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Saturday, May 11th, 2002


Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

by Robert A. Caro

A review by D. K. Holm

Robert Caro wanted to write about power. As a journalist for the liberal Long Island daily Newsday, Caro had seen power up close and knew that it was misunderstood in America. But not only did Robert Caro want to write about power, he needed to write about power, with all the passion and commitment that a journalist for a liberal daily could muster in order to examine the way America's governments, local, statewide, and even national, really worked. And not only did Robert Caro need to write about it, he did write about power, with a dedication and patience that inspired loyalty and in thousands of readers, in scores of readers all across the nation, in libraries and schools and dormitories and private homes, where Caro's readers would stay up late into the night, gripped by his passionate re-telling of their country's secret history.

Those who met Robert Caro were surprised at how tall he was. They were also surprised at how modest and unassuming, how scholarly and quiet, Robert Caro was, given that he had written three massive books on difficult subjects that required tenacity and sagacity over many years. With teeth commonly referred to as "white" and unfashionable simple black horn-rimmed glasses, the calm of his demeanor belied...

As the preceding light parody of Robert Caro's writing style suggests, the author's prose is infectious. And that is one of the distinctions that Caro has brought to the most time-consuming enterprise of his professional career: a four volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson. In his chronicle of the 36th president of the United States, Caro has written a series of books that blend the fierce muckraking of the best journalistic investigation with the gravity of history.

Arguably one of the most anticipated books of the year, The Master of the Senate, volume three in the series after The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, follows LBJ's life from 1949, when he entered the Senate on his second attempt, to 1960, when he gave up the Senate for the VP spot under Kennedy. These were the twelve years during which Johnson rose from freshman solon to Senate Majority Leader, one of the most powerful majority leaders in the history of the chamber. The most significant event recounted in the book is Johnson ramroding the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through the Senate. As is characteristic of Caro's work, what on the surface seems a noble enterprise is soon revealed to be compromised by Johnson's overweening ambition. The most terrible story is Caro's account of how Johnson destroyed the career of a selfless utilities agency head named Leland Olds, who stood between the oilmen who owned Johnson and the deregulation that would earn them further profit.

However, it takes the book a while to get to that point. To provide context, Caro begins with a two chapter history of the Senate. He then gives a thirty-page history of the Southern Caucus, which dominated -- or thwarted, depending on your perspective -- the Senate in the post Civil War years. Then Caro goes on to briefly summarize Johnson's life up until the day he enters the senate (for those who haven't read the first two books). And then he's still not there. Next he has to tell the life story of Georgia senator Richard Russell, who proved to be a key instrument in Johnson's acquisition of power. Finally, by around page 223, Caro is ready to "start" his narrative. And it is a gripping, fascinating tale. As Caro has said in an interview with Kurt Vonnegut (available at the Robert Caro website), his goal as a writer is to show how power really works in America, and he seems to have accomplished that. The main emotion that the reader, or at least one reader, comes away with is anger: anger at a government that for so long could tolerate a body of leaders who succeeded at stalling the cause of reform in this country, and anger at a citizenry that also would allow such a government to rule them. If nothing else, Caro has given concrete illustrations of how democracy can go awry in the hands of selfish, power-hungry men.

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