Books: Robert Caro's Master of the Senate
Mr. Gould is the author of 1968: The Election That Changed America, Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady and The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. He is currently working on a history of the Republican Party.How many 20th century American presidents deserve to have four big volumes written about their lives and times? Robert A. Caro decided during the mid-1970s that Lyndon Johnson did, and"Master of the Senate" is the third installment in his massive exploration of the Texas president's quest for power.
When Caro started his project a generation ago, Johnson's central place in the nation's history seemed assured. Champion of civil rights, architect of the Great Society and the president who escalated the war in Vietnam, Johnson appeared to embody all that was good and bad about American politics in modern times.
A funny thing happened to LBJ on the way to transcendent historical importance. Time passed. The Cold War ended, the nation turned rightward and the tumult of the Vietnam War gave way to other conflicts, first with Iraq and now with international terrorism. The Johnson image, once so vibrant and controversial, became fuzzy and then indistinct.
For Americans born after the mid-1950s, Johnson is remembered, if at all, for a Stetson, a drawl, an unpopular war and a nation in turmoil in grainy black-and-white television images. Scholars might, as they did in the 1990s, reassess Johnson in a more positive way. But for the nation at large he became, as most presidents do, a relic of a vanishing era.
For Caro, however, Johnson has remained the pivot on which the nation's history turned in the century just passed. After winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his biography,"The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York," Caro embarked on a multivolume study of Johnson under the overall title"The Years of Lyndon Johnson." The first volume,"The Path to Power," appeared in 1982 and depicted Johnson's life to 1941 as a ruthless quest for political clout. The second,"Means of Ascent," came out in 1990, and its recounting of Johnson's 1948 race for the Senate against Gov. Coke Stevenson of Texas became controversial for both its laudatory picture of the racist, reactionary Stevenson and its corrosive portrait of the ambitious Johnson. Now Caro gets Johnson to the Senate and, in more than 1,000 pages looks at the years from 1949 to 1960, when Johnson first wielded national power as Democratic majority leader.
For much of"Master of the Senate," Caro follows the path of criticism and denunciation that characterized the first two volumes. When Senate Majority Leader Johnson takes up the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and sees it enacted into law, Caro recognizes that Johnson's ambition also was tempered with some compassion for African Americans. The enactment of the law is seen as a redemptive episode for the ruthless Johnson, who, almost in spite of himself, finally does the right thing for the first time in his life. This concession is grudging and limited, but it spurs Caro to some of the best writing in the three volumes.
Even Caro's marginally greater sympathy, however, for his subject does not raise Johnson's legislative career to the epic level implicit in this encyclopedic treatment. In the political context of the mid-1950s, with Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House and Democrats narrowly in control of Congress, the passage of major legislation could not occur. Much of what Johnson was doing was inside baseball, of interest now only to specialists who find the era of Joe McCarthy and the Bricker Amendment still fascinating.
To surmount this problem, Caro writes three books in one volume. All rest on the notion that the obstructive role of the United States Senate shaped the sweep of American history as a prelude to the emergence of Johnson as a senator in 1949. In Caro's view, presidents such as Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt become almost bit players as the Senate came to dominate the national stage.
In a series of potted narratives that occupy the first 105 pages of the book, Caro writes a condensed history of the upper house starting in the mid-1830s. The short treatments of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Spanish-American War and the League of Nations as episodes in Senate history take the story far from Johnson without adding anything new to these subjects.
The ensuing 600 pages of the book that cover Johnson from 1949 through 1956 reflect the negative view of Johnson that Caro has long espoused. Johnson was, Caro has said,"unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of philosophy, of principles, of beliefs." The same man appears in these pages as he betrays friends and causes for personal advancement and power.
Recycling anecdotes and insights from the first two volumes, Caro spends much time on Johnson's infidelities, fascination with his sexual prowess and callous behavior toward his staff. Even Lady Bird Johnson is swept up in Caro's animus against her husband. In several chapters that mix misogny and prurience, she is depicted as an abused spouse, too tolerant of her husband's infidelities and heedless of the emotional needs of her two daughters. For Caro, there was no mystery in the Johnsons' union, only pathology. But that stern verdict leaves unexplained how the Lady Bird Johnson of history--intelligent, dignified and a champion of the environment--found in her marriage the inspiration for her productive public career.
