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Thursday, August 29th, 2002


Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

by Robert A. Caro

The Power and the Story

A review by Nicholas Lemann

Robert Caro published The Power Broker, his biography of Robert Moses (the original manuscript length, he reports a little boastfully in Master of the Senate, was 3,300 pages), in 1974. Since then he has been at work on one enormous project that has taken him from the fading of youth to the approach of old age, a biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro has a single-mindedness that is unique among non-fiction writers — I can't think of a time that I have seen his byline in a periodical over these twenty-eight years, except on excerpts from forthcoming books — and a thoroughness that would be rare even in an academic expert on a specific topic. He is proceeding through Johnson's adult life at an almost real-time pace. Master of the Senate has been published twelve years after the previous volume of the biography, Means of Ascent, and it is meant to cover Johnson's career in the Senate, which also lasted twelve years. But this statistic makes Caro look quicker than he is. Master of the Senate deals with the last three years of Johnson's twelve years in the Senate in a single chapter that begins on page 1,015. Means of Ascent, at 522 pages the shortest of the three Johnson volumes published thus far, covered seven years, and came out eight years after the first volume, The Path to Power, and was also quite truncated. It cannot be considered certain that Caro will get to all the great events of Johnson's presidency, which must have been what drew him to this biography in the first place.

There is no mystery, no tantalizing hint of offstage creative torment, that lies behind the extraordinary length and deliberateness of this work. To read it is to understand it immediately. Caro does his research, quite obviously, with the goal of getting as close as possible to complete knowledge. His subject was evidently both prodigious and megalomaniacal, and so the volume of material in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library is extremely large. Caro seems to have plowed through a great deal of it, maybe even all of it, and to have worked in several other manuscript collections, and to have done hundreds of interviews, and to have made a full scan of contemporary press coverage of the events that he is covering, and to have read the significant secondary literature that is in book form. (If there exists information that he does not possess, it would be whatever is uniquely stored in the heads of the Johnson people who are not cooperating with Caro's project, who include most of the Johnson family and former aides such as Bill Moyers and Harry McPherson.) The invisible part of the work of such a writer is collating and organizing all the research material, which is a slow, painstaking task that many writers skip or abbreviate. Not Caro. Evidently every scrap of good stuff gets notecarded and categorized, so that usually when he makes a point he produces not one but several supporting examples, drawn from different places.

And then the writing unfolds in a distinctively drawn-out way. Caro's prose calls to mind the work of the star journalistic writers of mid-century America, William Shirer and John Gunther and Theodore White, or even, more faintly, that of middlebrow broad-canvas novelists of the same period such as John Steinbeck or Pearl S. Buck — or even the old "March of Time" newsreels. Caro's writing is not post-ironic, it is pre-ironic (and definitely non-ironic), self-consciously "big," thunderingly moralistic, and dramatic verging on melodramatic. Caro's approach is neither intellectual, if that means interested in ideas, nor scholarly, if that means writing in the context of other work on the same subject. He is aiming instead for an epic, almost scriptural effect. Every chapter builds relentlessly to a climax and ends with a neat moral. The importance of everything is forcefully insisted upon and closely spelled out.

People in Caro, and even institutions and inanimate objects, have a single salient characteristic, or maybe two, which every detail offered about them must support. The Senate is characterized by "restraint and dignity," so therefore the architecture of the Senate Office Building (now the Russell Senate Office Building) is restrained and dignified, too — not just in general but, by means of Caro's hard-selling prose, in every particular. "The entablature of the Senate Building is unbroken by a single decoration: on its entire length there is not a single carving of a leaf or an acorn or a bird — stretching down Constitution is nothing but a long, broad band of gleaming white marble, with, above it, only the simplest narrow classic egg and dart molding, and that simple balustrade." (Caro does admit in passing that the original office building for the unrestrained and undignified House has a blank entablature, too.) Every moment, every touch, is wrung for everything it is worth.

The Caro method can be spellbindingly vivid, as in this passage about Johnson as Senate majority leader working a row of old-fashioned phone booths in the cloakroom before a vote:

Often, while he was talking to one senator, a call he needed to take immediately would come in on another line. A clerk would tap timidly on the door of the booth in which Johnson was talking, and tell him the other senator was ready. Stepping out of the booth, the telephone still in his hand, the cord stretching with him, Johnson would reach into the other booth and take that receiver, and then stand between the two booths, with the cords stretching out from them to his hands. Or he might want to talk to two or three or even four of his "players" — senators with disagreements about the same amendment — at the same time, and he talked to them at the same time, on two or three or four phones, standing in the narrow aisle between the two rows of phone booths with a receiver, or two receivers, grasped in each big hand, talking first into one receiver, then into another, long black cords stretching out from his tall figure in all directions.

