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Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson…

Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (1990)

by Robert A. Caro

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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 |
One of the best political stories ever written. The 1948 election piece has to be read to be believed. ( )
  robertmorrow | Jan 31, 2011 |
Means of Ascent is not quite as compelling as The Path to Power, but this is an irresistible read nevertheless. It's hard not to feel that Coke Stevenson has been idealized as a foil to Johnson, and Johnson disappears a bit as a person toward the end of the volume (though he is very much present as a politician). As in the previous volume, Caro's craftsmanship as a biographer and research as an historian are superlative. ( )
  jensenmk82 | Mar 30, 2010 |
This volume is significantly shorter than the other 2. Perhaps because almost the entire book focuses on LBJ's 1948 run for the senate against Coke Stevenson. There is minimal coverage to his tenure as a congressman and also his short stint in the Navy during WWII. The time in the Navy is rather interesting. I don't look at the Silver Star lapel that LBJ was fond of wearing in the same light anymore!

Caro spends a fair amount of time on Coke Stevenson. I was not familiar with Coke Stevenson, and Caro presents him as a man with no skeletons in his closet. A man with no faults except that he was too nice, and in politics "nice" gets you beat. While I don't doubt he was a decent man, I find it hard to believe he was the saint that Caro portrayed him as. I plan on reading up on Coke from other sources to get a better idea of who he was. He is of great interest to me. For those of us who enjoy reading, you'll be interested in him too as he was a voracious reader.

If there is one thing I took away from this book, it is that I have increased my dislike for LBJ. Granted, Caro is helping with that as he seems to share the same disdain. After the first volume in this series, I was on the fence leaning towards disdain. My disdain has shifted towards disgust after reading the second volume, but you still have to admire LBJ's tenacity. He was a master politician. ( )
  MatthewN | Jan 3, 2009 |
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:58:59 -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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