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Master of the Senate (2002)

by Robert A. Caro

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2,061356,477 (4.6)101
Master of the Senate, Book Three of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, carries Johnson's story through one of its most remarkable periods: his twelve years, from 1949 to 1960, in the United States Senate. At the heart of the book is its unprecedented revelation of how legislative power works in America, how the Senate works, and how Johnson, in his ascent to the presidency, mastered the Senate as no political leader before him had ever done.   It was during these years that all Johnson's experience--from his Texas Hill Country boyhood to his passionate representation in Congress of his hardscrabble constituents to his tireless construction of a political machine--came to fruition. Caro introduces the story with a dramatic account of the Senate itself: how Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun had made it the center of governmental energy, the forum in which the great issues of the country were thrashed out. And how, by the time Johnson arrived, it had dwindled into a body that merely responded to executive initiatives, all but impervious to the forces of change. Caro anatomizes the genius for political strategy and tactics by which, in an institution that had made the seniority system all-powerful for a century and more, Johnson became Majority Leader after only a single term-the youngest and greatest Senate Leader in our history; how he manipulated the Senate's hallowed rules and customs and the weaknesses and strengths of his colleagues to change the "unchangeable" Senate from a loose confederation of sovereign senators to a whirring legislative machine under his own iron-fisted control.   Caro demonstrates how Johnson's political genius enabled him to reconcile the unreconcilable: to retain the support of the southerners who controlled the Senate while earning the trust--or at least the cooperation--of the liberals, led by Paul Douglas and Hubert Humphrey, without whom he could not achieve his goal of winning the presidency. He shows the dark side of Johnson's ambition: how he proved his loyalty to the great oil barons who had financed his rise to power by ruthlessly destroying the career of the New Dealer who was in charge of regulating them, Federal Power Commission Chairman Leland Olds. And we watch him achieve the impossible: convincing southerners that although he was firmly in their camp as the anointed successor to their leader, Richard Russell, it was essential that they allow him to make some progress toward civil rights. In a breathtaking tour de force, Caro details Johnson's amazing triumph in maneuvering to passage the first civil rights legislation since 1875.   Master of the Senate, told with an abundance of rich detail that could only have come from Caro's peerless research, is both a galvanizing portrait of the man himself--the titan of Capital Hill, volcanic, mesmerizing--and a definitive and revelatory study of the workings and personal and legislative power.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 34 (next | show all)
Another brilliant volume by Robert Caro. Not only does he exhaustively and vividly narrate the events of LBJ's life and political career, Caro also manages to provide the reader with a master course in parliamentary procedure. ( )
  fopling | Jun 7, 2022 |
So thoroughly well-researched and well-written covering much of the history of the US, not just LBJ. ( )
  eatonphil | May 8, 2022 |
Massive and comprehensive, volume 3 of Caro's series deals with the Senate years, which come after the wilderness and lead to another stint in the wilderness for LBJ. He was clearly the "master" of his domain, but as a participant in history, he remains far from noble, perhaps ever further from heroic. Reading this book was a major time commitment for me, but along the way I was introduced to so many others about whom I want to know more: Murray Kempton, Ben Cohen, Richard Russell, Hubert Humphrey, Frank Church among them. ( )
  markburris | Jul 11, 2021 |
This book is a masterpiece. The page count doesn't do justice to the density of the thing--it's 1100 pages of small, closely set type, covering only about a decade of LBJ's life. Even more than the preceding two volumes, you will live and breathe Johnson while reading it.

What makes it so long is not merely that Caro covers everything in fine detail--though he does--but that he loops back and gives you the scenery and the context. He opens with ~100 pages on the history of the Senate. He goes on to give a lengthy portrait of Richard Russell, the unofficial leader of the Senate Democrats, who cloaked uncompromising racism with courtly manners and a mastery of Senate procedure. From nearly the beginning of the book, he emphasizes the fight for civil rights and the conservative Southern Democrats' resistance to it. It means close reading, but it's rewarding--I learned a great deal not just about Johnson, but about the workings of the Senate, 1950s politics, and many of the other politicians of the era.

Caro is a fine writer, and though not an unopinionated one, he's careful to give you as many details as possible. Johnson is one of the most intriguing types of biographical subjects--a possibly terrible person, abusive to those close to him and willing to do anything for power, who nonetheless harnessed that power to do both great and terrible things. Caro never fails to emphasize the outsized nature of Johnson's character in all respects. (He also comes across as having a genuine fondness for Lady Bird Johnson.)

I only wonder how Caro can sustain this level of detail to cover all of LBJ's presidency in a single volume. ( )
  arosoff | Jul 11, 2021 |
1040 pages, plus end notes...Master of the Senate, The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro (Vol. 3 of 4). This Pulitzer Prize winning book is a stunningly detailed, wholly captivating, tour de force history not only of LBJ but of the Senate itself and American politics in all it's sordid back room politicking and magisterial potential. Sadly, the years covered in this volume illuminate more the former than the latter, and underscore how LBJ's leadership was instrumental in, for the most part, thwarting civil rights and other progressive initiatives even in the face of horrendous bigotry and racial violence.

