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Means of Ascent by Robert A. Caro

Means of Ascent (1990)

by Robert A. Caro

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LBJ was the epitome of "slimey politician." During the period of this book, 1940-1948, he stuffed the ballot boxes, stole an election, used political influence to profit monetarily, abused his wife and began his ascent to be the most powerful Senator in the country. He could easily keep up with the most dastardly Chicago machine politicians. Meanwhile, the author writes a 22 hour tale that whines in my ears and could be half as long and be twice as effective. The subject and the man intrigues me, but it'll be awhile before I read another Caro. ( )
  buffalogr | Feb 1, 2016 |
Amazing. Caro does it again, but with a much more focused entry than the first volume The Path to Power. That earlier entry followed LBJ's childhood, college years, and ascent from congressional aide to congressman to failed senate candidate. Means of Ascent, by contrast, focuses on eight crucial years in LBJ's career: 1940-48, eight years where his wheels seemed to be spinning in place.

He went off to war—in name only—and found himself unable to return and fight for the senate seat he'd failed to win in the special election. And then after the war, he found himself in a different Washington. Without a way into power through FDR's tacit support, he instead turned his attention to wealth, over one million dollars by 1949. And when the opportunity for power came in the form of a 1948 Senate race, he took it despite the odds of winning against Coke Stevenson, the most popular politician in Texas history.

Lyndon used the tactics he'd pioneered in earlier races, but charged with a whole new level of money. Easily hundreds of thousands, and probably millions poured into his campaign war chest and deployed to get him elected any way possible—legally or illegally. Johnson's biggest innovation was campaigning by helicopter, using it to tame the distances between rural towns that kept his advance crews scrambling to outpace his schedule. Campaign literature blanketed the land, whether through pamphlets, "newspapers" printed by the campaign, or actual newspapers entirely co-opted to Johnson's own purposes.

And this unprecedented flurry was put towards the ends of destroying Coke Stevenson, about as close to a cowboy as could be come by. Stevenson was a man to whom integrity meant something, and the law meant something higher than just the letter of government. But Johnson attacked him for positions he didn't hold, and repeated those attacks until they stuck so strongly that Stevenson couldn't throw them aside. And finally, when even that wasn't enough, he gave the final nudge to push his bought votes even further to cover the remaining margin. And when Stevenson tried to get recourse from the courts for having the election blatantly stolen from him, Johnson managed to thread all the needles and survive proceedings with minutes to spare.

Caro is a great biographer, but where he really excels is in telling these wider stories, in showing us the obscure levers of power that these men pulled. Means of Ascent is but the most concentrated of his studies, laying out from start to finish how an election was stolen, and ending with a tease hinting just how far the new owner of that Senate seat was to take it. ( )
  gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
Extremely detailed continuation of the LBJ biography that is basically the Life's Work of Robert Caro. The books are so dense with detail that I find I need a break between volumes, and don't intend to read the next one for at least a month or two.

This book covers the period 1941-1948, ending with Johnson's successful theft of election to the US Senate. That theft was incredibly bold and shameless, and it's amazing that he got away with it. I guess there has been some doubt over the years about whether it was stolen, but this book leaves no doubt whatsoever.

I still find it amazing that a biographer who has devoted so much of his life to this project finds the object of his work to be such a reprehensible person.

I really liked the description of Coke Stevenson, LBJ's opponent in the 1948 election, a truly amazing and ethical man of whom I had never heard before.

Great book. ( )
  DanTarlin | Oct 17, 2014 |
This is Volume II of Caro's LBJ biography, and while it's a very good book, I did not find it as enthralling as I did Volume I. Its scope is much narrower, and as it reinforces many of the character flaws of LBJ that were exposed in Volume I some parts became a bit repetitious. Nevertheless, it is not a volume to be skipped--in my view all of the volumes should be read, and in order.

Means of Ascent focuses solely on two events: LBJ's acquisition and growth of his broadcasting empire (the source of his wealth), and the 1948 Senate election, which he won by 87 votes, leading to the nickname "Landslide Lyndon" which plagued him the rest of his life. Caro's meticulous detailing of the facts surrounding these events will leave any reader with no doubt that LBJ used his political power and influence, probably illegally, to acquire and build the broadcasting empire, and no doubt that LBJ stole the 1948 election.