But the Caro method can also be, and often is, simply corny. Thus Caro gets from a biography of Hubert Humphrey that Humphrey sometimes cried while driving home from work, and turns it into this:

In the evening, after the Senate day, he would get into his old Buick and drive home to Chevy Chase. And sometimes, driving home, he would cry — Hubert Humphrey, the youngest, and perhaps the best, mayor in the history of Minneapolis, elected to the Senate at the age of thirty-seven in a landslide, Hubert Humphrey who had brought a Democratic convention to its feet with the greatest speech since the Cross of Gold, Hubert Humphrey, as brave as any David who ever faced a Goliath, driving up Connecticut Avenue in the stream of rush-hour cars, with tears running down his face.

To put it mildly, Master of the Senate could have been a lot shorter. There could have been two or three fewer examples to support each point. Great events of the 1950s in which Johnson played a minimal part — the Truman-MacArthur conflict, the fall of Joseph McCarthy, the early days of the civil rights movement in the South — might not have been awarded entire chapters. Opportunities for Caro to go into prosecutorial mode against Johnson might not have been exploited quite so fully: one chapter, maybe, on one of the most shameful episodes of Johnson's career — the hounding out of office of the head of the Federal Power Commission, Leland Olds, on behalf of his Texas oil-baron backers — instead of three. And three chapters might not have been completely necessary for the miniature history of the Senate with which Caro opens the book, especially since much of it is based on decades-old and no longer much respected sources that comport well with his moral didacticism, such as John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage and Matthew Josephson's The Politicos. Even the book's climactic set-piece, an account of the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1957, probably did not require seven chapters totaling nearly two hundred pages.

But with Caro you are in the hands of someone who sees life, or at least the lives of his subjects, operatically — and not light-operatically, either. He writes like a man who believes that the power of the effect that he achieves is dependent on (to mix musical metaphors) his pulling out every possible stop. And he is not exactly wrong. Nobody comes close to Caro in his relentless determination to take the material as far as it will possibly go. But deftness is not in his repertoire. He is not one of those writers who can get business done by understatement and artful omission. He understands the world, and then spins it back out again for his readers, in the form of high-contrast superlatives.

Its stagy grandeur notwithstanding, the story that Caro has come to tell is a fairly simple one. Lyndon Johnson, elected to the Senate by a whisker in 1948 on his second try, enters a body ruled by its Southern members, who use their seniority, their solidarity, and their death grip on the Senate's rules and procedures (especially the proscription on ending filibusters) to block liberal legislation in general and civil rights legislation in particular. Johnson makes himself into the surrogate son of the Southern caucus's most influential member, Richard Russell of Georgia, just as when he was a member of the House of Representatives he had made himself into the surrogate son of the speaker, another lonely Southern bachelor, Sam Rayburn of Texas. Russell's patronage and a few lucky twists of electoral fortune enable Johnson to become the Senate's minority leader while still in his first term, and its majority leader in the first year of his second term. Then Johnson's own legislative genius enables him to turn what had been a job that was not as important as it sounds (the reason he was able to get it as such a junior member is that it was not considered a prize on the order of a committee chairmanship) into almost a kingship. Johnson is desperately ambitious to be elected president, and he realizes that he cannot accomplish this from a position as the fair-haired boy of the Senate's Southern caucus. Instead he has to become plausibly national while maintaining his Southern base. He does this by cultivating a few liberal Northern Democrats such as Humphrey, and by positioning himself on the issues with great care so as never to alienate either group completely. His crowning achievement in nationalizing himself is getting the Senate to vote yes on a civil rights bill in 1957, for the first time since Reconstruction.

Although Caro occasionally refers to Johnson's "labyrinthine personality" or his "deep contradictions," his psychological theory of the case is simple, too. Johnson's Rosebud, in Caro's telling, is the descent of his parents from rural prominence into poverty when he was growing up. Eternally haunted by the fear of failure, Caro's Johnson has a politician's characteristics pushed to the extreme: he is more ambitious, more manipulative, more dominating, more in need of acclaim than anybody else in his world. Caro presents Johnson as having almost superhuman abilities, but a perfectly rotten character. He is a terrible husband, father, and boss, a toady to those above him and a tyrant to those below, and duplicitous to the greatest extent that he can get away with. On the other hand, he has basically good instincts — meaning, to Caro, liberal in the 1950s Americans for Democratic Action or Eleanor Roosevelt sense. And in any conflict between Johnson's ambition and Johnson's instincts, his ambition will win.

