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The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon…
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The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (1982)

by Robert A. Caro

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I have only just started this, but it is so good that I feel I must share my enthusiasm.

I bought The Passage Of Power when it first came out, and I was still quite new to LT, and was so thrilled with the book that I felt compelled to put in a gush before I was anywhere near finished. I never did get round to doing a proper review of Passage even though I thought it brilliant, and I'm probably going to do the same with Path To Power.

As with Passage, I make an enormous plea to people not to dismiss this either because they disapprove of/aren't interested in Lyndon Johnson or because they aren't interested in American (or any other) politics. This is gripping stuff, packed with detail about social and political history, psychology, and the dynamics of power. Without in any way meaning to belittle or trivialize this extraordinary and serious study, reading it has the addictive fascination of the early series of The Sopranos or Mad Men (substitute your own favourite series of power and influence if these didn't work for you).

Rather touchingly, Caro's introduction to this 1981 work says that this will be a three volume biography. Four volumes have now been published and Caro is working on the fifth. Clearly there is a lot to be said. Do not be put off by size of the volumes (this one is around a thousand pages). This is good train reading - the journey flashes by.

It took me a while to settle in to Passage, as in the early part Caro had an annoying tendency to interrupt himself. Sentences would start, qualify, digress, have a footnote or two, and finally get back on track. One had the feeling of the author almost falling over himself to include all the relevant information. Passage just moves right in with no digression. The Introduction opens:

"Two of the men lying on the blanket that day in 1940 were rich. The third was poor - so poor that he had only recently purchased the first suit he had ever owned that fit correctly - and desperately anxious not to be: thirty-two-year-old Congressman Lyndon Johnson had been pleading with one of the other two men, George Brown, to find him a business in which he could make a little money. So when Brown, relaxing in the still-warm Autumn sun at the luxurious Greenbrier Hotel in the mountains of West Virginia, heard the third man, Charles Marsh, make his offer to Lyndon Johnson, he felt sure he knew what the answer would be."

Marsh was very rich and "addicted to the grandiose gesture, particularly toward young men in whom he took a paternal interest". He had been pleased by the work of a reporter, and as a 'tip' gave him a newspaper (company), and had underwritten a young oilman, Sid Richardson, whose run of luck had been so bad that he'd had to pawn his hunting rifle for food and board. Richardson's oil business had come good, and Marsh was now offering to sell Johnson at a discount his share of Richardson's business, an offer worth close to a million dollars, without Johnson having to make any up front payment, only to pay Marsh a share of future profits. Johnson said he would like some time to consider the offer, but felt almost certain he would have to decline it, saying "I can't be an oil man, if the public knew I had oil interests it would kill me politically", and decline it he did. Although he had never voiced the reach of his ambition, the only political post where oil interests could be damaging to a Texan was President of the United States.

The Passage Of Power emphasized the significance of Johnson's impoverished background, particularly problematic when he was up against the wealth and social ease of the Kennedys, who added to his discomfort by ridiculing him for his rural background. Johnson was always aware that an elected representative who lost his seat could become an impoverished nobody. His father had been elected six times to the Texas State Legislature but died penniless. Johnson once struck up a conversation with a lift operator in the Capitol, only to discover that the lift operator was a former Congressman. The Path To Power takes the reader back to the source, the history of settlement of the Texas Hill Country and of the Buntons and Johnsons, the bloodlines expressed in Lyndon Johnson. The editor of the local paper in Johnson City said "So much has been written about Lyndon, but the thing is that none of it explains what it was like to grow up in a place like this, and without understanding that, no one will ever understand Lyndon Johnson."

The story of settlement is vividly told as the poorest migrants, seeking to escape debt and oppression, moved west. Tragically, and inevitably, the poorest settled the poorest land, not understanding the ecological significance of the rolling hills of tall blue-green grass or the importance of regular burning in keeping back the brush. They settled, they grazed, they destroyed the grassland, and the blue-green hills became white barren limestone. Impenetrable brushwood covered any soil that remained. The cycle of poverty set in; no one would invest to bring utilities or transport and the former farmers and ranchers were left in their isolated shacks, still subject to the oppression of the loan systems which had driven their families west in the first place. The description of the desperate impoverished lives brought Cormac MacCarthy's people to mind. In an attempt to bring social and political justice through governmental change the locals joined up to the Alliance movement. Their letters to the Alliance journal reinforce this echo. One reads "Our lot is cast here in a rough portion of land where but a small per cent of the land is tillable, hence farmers are thinly settled. We number only about eight male members in good standing. But if we do live away up here on the Pedernales River, amid rocks, cliffs and waterfalls, cedars and wild oaks, we are not varments, but have hearts just like men." Another wrote that although he had never been to school, and only got his letters when he was thirty-five, he wanted to advance the Alliance, and if his letter were printed, he would write again, "for if I can read it I know other people can, who have been to school and worn shoes". The brutality with which this co-operative movement was broken by the government, banks, and merchants is appalling. In this setting lived the Buntons and the Johnsons.

