroine to the railroad tracks yet again and, as the hero struggles frantically to free her, the train gets closer and closer and …. Then, when it’s all over, somebody points out that you really haven’t accomplished very much, and it’s time to start all over again.
These are great stories, the stuff of the legends of democracy-rich in character, plot, suspense, nuttiness, human frailty, maddening stupidity. These should be the American sagas; these should be our epics. Bob Caro has given us a beauty, and I think we owe him great thanks.
And in order to pass a piece of legislation that big, that significant, that surrounded by enemies, it takes a Lyndon Johnson, a Bob Bullock, a Jess Unruh-a legislative master, a craftsman, an almost insanely driven, power-hungry, ruthless, lying, shameless, relentless S.O.B. In other words, a good politician. Having watched some of the masters at work (though I missed Lyndon except at the last, my teachers in Texas politics were obsessed by him), I think it one of the tragedies of our democracy that “politician” has become a dirty word. Of course we’re entitled to cheerfully despise them, but only if we know what it takes. The prophet Amos said, “Let justice roll down like mighty waters”-but then some politician has to get into the sewer system and figure out how to make it work.
Mr. Caro has inoculated himself against the charge of “heroizing” Lyndon Johnson by writing two unforgiving previous volumes. Several critics noticed that in the second volume, Means of Ascent , Mr. Caro’s reiteration of the old charge that L.B.J. “stole” the 1948 Senate race is pretty simplistic: Lyndon didn’t steal it, he just out-stole the other guy. I thought I remembered an even more churlish Caro passage from the first volume, The Path to Power , describing Johnson’s year teaching at “the Mexican school” in Cotulla in South Texas, and then his year at Sam Houston High in Houston, when he carried his newly created debate team to the finals of the state championship, an amazing feat. My recollection of Mr. Caro’s account of Lyndon’s career as a teacher was that the biographer pretty much dismissed an astonishing performance by saying, “And then he dropped them like a hot rock because someone offered him a job with more money.” (Not that anything wouldn’t have paid more money than teaching public school in Texas in the early 1930′s.)
What I found in re-reading those passages is that Mr. Caro gives full credit to Johnson for those years of astonishing commitment, hard work (did anyone ever work harder?) and achievement, but he uses that as an opportunity to set up his Johnson dichotomy: ambition vs. compassion.
My reaction is: What’s new? Good politicians have always been in that bind. In order to get anything done, first you have to get the power; if you don’t get the power, you can’t help people. But getting power is usually ugly. The way one judges politicians, in my opinion, is by what they do when they have power: help people or screw people?
I have some minor quibbles with the book. Yep, as Mr. Caro says, not since Lincoln has there been such a white champion of people of color-and given his background, it is mind-blowing. But I think it’s a mistake to claim, as Mr. Caro does, that Johnson or any leader “wins” the fight for people’s rights-they win it for themselves. It was not Lyndon Johnson or even Martin Luther King Jr. who won the struggle over civil rights; it was the people who marched and prayed and were hot and scared all the time.
I can’t get over being surprised that Mr. Caro is surprised by two facets of Johnson-racism and Texas crude. Of course he was racist; I never met a Texan of his generation who wasn’t. The miracle is that he mostly overcame it, not through some late-breaking recognition of injustice, but out of his deep sense of identification with poor people. Mr. Caro notes in horror that many of the rich, powerful Texans who nurtured Johnson’s career were racist. Yep. Ed Clark, the man Mr. Caro identifies as “the longtime ‘Secret Boss of Texas,’” used to say, “Integration is like putting shit on ice cream: ruins the ice cream and dudn’t improve the shit.” Anyone raised in the South before the civil-rights movement remembers that blindingly ugly language. Likewise, Mr. Caro cannot quite stifle his repugnance over the fact that Johnson was a crude bastard, deeply vulgar. I have no idea how to explain this, but there is a deep streak of Texas culture that finds crudity-especially barnyard humor-amusing. I suppose South Park is a variant of it.
Finally, I’m not sure Bob Caro has any significantly new readings of Johnson. We always knew he was a master of the Rube Goldberg device that is government, that he knew which handle to crank, which button to press, which lever to push, and where to kick the damn thing to get it to start up and do something that would help people. As for the “warts and all” aspects of the book, we also always knew that as a human being, Johnson was mostly wart. The tragedy of Lyndon Johnson is “hadn’t’ve been for Vietnam …. ” Hadn’t’ve been for Vietnam, he would have gone down as one of our greatest Presidents, despite having been a miserable human. That’s the next book.
Molly Ivins’ next book, Shrub II , will follow up on her best-seller Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush (Vintage).