When the service of his ambition requires Johnson to be conservative (which is often, given the power of the right in Texas and of the South in the Senate), he is a force for bad in the world — really, really bad. (In one extreme case, Caro describes Johnson plying an alcoholic senator named Virgil Chapman with booze in order to control him more fully, and then reports that during this period Chapman died in a late-night auto accident.) But when being liberal is the way to get ahead, as in the case of the Civil Rights Act, he becomes a force for good — really, really good: "Did those sixteen million Americans [African Americans as an undifferentiated corpus, that is, who do not get to have any fun at all in Master of the Senate because they are so completely devoted to suffering nobly] need a mighty champion in the halls of government? They were about to get one." Caro makes Johnson sound like a textbook manic-depressive, though he doesn't use that term, and describes him in a manic-depressive voice, with regular bipolar switches from extreme approval to extreme disapproval. Because Johnson at each moment of the narrative is defined by one entirely positive or entirely negative characteristic, "complexity" is conveyed by having him abruptly switch from one to the other.

Given these partially self-imposed limitations, Caro does amazingly well with his material. Legislatures in action are difficult to understand: try wandering into the Senate or House gallery on an ordinary day and figuring out what's going on. Everything turns on procedure and maneuver: rules, calendars, committee assignments, amendments. It is no wonder that the presidency, which is a much simpler institution, is Washington's master narrative — it is doubtful that Caro would have been able to devote a quarter of a century to exploring the American legislature if he did not have as protective cover the idea that he was writing a presidential biography; and it is no wonder that many other masters of the Senate besides Johnson have had trouble converting their stature in that institution into national political popularity when they have run for president. But Caro's general immersion in his subject and his unappeasable drive to chase down every detail have together brought the Senate to life. Its leading characters — Russell and Humphrey and Estes Kefauver and Paul Douglas and so on — feel, by the end, like people you know.

Caro makes comprehensible the way in which this bill's fate depends on a deal made in another realm and that bill's fate depends on the imaginative use of an obscure maneuver. He gives a sense of who in the press could be hoodwinked (The New York Times's William S. White) and who could not (Evans and Novak, believe it or not), and, more generally, of the Washington press's eternal uncritical worship of success and status. He knows which interest groups had clout and which did not. There is a level of comfortable familiarity with Washington that makes watching politics fun — the junkie's level at which you know that Don Nickles is the most important off-the-reservation conservative in the Senate, or that if a possible presidential candidate appears on "Meet the Press" the stakes are higher than they would be if the appearance were on "Face the Nation." It is very hard to get to that level for a period that has passed, because the renown of most Washington big shots fades so rapidly after they have retired. Caro, to his great credit, has managed to re-create not just the Senate in the 1950s, but Washington as a whole. The physical feeling of the place, the way people talked, what they wore, what they ate and drank, how they carried themselves — Caro gets all of it. In the case of Johnson, although the recapturing is mostly exterior, you can practically smell the guy. (He smells like Sta-Comb, Cutty Sark, and stale tobacco.) You know that if Johnson does X, Joe Rauh will say Y, and Doris Fleeson will write A, and Senator Lister Hill will do Z. That is an impressive literary achievement, and the too-muchness of the account is in part the price we pay for it.

Over the years I have occasionally encountered politicians who were using Caro's biography of Johnson as a kind of handbook, a step-by-step guide to the climbing of the government ladder. That is a sign of Caro's strength as a writer, and of his weakness. Politicians tend to divide journalists into two categories: idiots who matter and idiots who can be safely ignored; and only very rarely do they find writing about what they do to be descriptive, let alone instructive. Caro's books meet that difficult test. That Caro can be read as a dispenser of inside wisdom, on the other hand, shows that it is easy to factor out, or to read in the opposite of the way intended, his animadversions on the evils of political "ambition."

Every serious writer has distinctive obsessions, and they are always overdetermined. Caro's Lyndon Johnson, the poor son of deep-rural Texas, is quite a similar character to Caro's Robert Moses, the Ivy League German Jew from Connecticut. They are both big-time government doers, nearly superhuman in their abilities, workaholic, monstrous, dominating, obsessed with the getting and the using of "power," and prone to flipping back and forth between good and evil. Caro's blowtorch-intense interest in, and disapproval of, these people is a little like an anti-pornography crusader's righteous preoccupation with the horrifying details of his quarry, especially since Caro himself is, within his reference group, larger than life in many of the same ways as his subjects, as one can see immediately just by hefting one of his books or glancing at the thundering opening passages. Caro's attitude toward Johnson and toward the larger theme of "power" (at least when exercised by Johnson) is a little too raw to be entirely within his authorial control. The second-order characters, such as Richard Russell, tend to feel more real than Johnson himself, and Caro's account of how politics and government are practiced displays a veracity, even an enthusiasm, when Johnson is not at center stage that diminishes somewhat when Johnson's presence requires him to move to the extremes of praise or condemnation.

