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Means of Ascent by Robert A. Caro

Means of Ascent (1990)

by Robert A. Caro

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Robert A. Caro is the George R.R. Martin of political biography. Like A Song of Ice and Fire, his already extensively conceived biography of Lyndon B. Johnson grew from an initially planned three volumes to (currently) five, each volume of monumental length in itself (Means of Ascent being the shortest of the four so far published, with a measly 600 pages) and like Martin's readers Caro's need a lot of patience, as there are several years between the publication of each volume (and with eight to twelve years between each volume, Caro makes Martin look like a hack in comparison). One might even draw some thematic parallels between the two works, as both are full of intrigue, ruthless actions and the uses and abuses of power. One might argue that Caro's books are the better written ones - in any case they present as exciting a read as Martin's Fantasy novels, which is not exactly common for a political biography.

I generally tend to be somewhat sceptic towards biographies because just by virtue of their genre alone they tend to propagate a "great men" theory of history, literature, or indeed whatever field their subject was active in. Occasionally however, there are biographies whose ambition reaches beyond their immediate subject, taking the individual they write about as representative for a wider question, and that is where things start to get interesting. That Caro's biography of Lyndon B. Johnson belongs to that category was already striking in its first volume, The Path to Power, which over the course of its almost 1,000 pages paints a vivid and detailed portrait of the United States during the Depression era, a portrait which, while centred around the early career of an aspiring politician from Texas, provided a sharp-eyed analysis of the society and the political system Johnson lived and worked in.

Means of Ascent continues in that vein, although the emphasis is somewhat different here: Not only does this second volume concern itself with only seven years in Johnson's life from 1941 to 1948 but he also sets out to make and prove a very specific point; where the first volume was a grand, panoramic painting, this one more resembles a narrative.

To narrow the focus even more, Caro really only treats of two major events during the period of Johnson's life under scrutiny here. One of them are his wartime experiences - or rather, lack thereof. While Johnson used to make a lot of his having been at the front lines during World War II, closer inspection shows that what it factually boils down to is a single bombing flight he took part in as an observer. Admittedly, it was a dangerous flight which not all planes came back from, but it still seems hardly to justify the extravagant claims Johnson used to make about his wartime heroics in later years which at best appear to have been vast exaggerations and at worst blatant lies.

The main emphasis of this volume, however, is on the Senate elections of 1948 which mark a turning point in Johnson's life and career. They were his last chance to enter the Senate and continue his political career, a career which according to Caro had the presidency of the United States as its aim from the very beginning. That career had been stalled due to Johnson losing the previous elections and to the war; another loss would have meant that he'd never go beyond congress. Johnson, then, was desperate to win the 1948 elections, and willing to use every means at his disposal to gain a seat in the Senate.

And this is where Caro's point comes in and where this volume's main narrative unfolds: the central thesis is that Johnson in his reckless bid for power created a new type of politician, a politician who did not view power as a means to achieve his political goals but instead used political goals as a means to claim power for himself. And in the wake of this, Lyndon Johnson also changed election campaigning, moving it away from actual political issues into the realm of entertainment, where it does not matter who has the better arguments but who has more money and better showmanship, and ultimately who is ruthless enough to outright steal the elections if everything else fails. Caro builds his narrative on this foundation, and it is a narrative with a villain (Johnson) and a hero (Johnson's opponent, Coke Stevenson), and is this latter trait which garnered him some criticism among the otherwise unanimous praise for his work, namely that he has painted Johnson too negatively and Stevenson too positively. For my part, do not think the former sticks: While Caro does not leave any doubt that he does not like his subject much, my impression was that he treats him very fairly, never failing to point out all of the civil rights improvements he introduced as well as the astounding unflagging energy with which Johnson pursued his goals. Caro's treatment of Coke Stevenson, on the other hand, does appear somewhat over-generous. It's not all bathed in rosy light - Caro makes it clear that Stevenson was a staunch conservative and that his political ideas were often quite reactionary but the degree of personal integrity Caro ascribes to him does seem somewhat unlikely for a politician - any politician - in the 20th century and one can't help but suspect that the author is glossing over some of his faults in the interest of a more dramatic narrative.

Even so, I think that this is a comparatively minor point, as the central question of this book is not which candidate had how many ballot boxes stuffed - although the sheer disregard for anything but his own power grab with which Johnson faked the election is quite breathtaking. But I think Caro aims for a wider thesis, namely that Lyndon B. Johnson's 1948 Senate campaign marks the birth of the contemporary type of politician and changed the political landscape of the USA forever and in my opinion this thesis holds true even if he somewhat arranges the facts for enhanced emphasis. The author's intention may even have been to leave some ray of hope - because in the end, even with all the money he mustered and the show he pulled off (Johnson the first politician ever to use a helicopter in his campaign), in the end Johnson was unable to beat Stevenson with legal means and had to resort to outright stealing the election. All of this makes Means of Ascent a very current book - when everything is said and done, there might not have been a Donald Trump if not for Lyndon B. Johnson, and examining the way Johnson handled this election may give us some idea as what to expect from his spiritual successors today. Spoiler: It's not likely to be anything good.
  Larou | Apr 22, 2016 |
The year is 1941 and Lyndon Johnson is now 32 years old. Caro starts off this second section of the President's biography by singing the praises of all that Johnson had accomplished at such an early age. The list is impressive, but be forewarned, there is a great deal of word for word repetition from the first book, Path to Power. To name one example: the "carrying water" note Johnson wrote to Roosevelt is repeated.
Here are the "new" parts of Lyndon Johnson's biography. World War II brings Lyndon's "wartime efforts" which, true to form, are grossly exaggerated and evoke feelings of revulsion. At the same time, Caro's depiction of Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson holding down the fort in Washington during this time is poignant. His interview with her is touching.
Although Caro is tighter and more focused in his narrative of Means of Ascent, as with Path to Power, he includes a great deal more information than necessary. Case in point, there are over 30 pages dedicated to LBJ's 1948 opponent, Coke Stevenson and his upbringing. I feel that the only way to make LBJ the ultimate villain is to exaggerate his competition, hence the detail. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Mar 17, 2016 |
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 |
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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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