The Senate's most powerful man ever

Lyndon Johnson knew how to gather power humbly, and then exercise it brutally

For readers who have waited 4,300 days for the third volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the suspense is over. When the second volume appeared 12 years ago, the legendary biographer promised to return. So far, he's devoted about 25 years of his life to chronicling Johnson's. And we've still got the vice presidency, presidency, and post-presidency to look forward to.

Caro sees two threads running through the 65 years of Johnson's life (1908-1973). One Caro has termed the "bright thread," signifying Johnson's involvement in efforts to win equal rights for all, such as voting rights and other civil rights. The other is the "dark thread," representing Johnson's self-interested ruthlessness as he tried to dominate American politics.

With the publication of the second volume, Caro received the accolades that had started with his first book, "The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York" (1974). But he also received criticism for painting such an unrelievedly dark portrait of Johnson. The first volume had mingled the threads – it showed through Caro's compelling style how a boy growing up impoverished in a Texas Hill Country town got himself an education, became a compassionate rural schoolteacher, and then fulfilled his overweening ambition for a political career by winning a seat in the US House of Representatives at age 28.

The bright thread was absent in the second volume, which chronicled Johnson's 1948 dishonest race for the US Senate, a race involving millions of voters across the vast state of Texas but decided by 87 votes. Caro took readers where the evidence led, warning them in his introduction that the bright thread would disappear until the third volume.

In this latest hefty tome, he keeps that promise. We see more of Johnson's ruthlessness in his public and private lives, but some of that ruthlessness during his two terms in the US Senate led to positive public policy, especially changes for the better in civil rights for minority populations. Caro views Johnson's civil rights accomplishments as so significant that a comparison to Abraham Lincoln is apt.

The bright thread appears in relation not only to Johnson's policy accomplishments, but also to his genius as a political organizer. Every one of Caro's books has been a study in a particular kind of power. Nobody, Caro says, has accumulated and wielded legislative power more skillfully than Johnson. Nobody. Not before his Senate years of 1948-1960, and not since.

Caro provides plenty of context for that assertion, because this volume is a history of the Senate as well as a chronicle of Johnson's Senate years. Before Johnson arrived, Caro says, the Senate was a joke – a cruel joke. Seniority governed its deliberations, which gave an advantage to racist Southern senators who rarely faced a meaningful challenge once elected by the Caucasian portion of the populace. New members were supposed to stay quiet. In a supposedly democratic nation, democracy could not be found within the Senate chamber.

Johnson was frequently undemocratic when he reigned. As Caro writes, "Throughout Lyndon Johnson's life, in every institution of which he had been a part, a similar pattern had emerged: As he rose to power, he was humble – deferential, obsequious, in fact. And then, when the power was consolidated, solid, when he was in power and confident of staying there, he became, with dramatic speed and contrast, autocratic, overbearing, domineering." But, somehow, as an authoritarian, Johnson made democracy work for the overall citizenry.

Caro sets the stage for such a conclusion by opening with a painstakingly researched, beautifully written scene in which Johnson does not appear. Caro has shown himself to be a master at such asides, interspersing all his biographies with sections in which the main subject disappears for pages on end, only to tie the seemingly unrelated aside back to the life under study.

On Aug. 2, 1957, inside the Barbour County Courthouse, in Eufaula, Ala., Margaret Frost, a 38-year-old African-American woman, was hoping to register to vote, despite the racism of the locale. She knew the all-white Board of Registrar members would ask her difficult civics questions as a pretext for rejecting her application. So Frost studied long hours. She answered their questions correctly. But the board members turned her away anyway because a fellow applicant answered one question incorrectly.

How Caro connects the disenfranchisement of Margaret Frost to the beginning of Johnson's Senate career 800 miles to the northeast is masterly – and typical of his authorial genius.

But how many readers want to crack a book of genius if it's over 1,100 pages? Furthermore, those readers might wonder, is it vital to have completed the first two volumes – another 1,400 pages combined?

Those previous volumes are superb in their research and writing, but a newcomer won't be lost by jumping in here. Caro sprinkles references to Johnson's earlier years into the text and the endnotes. For example, when Johnson's mistress makes an appearance, the author harks back to the second volume, explaining how the relationship started and how it helped shape Johnson's world. Any reader wondering whether to pick up this latest epic can take solace in the knowledge that finishing it will be great preparation for the fourth volume.

• Steve Weinberg is the author of "Telling the Untold Story: How Investigative Reporters Are Changing the Craft of Biography" (University of Missouri Press, 1992).

"He would do anything he had to, to get that vote. Johnson once told a friend: 'I'm like a fox. I can see the jugular in any man and go for it, but I always keep myself in rein. I keep myself on a leash, just like you would an animal.' That self-assessment is only half true. Power corrupts ... but what is never said, but is just as true, is that power reveals."

– From "Master of the Senate"

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