Generation after generation the Buntons were physically and temperamentally distinctive. The men were over six feet, with large noses, very large ears, heavy eyebrows, coal black wavy hair, dark eyes, and magnolia white skin. Their facial characteristics and intense gaze made them often appear to be glaring. They had fierce tempers, a pride verging on arrogance, tempered only by a touch of sadness, and, unusually for frontiersmen, an interest in ideas and abstractions, happily engaging in discussions of about the theory of government. They were also shrewd, hard, and canny, able to put the practical first against the ideal. The Buntons were smart enough to settle east of the Hill Country. The Johnsons were remarkably similar to the Buntons, but were missing the hard, practical core. They were idealists, dreamers, romantics given to extravagance, interested in abstractions and skilled in debate. When Lyndon's Johnson grandfather married a Bunton woman the characteristics of both were united, save for the Bunton practicality. Their Johnson offspring seem to have had an inbuilt sense of command, and style. One old timer said of them "All the Johnsons strutted, except George. And he strutted a little. Hell, the Johnsons could strut sitting down." The Johnsons made, but lost, a fortune. Lyndon's politically active but impoverished father married a pretty college educated girl, who lived in comparative wealth and comfort in a local town, and brought her back to his isolated two room shack surrounded by dust, where she would be left alone for days while he travelled for work. Caro conveys the terrifying isolation of such a life, in her case made even more difficult by its unfamiliarity and by her intellectual isolation, for she too had been raised to value abstraction and debate, which was the unifier of their marriage.

Lyndon Johnson was the first born of this union, and from the beginning had a curious quality, a need to be the centre of attention, and a surprising ability to dominate, and to get his own way. He regarded everything as a competition which he must win. His need to be the centre of attention took somewhat sinister forms: as a small child he would run off and hide whenever his mother's back was turned, hiding for long periods of time so that people would be called in to search for him. A relation recalled one time when he had been hiding near his mother, whose acute distress would have been evident to him, but he still did not come out to comfort her. He ran away so often that his father had a big bell put up in the front yard so people in the fields could be alerted to look for him. He regularly ran away down river to the school house, so the school was persuaded to take him in even though he was too young to attend. Already educated at home, he had the advantage of the local children; he had no time for those of his own age and was able to impose his will on boys much older than himself. At the schoolhouse there was a blackboard on either side of the door to the outhouse, and children who needed to go out had to write their names on one of the blackboards as they went out. The children generally wrote in small embarrassed letters, but Lyndon would write in large letters LYNDON B on one blackboard and JOHNSON on the other.

Caro notes in his introduction the degree of self mythologizing done by Johnson, and his ability to wipe out the traces of anything that didn't fit. Journals of his college years have disappeared. Even though Johnson was dead, his old college classmates would only hint that the official record of Johnson as a popular charismatic campus character was not the whole story. In seven years of research Caro repeatedly encountered a reluctance, even worry, about disclosing information at variance with the public image, although once the corner was lifted people would corroborate and add further information. The popular charismatic college character was in fact disliked, nicknamed Bull (short for bullshit), characterized as actually incapable of telling the truth, and stole his election.

I am not yet a hundred pages into this book. (Think how I would have gone on had I finished it!) I suppose the best plea to others to read it would be to finish with a couple of paragraphs from Caro's introduction, which set out the contradictions of Johnson's character and the lasting influence on him of his family history.

"Knowing Lyndon Baines Johnson - understanding the character of the thirty-sixth President of the United States - is essential to understanding the history of the United States in the twentieth century. During his Presidency, his Great Society, with its education acts and civil-rights acts and anti-poverty acts, brought to crest tides of social change that had begun flowing during the New Deal a quarter of a century before; after his Presidency, the currents of social change were to flow - abruptly - in a very different course." The increasing involvement in Vietnam was to have a major impact. "The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson... was a watershed in America's history, one of the great divides in the evolution of its foreign and domestic policies. And in this evolution, Johnson's personality bore, in relation to other factors, an unusually heavy weight, both because of its overpowering, elemental force .... ...and because of the unusual degree to which the workings of that personality were.. unencumbered by philosophy or ideology."

Caro attributes to the presidency of Johnson not only the growth in the mistrust of the incumbent of the Presidency, but also the final tipping point in the long evolution from "constitutional' to "imperial" presidency.