In addition to delving into Johnson's private affairs, Caro examines such episodes as the rejection of the nomination of Leland Olds for the Federal Power Commission, the political demise of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954 and the parliamentary struggle over the Bricker Amendment to limit the power of presidents in foreign policy. These long-forgotten events will have little resonance for contemporary readers.
Caro spends much time on Johnson's mentor, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia. Though Russell was a dedicated and wily segregationist, Caro treats him with a sympathy and insight that he rarely extends to Johnson. Russell Baker once called Johnson"a character out of a Russian novel," but he is simply a sinner in the hands of an angry biographer.
Caro's obsession with Johnson tends to be selective. Notably absent from much of Caro's discussion of the Senate and Johnson in these years are key foreign policy issues. Caro simply does not look at the position Johnson took when the French role in Indochina collapsed in 1954 and a clamor arose for American intervention. Russell and Johnson made it clear that the Democrats would not support such an initiative.
Eisenhower also had reservations about the prospect of a land war in Asia after the Americans saw the French withdraw. Out of these developments came the creation of North and South Vietnam and the American presence in the region that Johnson inherited as president a decade later.
Caro is also silent about the substance of the Suez crisis of 1956 and Johnson's pro-Israel stance at that time. One of the most interesting revelations regarding Johnson during the last two decades has been about his efforts in the 1930s and 1940s on behalf of Jews seeking to escape the Nazis. Working with Jewish leaders in the Austin area, Johnson went well beyond other American politicians in his efforts to enable Jews to enter the United States.
Scholars have been exploring the leads in this area first developed by Louis Gomolak, a graduate student at the University of Texas, in his 1989 dissertation. Caro does not examine this subject in analyzing Johnson's compassion, his views on world affairs or the historical roots of his presidential policies toward Israel during the 1960s. On balance, Caro's intense focus on Johnson's personal flaws dominates his narrative, minimizing issues that made the Texas lawmaker important during the Senate years and that have had a lasting influence into the 21st century.
The climax of the book comes with Caro's 300-page treatment of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Here Caro has to overcome his self-created problem in explaining why Johnson became a champion of civil rights at this time. In his first volume, he deferred any discussion of Johnson's work for African Americans as the Texas director of the National Youth Administration until a future volume. That created a misleading picture of Johnson's ideological commitments as a young man.
Now 20 years later in Johnson's life and 20 years after his first volume appeared, Caro evaluates Johnson's racial record in the National Youth Administration. He concedes that Johnson's compassion was genuine, a point that received almost no attention in the earlier volumes. Caro deals with that lapse by saying that Johnson's concern for the disadvantaged always yielded to the expedient demands of his larger ambition for the White House. This harsh judgment ignores Johnson's capacity to identify with the aspirations of Latinos and African Americans for real equality, an ability that eluded Eisenhower, Kennedy for much of his presidency and Richard Nixon.
By 1956, however, Johnson's ambition and compassion for once ran together. Following his disastrous race for the Democratic presidential nomination that year, Johnson realized that he could not get his party's nod for the presidency if he were perceived as just a Southern politician. So he looked to civil rights to refurbish his image and advance his candidacy.
Once he began to convince himself that civil rights needed to be pursued, Caro contends, Johnson became an ever-greater convert to the cause. This reading of Johnson is likely to provoke some probing dissent because Caro's account of the senator's civil rights record is relentlessly slanted against him before this dramatic change of heart. The possibility that Johnson ever did anything from a decent motive, such as his concern for Jews in Germany, is so foreign to Caro that he cannot imbue his subject with any sense of human sympathy or genuine concern.