What Caro does not do, therefore, is provide a coherent standard for judging politicians. What is this "power" that Johnson craves, anyway? Caro gets himself off the hook of having to define it by extravagantly admiring the accomplishment of any item that is on the liberal agenda — any item that serves the cause of "social justice" — and treating all other signs of political adeptness as base and ignoble. Of Johnson's devising the defeat of the isolationist Bricker Amendment, Caro remarks: "Grand in scale, this overarching political plan that he had conceived down on the ranch in a flash of inspiration had proved to be a political masterstroke." But when Johnson arranges for the body of a Mexican-American war hero from Texas to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery and then abruptly turns off his publicity-seeking machinery when he realizes that the action is not playing well with Anglo Texans, the lesson is that "his empathy and tenderness for people oppressed simply because their skins were dark, strong though it was in his makeup, was not as strong as his need for power."

As Caro's own wonderfully copious evidence makes clear, political life is more complicated than that. Lots of senators, then and now, want very badly to be president. Surely none of them, even Hubert Humphrey, has ever wanted it solely to help others and not at all for status and glory. None of them can get there without courting interest groups or without moving, on many issues, from an original instinctive position to a compromise. None of them is free of the struggle to reconcile regional interests and national interests. The Southern president after Johnson, Jimmy Carter, though now remembered as a naive saint, so angered the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that Ted Kennedy ran against him in 1980 rather than accede to his re-nomination. And the next one after that, Bill Clinton, helped to found the Democratic Leadership Council as a way of getting himself off the hook from which Johnson spent his life dangling.

Caro tends to be understanding of political exigency when it is exemplified by anyone who isn't Johnson, and admiring of it even in Johnson during pro-Johnson turns in the plot. Dwight Eisenhower regularly takes positions for which Caro has no patience when Johnson takes them — foot-dragging on civil rights, favoring natural-gas price deregulation — without getting any authorial punishment beyond a mild slap on the wrist. Perhaps Caro prefers Eisenhower's modest demeanor. But when the rhythm of the story requires Caro to build up the Civil Rights Act of 1957 into a titanic achievement of Johnson's, he plays down that it was originally the Eisenhower administration's bill, which was watered down to the point of meaninglessness (beyond the merely symbolic) in Johnson's Senate. Similarly, when John F. Kennedy, representing a home state where there is none of the Confederate sentiment of Johnson's, rises on the Senate floor to announce, for Johnsonian reasons of presidential ambition, his support for the key gelding amendment, Caro, by now narratively committed to the idea that amendment or no amendment the bill was a milestone, observes that "Kennedy's speech rose to an eloquence that gave a hint of things to come."

The result of this back-and-forthing, depending on who is playing politics and to what end, leads to an overall confusion about Caro's operative code of conduct. Politics, of course, is a blend of morality and practicality, of leadership and followership; but Caro does not convey a clear sense of what he considers the proper mix to be. Instead, as he switches Johnson jerkingly back and forth between goodness and badness, so also does he switch his attitude toward the craft that Johnson practiced in extreme form. Maybe, to Caro's mind, politics is noble when it is used to accomplish liberal goals and ignoble when it is not so used; but if that were the case, then tracking its procedures in such close detail would not be as absorbing as it obviously is for Caro, and as he makes it for readers of this book. Caro portentously repeats the mantra "power reveals" throughout the book. One might add that his own attitude toward power reveals intense fascination and not much critical distance.

The overall point of Master of the Senate is that Lyndon Johnson was not only the most effective Senate leader ever, but also that he single-handedly transformed the Senate from a moribund, failed body into a vital, essential one. Like many of Caro's assertions, this one seems overstated, especially if the proof is the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Johnson, in these pages, is completely convincing as a protean leader, but his Senate actually doesn't pass a lot of landmark legislation; and anyway one could say that by Richard Russell's lights, the previous Senate was a highly effective institution, if its goal was to prevent liberals from accomplishing anything. The drama and the substance will be more in sync when Caro describes the congressional session of 1965-1966, when Johnson as president rammed through a real Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, and Medicare and Medicaid and the War on Poverty and federal aid to public schools. I can't wait.

Ambitious writers often hold up as their beau ideal the grand European social novels of the nineteenth century, with their majestic sweep, their panoply of memorable characters, their arresting set-pieces and digressions, and their quality of encompassing the entirety of a society. Caro seems to be writing toward this goal. Where he is simply in a different, and lesser, universe from Dickens and Tolstoy and their like, however, is in his attribution of godlike (or satanic) powers to individuals, especially his main character, as actors in history, and in his concomitant tendency to be morally simplistic. In great historical literature the times supersede the lives, without in any way diminishing them, and the consciousness of right and wrong does not transform all experience into parable. Caro is held back from the greatness for which he so palpably hungers by his evident lack of interest in rendering life not only as dramatic, but also as complicated and subtle.

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