By 1941 when Johnson was thirty-two and the year in which this volume ends, "a young man - desperately poor, possessed of an education mediocre at best, from one of the most isolated and backward areas of the United States - has attained the national power he craved. He has won not only a seat in Congress but influence that reaches far beyond his district's borders. ... ... ... In attaining this influence, he has displayed a genius for discerning a path to power, an utter ruthlessness in destroying obstacles in that path, and a seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit, deception and betrayal in moving it along. In every election in which he ran ... he displayed a willingness to do whatever was necessary to win: a willingness so complete that even in the generous terms of political morality, it amounted to amorality."

And yet, as Caro reminds the reader in The Passage Of Power, the poverty of Johnson's youth gives him the drive towards social betterment for the poor reflected in bills passed through those same political practices when he became president.

"When, in 1937, at the age of twenty-eight, Johnson became their Congressman, Hill Country farmers were still plowing their fields with mules because they could not afford tractors. Because they had no electricity, they were still doing every chore by hand, while trying to scratch a living from soil from which the fertility had been drained decades before They were still watching their wives made stooped and old before their time by a life of terrible drudgery, a life that seemed, as one Hill Country woman put it, "out of the Middle Ages". Four years later, the people of the Hill Country were living in the twentieth century. Lyndon Johnson had brought them there."
  Oandthegang | Nov 2, 2014 |
As with many of these biographies, the author gets a little lost in details- one man's life doesn't need to be 3 volumes!
But it's fascinating to see what politics was like in rural Texas in mid-century.
One amazing thing: usually when an author buries himself in the life of a famous person, he comes out defending him/her, or at least ready to see things from the subject's perspective. But Caro's basic take on LBJ is that the guy was a total opportunist, looking to wield power at all costs, with no real political core. This in contrast to much more impressive men (as portrayed in the book) like LBJ's father (a state senator in Texas who never played the game and never cashed in) and Sam Rayburn (a completely incorruptible US House Speaker).
The book is endless, if interesting, so I need some time off before tackling the next one. ( )
  DanTarlin | Sep 7, 2014 |
Compelling reading. It does leave one feeling a little sorry for the United States as a whole given the level of sleaze and dishonesty catalogued by the author with regards to the highest elective offices in the nation. ( )
  Whiskey3pa | May 20, 2014 |
Robert Caro gives an extremely extensive history of Lyndon Johnson's early career, up until his loss in the Senate race of 1941, in such a way that the amount of detail just adds to the story rather than drawing it out. Caro is able to bring facts and interviews to life retaining the readers interests throughout hundreds of pages. ( )
  lucasdwi | Aug 21, 2013 |
A must read to understand 20th century American History. ( )
  JayLivernois | Apr 22, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
For readers who want to believe that the President Johnson of the Vietnam War years not merely was, but always had been, an unprincipled monster, ''The Path to Power'' will be rewarding reading. For those who seek to understand this remarkably complex, singularly gifted and tragically limited man, Mr. Caro's book will seem more like a caricature than a portrait.
 
For whatever the drawbacks of ''The Path to Power,'' they seem slight in the framework of its overall impact. The details that Mr. Caro has dug up are astonishing, and he has pieced them together to tell a monumental political saga.
 
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On the day he was born, he would say, his white-haired grandfather leaped onto his big black stallion and thundered across the Texas Hill Country, reining in at every farm to shout: 'A United States Senator was born this morning.'
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679729453, Paperback)

The profound understanding of the uses and abuses of power Robert Caro displayed in his 1974 biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, is a scathing achievement the author surpassed with panache in this, his second book. Caro's dogged research and refusal to accept received wisdom results in an eye-opening portrait that unforgettably captures the titanic personality of Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973). Though stronger on Johnson's duplicity and naked self-promotion than his intelligence and charm, Caro nails it all. He chronicles the evolution of an attention-demanding youth from the Texas hill country into a seasoned congressman who would abandon his ardent espousal of the New Deal as soon as it ceased to be expedient. The dirty details begin with college elections that earn young Lyndon a reputation as a crook and a liar; Caro goes on to unravel financial shenanigans of impressive ingenuity. Johnson's consuming desire to get ahead and his political genius "unencumbered by philosophy or ideology" are staggering. The White House, Great Society, and Vietnam lie ahead when the main narrative closes in 1941, but the roots of Johnson's future achievements and tragic failures are laid bare. This biography may well stand as the best book written in the second half of the 20th century about personal ambition inextricably linked with historic change. --Wendy Smith

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:31:18 -0400)

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Traces young Lyndon Johnson's rise from Texas poverty to political power, illuminating his political relationships

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