Nonetheless, once Johnson sets himself in motion in 1957 to achieve civil rights legislation for the first time in 82 years, Caro's tale becomes compelling. The general account will not be new to specialists. Both Republicans and northern Democrats by 1957 wanted to do something for civil rights, and a bill written by the Eisenhower White House became the vehicle for congressional action.
By the end of Caro's lengthy story (which could have been pared down without great loss to his main point), he makes his readers understand why the Civil Rights Act of 1957, for all its flaws, marked a genuine turning point for both Johnson and for the United States. At that point, Caro's protracted narrative runs out of gas, and he appends two perfunctory chapters on the rest of Johnson's Senate career. Readers interested in the relationship between Kennedy and Johnson, the decision to take the vice presidency and the campaign of 1960 will have to wait for the next phase of Caro's biography.
That task--writing a fourth volume on the Johnson presidency--will test Caro's abilities as a historian rather than as a detailed biographer. His larger assignment will be to draw back from his meticulous dissection of Johnson as an unpleasant individual and to see him against the backdrop of American history.
A thousand more pages on the vice presidency and the presidency like those in"Master of the Senate" will not explain why Johnson dominated the American consciousness in the mid-1960s and yet receded so quickly in subsequent decades.
Johnson did not just pursue power for its own sake. He imbibed the doctrines of American liberalism and upon gaining the White House sought to implement the programs of the activist national government that Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt had advocated. Johnson achieved much, including Medicare, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but eliminating poverty and coping with the racial inequities of society proved intractable tasks. With his domestic policy repudiated and memories of the lost war in Vietnam hounding his record, Johnson's presidency was always ripe for a quick historical fade-out.
Caro believed that a biography of Johnson would reveal how power functions in American society, and he has pursued his quarry with a determination worthy of Johnson himself. But Caro did not allow for an irony that Johnson might have appreciated: By fulfilling the agenda of the New Deal and stretching the doctrine of containment in Vietnam to a tragic point, Johnson ensured that his own historical moment would be short.
A lone wolf journalist, Caro has remained aloof from the currents of interpretation about Johnson and the shifts that have occurred in the president's reputation. As a result, Caro's old-fashioned, multivolume biography seems not just excessive but irrelevant for understanding where Johnson stands in the very different America of George W. Bush and the 21st century.
This review first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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Dave Fish - 10/8/2003
gee, Mr Gould, could it be that your pique about Caro has more to do with sales than scholorship? Hmmm? Which is more irrelevant?: Poorly written academic histories no one (excepting a few other academics and their students (who are assigned the works; or detailed entertaining pointed works of literature of the kind that Caro writes. Glad Mr Gould never got an opportunity to review a Churchill work.
Van L. Hayhow - 5/23/2002
I know that there are reviewers who use the excuse of writing a review as an opportunity to write an essay in which the book plays a small role. I always thought that a good review should, at least, assist a prospective purchaser in deciding whether to spend your money on that book, or on something else. Everything else to me is secondary. If I am correct, this review was probably not worth publishing the first time, never mind a second time.
The review is of no assistance to me as a purchaser. While I have not read the book, I have seen the author being interviewed on TV several times. If the title was blanked out, I would not have recognized that the review was of this book. As to President Johnson receding in public memory and interest,if that is so, why are so many books being sold?
Van L. Hayhow
Paul Siff - 5/23/2002
One fascinating tidbit in Caro's book concerns Johnson's turning down an opportunity in 1940, tendered by some of his wealthy Texas backers, to participate in some lucrative oil deals. Evidently Johnson believed that being identified as "an oilman" would be fatal to anyone seeking the presidency. How ironic this is, in view of the fact that we've now got not one, but two, oilmen heading the executive branch. Public sensibilities on this matter, assuming that Johnson's perception was accurate, surely have changed in this regard.
urbanist - 5/22/2002
Gee. If we forget the demise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, then we might find it perfectly acceptable when the current Vice President and Attorney General tell us that any dissent to the administration's behavior is dangerous and subversive, and we'll have no context for Bill O'Reilly calling the junior senator from New York a socialist. Little resonance for contemporary readers? I HOPE not.
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