LBJ maintained throughout his life that the initial radio station was Lady Bird's acquisition, and that she ran and expanded the business. He claimed to have played no part in securing the various FCC permits and waivers for this and any subsequent acquisitions and expansions. Caro methodically rebuts LBJ's claim, and shows the LBJ was always the driving force behind this enterprise, and that clear illegalities were involved. The detail and minutiae of LBJ's machinations as set forth by Caro are necessary to expose the truth, but can nonetheless lead to some tedious reading for a casual reader.

The events surrounding the 1948 election are perhaps more colorful, but no less detailed. Caro presents the 1948 election as one in which the old methods of campaigning gave way for the first time to campaigns in which the media began to play an all-important role. LBJ's broadcast empire allowed him to fully exploit the media, and made his run against a candidate previously thought to be unbeatable, the extremely popular ex-governor of Texas Coke Stevens, viable, since he was able to reach far many more voters than could Stevens. There is a lot of fascinating detail in Caro's blow-by-blow account of the campaign, including LBJ's use of the "new-fangled" helicopter, which as a novelty attracted hordes of voters whenever LBJ appeared, but which also, as a still experimental vehicle, put LBJ's life at risk more often than he was aware.

A large portion of this part of the book relates to the actual counting of the vote--the how, who and when of the stuffing of the ballot boxes, the coverup of these actions, the court battles, and so forth, including just how narrowly the LBJ faction escaped detection of the absolute proof of their fraud. The facts discovered and exposed by Caro leave no doubt that LBJ stole the election. Although LBJ never admitted to election fraud, the circumstances were such that the 1948 election remained a cloud over his head that emerged from time to time in his future career.

Caro devotes a fair amount of the book to LBJ's opponent Coke Stevens, who despite coming from a background similar to LBJ's was his polar opposite. The story of his poverty-stricken childhood, his years of self-education, and his amazing rise to power through small town lawyer, to D.A., to state representative, and ultimately to Texas governor makes for very good reading. Unlike LBJ, Coke was scrupulously honest, kind, considerate and well-loved. By the end of Means of Ascent, on the other hand, LBJ has become more and more dishonest, cruel and self-centered---a thoroughly unlikeable character. ( )
3 vote arubabookwoman | Feb 18, 2013 |
The major focus of this book is Johnson’s battle for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat in Texas – in 1948. The accusation that he stole that election from the very popular former governor Coke Stevenson (called “Mr. Texas) dogged LBJ throughout his life. Now, through interviews with many of the principals involved in said theft, Mr. Caro provides chapter and verse about what LBJ and his cronies did to get him into the Senate.

Although LBJ always denied (with a nod, nod, wink, wink) that the election was stolen, I don’t think a single reader will agree with that assessment after reading Means of Ascent. What the book outlines is not just “business as usual” for Texas politics, but a blatant effort to stuff the ballot box and then to employ legal maneuvers to make sure the chicanery never comes to light. If Mr. Caro hadn’t been such a dogged researcher, it might not have.

This was a totally engrossing read, and it seemed much smaller than the other two I’ve read in this (so far) four-book biography (1 and 4). Here I am, three quarters of the way through Robert Caro’s books on LBJ – and I still want more. Whoda thunk it? ( )
  NewsieQ | Dec 18, 2012 |
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What is clear from Mr. Caro's books is that he is both obsessed with and repelled by power. His analysis of how power is used - to build highways and dams, to win elections, to get rich - is masterly. But he also, deep down, seems to hate power, hate those who wield it, hate it for its sheer, blind force. One sympathizes with this, and it contributes to the moral energy of his books. But the problem is that his approach to power lacks creative tension. Intellectually he understands that it can be used for good ends. ''Many liberal dreams might not be reality even today were it not for Lyndon Johnson,'' he writes in his introduction. But emotionally Mr. Caro seems to find this intolerable, and thus his books are an almost unrelieved litany of impassioned disgust.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 067973371X, Paperback)

The second installment in a projected four-volume biography of LBJ that opened with The Path to Power, Means of Ascent shines a harsh light on the early political years of one of America's most paradoxical presidents. The man who would later ram civil rights legislation through a reluctant Congress, and then be brought down by Vietnam, came out of a political swamp--Caro gives a graphic picture of the Texas democratic political machine at its most corrupt. The climax of the book is LBJ's election to the Senate in 1948, an election he won by 87 dubious votes out of almost a million. That vote arguably changed history. This book won the 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:34 -0400)

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Carries Johnson from his 19th senate defeat through WWII and on to the securing of his political and economic fortunes.

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