A notable quote from House Majority Leader Sam Rayburn after the ascension of Eisenhower to the Presidency after an unsuccessful run by LBJ for a spot on the ultimately unsuccessful Democratic ticket is relevant in today's political environment: "He [Rayburn] didn't want to oppose [Eisenhower] simply for sake of opposing. "Any jackass can kick a barn down," he said. "But it takes a good carpenter to build one."" [If only our current Congress had fewer jackasses.]

Another notable passage describing the passage of the 1957 Voting Rights Act, the first successful Civil Rights bill since 1875 (!), highlighted the value of what was even then seen as a horribly weakened bill that, in practice, did little to advance the voting rights of blacks in the south: "Moving between the incorrigible right and the immovable left, Senator Johnson worked mainly in the shifting center to shape and mold...a workable compromise to replace a futile stalemate. The air of compromise is rarely appreciated by men of principle..."

The 1957 Voting Rights Act broke the coarsely labeled "virginity" of the Civil Rights impasse imposed by the southern voting book, of which Johnson was a member, allowing for easier passage in subsequent tries. This was crudely predicted then and came to be true in subsequent years.

This volume, as monumental a task as it tackles, was well worth the time and effort it took me to push through its many chapters. It is a masterful telling of history, not just of LBJ and other key leaders, but of a system of government, and the Senate in particular. Though the frame of reference runs from the late 1940s to about 1959, what it reveals about our government is relevant even today.

On to volume Four. ( )
  wildh2o | Jul 10, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 34 (next | show all)
It makes a wonderful, a glorious tale. The book reads like a Trollope novel, but not even Trollope explored the ambitions and the gullibilities of men as deliciously as Robert Caro does. I laughed often as I read. And even though I knew what the outcome of a particular episode would be, I followed Caro's account of it with excitement. I went back over chapters to make sure I had not missed a word.
 
In the 1957 civil rights battle, ambition and compassion were finally mixed in the perfect combination for Lyndon Johnson and the country. The same can be said for Robert A. Caro, whose chronicle of Lyndon B. Johnson's outsize life has finally, too, been told with perfect balance.
 
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Epigraph
I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me.  I know where to look for it, and how to use it.
- Lyndon Baines Johnson
Dedication
For Ina, always
and for Bob Gottlieb
Thirty years.  Four books.  Thanks.
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(Introduction) The room on the first floor of the Barbourville County Courthouse in the little town of Eufala, Alabama, was normally the County Clerk's Office, but after it had closed for the day on August 2, 1957, it was being used by the county's Board of Registrars, the body that registered citizens so they could vote in elections - not that the Board was going to register any of the three persons who were applying that day, for the skin of these applicants was black.
The Chamber of the United States Senate was a long, cavernous space - over a hundred feet long.
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Master of the Senate, Book Three of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, carries Johnson's story through one of its most remarkable periods: his twelve years, from 1949 to 1960, in the United States Senate. At the heart of the book is its unprecedented revelation of how legislative power works in America, how the Senate works, and how Johnson, in his ascent to the presidency, mastered the Senate as no political leader before him had ever done.   It was during these years that all Johnson's experience--from his Texas Hill Country boyhood to his passionate representation in Congress of his hardscrabble constituents to his tireless construction of a political machine--came to fruition. Caro introduces the story with a dramatic account of the Senate itself: how Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun had made it the center of governmental energy, the forum in which the great issues of the country were thrashed out. And how, by the time Johnson arrived, it had dwindled into a body that merely responded to executive initiatives, all but impervious to the forces of change. Caro anatomizes the genius for political strategy and tactics by which, in an institution that had made the seniority system all-powerful for a century and more, Johnson became Majority Leader after only a single term-the youngest and greatest Senate Leader in our history; how he manipulated the Senate's hallowed rules and customs and the weaknesses and strengths of his colleagues to change the "unchangeable" Senate from a loose confederation of sovereign senators to a whirring legislative machine under his own iron-fisted control.   Caro demonstrates how Johnson's political genius enabled him to reconcile the unreconcilable: to retain the support of the southerners who controlled the Senate while earning the trust--or at least the cooperation--of the liberals, led by Paul Douglas and Hubert Humphrey, without whom he could not achieve his goal of winning the presidency. He shows the dark side of Johnson's ambition: how he proved his loyalty to the great oil barons who had financed his rise to power by ruthlessly destroying the career of the New Dealer who was in charge of regulating them, Federal Power Commission Chairman Leland Olds. And we watch him achieve the impossible: convincing southerners that although he was firmly in their camp as the anointed successor to their leader, Richard Russell, it was essential that they allow him to make some progress toward civil rights. In a breathtaking tour de force, Caro details Johnson's amazing triumph in maneuvering to passage the first civil rights legislation since 1875.   Master of the Senate, told with an abundance of rich detail that could only have come from Caro's peerless research, is both a galvanizing portrait of the man himself--the titan of Capital Hill, volcanic, mesmerizing--and a definitive and revelatory study of the workings and personal and legislative power.

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