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Means of Ascent (1990)

by Robert A. Caro

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1,675197,426 (4.36)47
In Means of Ascent, Book Two of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert A. Caro brings alive Lyndon Johnson in his wilderness years.   Here, Johnson's almost mythic personality--part genius, part behemoth, at once hotly emotional and icily calculating--is seen at its most nakedly ambitious. This multifaceted book carries the President-to-be from the aftermath of his devastating defeat in his 1941 campaign for the Senate-the despair it engendered in him, and the grueling test of his spirit that followed as political doors slammed shut-through his service in World War II (and his artful embellishment of his record) to the foundation of his fortune (and the actual facts behind the myth he created about it).   The culminating drama--the explosive heart of the book--is Caro's illumination, based on extraordinarily detailed investigation, of one of the great political mysteries of the century. Having immersed himself in Johnson's life and world, Caro is able to reveal the true story of the fiercely contested 1948 senatorial election, for years shrouded in rumor, which Johnson was not believed capable of winning, which he "had to" win or face certain political death, and which he did win-by 87 votes, the "87 votes that changed history."   Telling that epic story "in riveting and eye-opening detail," Caro returns to the American consciousness a magnificent lost hero. He focuses closely not only on Johnson, whom we see harnessing every last particle of his strategic brilliance and energy, but on Johnson's "unbeatable" opponent, the beloved former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, who embodied in his own life the myth of the cowboy knight and was himself a legend for his unfaltering integrity. And ultimately, as the political duel between the two men quickens--carrying with it all the confrontational and moral drama of the perfect Western--Caro makes us witness to a momentous turning point in American politics: the tragic last stand of the old politics versus the new--the politics of issue versus the politics of image, mass manipulation, money and electronic dazzle.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
The next in Caro's amazingly detailed, trenchant, fascinating, truthful, insightful and heartless portrait. What did anyone -- even Lyndon Johnson -- ever do to deserve a biographer like this? Not that I fault Caro: His tenacious and scrupulously accurate determination that the truth be told is journalistic history at its highest level of professionalism. But under, or alongside, the chicanery, the narcissism, the shameless expediency of his subject's persona there also was a charisma, a thoroughly human drive to assert himself and make an imprint on an indifferent universe that also is breathtaking, and the sheer wonder and humanity of Johnson is not given enough due. But enough of the cavil, because this book is a supreme accomplishment, of research, writing and psychological insight. It is fascinating to see Johnson's vast inflation of his military "career," and the way he continued to lie about it to people who knew he was lying, and who he knew knew he was lying. And the account of the stealing of the 1948 Senate race is so gripping, so suspenseful even though one knows the outcome before the book is opened, that it defies the effort to put the book down. I had read the book in fits and starts until about page 210, then picked it up at about 9:30 p.m., and could not stop until I finished, at 2:15 a.m. ( )
  oatleyr | Aug 22, 2020 |
I've been saving some of Caro's LBJ books, as we wait for #5. It was good to finally read this one. What a stunning story! To me, it was enlightening.

But it wasn't Caro's best. The focus is very narrow, zooming in just on the 1948 Texas senate primary election that LBJ stole. There's very little beyond that, particularly if you've already read Caro's standard LBJ descriptions. There's great atmosphere here, especially of the helicopter campaigning and the vote rigging operations. Coke Stevenson is drawn well. Still, it can be too much. Some of the descriptions get repetitive. Books 3 and 4 have a much wider scope, and felt like epics.

> So Woodward ordered Mashman to land on the service station. No one was really sure if the roof would bear the helicopter's weight, and at the last minute Woodward had the roof shored up with beams hauled from a local lumberyard in wagons pulled by muleteams

> The helicopter in which Lyndon Johnson had been riding had fallen like a stone for twenty-five feet, had hit the ground so hard that it bounced higher than a car roof, and then, regaining power, had swooped up into the air again. And, Mashman realized, Johnson hadn’t really noticed. ( )
  breic | May 30, 2019 |
I would recommend taking a break and a few book palette cleanser between Path to Power and this one. While the research is still clearly in evidence, this one definitely repeats some of the points of the first book (which Caro freely acknowledges). That said, once you get past those first few repetitive chapters, the book really does hit its stride. Means of Ascent focuses almost entirely on a very short period of time immediately before and after the 1948 Senate race. While in the hands of a lesser writer this would have felt claustrophobic, Caro manages to evoke moments of real tension in the reader even though we already know how it turns out. ( )
  Jthierer | Apr 26, 2019 |
Means of Ascent is the second volume of Robert Caro's soaring biography of Lyndon Johnson. While not up to the very high standards of volume one - Caro spends the first 100 pages rehashing volume one - it is a riveting story of the 7 years between 1941 and 1948.

Caro focuses on Johnson's military service, or lack thereof, during World War II, and shows how he capitalized even on his brief stint of actual combat and somehow made it so that he could take advantage in a political manner.

Even more interesting was his detailed accounting of the "stolen" senatorial election of 1948. The account of this election, and the role that Johnson and his staff had in it's result will astound and shock even the most dispassionate reader.

( )
  bhuesers | Mar 29, 2017 |
Even though Lyndon Johnson is the subject of this biography, it's the history and larger-than-life characters of mid-20th century Texas that make this so extraordinary. It's worth reading for the mini-biography of former Texas governor Coke Stevenson alone. It's hard to imagine a politician with more character or one more dissimilar to Lyndon Johnson. In contrast, author Caro's depiction of Johnson, from his service, if you can call it that, in WWII through to his stolen election win in the '48 senate primary race, is a character study of anything but character. I'm bracing myself for the next in the series. ( )
  wandaly | Mar 21, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
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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In Means of Ascent, Book Two of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert A. Caro brings alive Lyndon Johnson in his wilderness years.   Here, Johnson's almost mythic personality--part genius, part behemoth, at once hotly emotional and icily calculating--is seen at its most nakedly ambitious. This multifaceted book carries the President-to-be from the aftermath of his devastating defeat in his 1941 campaign for the Senate-the despair it engendered in him, and the grueling test of his spirit that followed as political doors slammed shut-through his service in World War II (and his artful embellishment of his record) to the foundation of his fortune (and the actual facts behind the myth he created about it).   The culminating drama--the explosive heart of the book--is Caro's illumination, based on extraordinarily detailed investigation, of one of the great political mysteries of the century. Having immersed himself in Johnson's life and world, Caro is able to reveal the true story of the fiercely contested 1948 senatorial election, for years shrouded in rumor, which Johnson was not believed capable of winning, which he "had to" win or face certain political death, and which he did win-by 87 votes, the "87 votes that changed history."   Telling that epic story "in riveting and eye-opening detail," Caro returns to the American consciousness a magnificent lost hero. He focuses closely not only on Johnson, whom we see harnessing every last particle of his strategic brilliance and energy, but on Johnson's "unbeatable" opponent, the beloved former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, who embodied in his own life the myth of the cowboy knight and was himself a legend for his unfaltering integrity. And ultimately, as the political duel between the two men quickens--carrying with it all the confrontational and moral drama of the perfect Western--Caro makes us witness to a momentous turning point in American politics: the tragic last stand of the old politics versus the new--the politics of issue versus the politics of image, mass manipulation, money and electronic dazzle.

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