The Greatest Power Broker of Them All

By Richard S. Dunham

The Years of Lyndon Johnson


By Robert A. Caro

Knopf, 1,167pp, $35

Any reader of Robert A. Caro's mammoth and extraordinary The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate will be left with two overriding impressions. No. 1: LBJ was a beguiling character--so ruthless, ambitious, and ingenious that this hypercritical biographer has been able to get thousands of readers to spend countless hours during the past 20 years plowing through 2,540 pages on Johnson's life.

No. 2: Caro must be America's greatest living Presidential biographer. In this third volume on Johnson, he entrances us with both his words and his research. With due deference to David McCullough, no other contemporary biographer offers such a complex picture of the forces driving an American politician, or populates his work with such vividly drawn secondary characters. While some will find Caro's brand of idealistic liberalism a bit dated in these neo-con times, his scholarship will win over all but the most avid Johnson acolytes or retro-racists.

Master of the Senate chronicles LBJ's meteoric rise in Congress during the decade following his victory in the infamous stolen election of 1948. Caro documents how the junior senator from Texas succeeded by repeating his pattern of the past: forging fast friendships with powerful older men through flattery, rank obsequiousness, and persistent courtship. In his years of ascent, those mentors ranged from college deans to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In Caro's third volume, the lonely bachelors who become LBJ's father figures and political patrons are House Speaker Sam Rayburn, a prickly populist from the Red River Valley, and Richard Brevard Russell Jr., a courtly segregationist senator from Georgia.

Indeed, the central drama in Master of the Senate is the ugly battle for racial justice that scarred the nation in the decades following World War II. It focuses on two characters: Russell, leader of the racist Southern bloc in the Senate, and Hubert Humphrey, the former boy-wonder mayor of Minneapolis, who quickly becomes the leader of the left-wingers. Humphrey is a liberal hothead and an eloquent orator, whom Caro compares to William Jennings Bryan. But he's a pariah in a Senate Democratic caucus dominated by long-serving Southern segregationists who hate everything that Humphrey stands for--until LBJ convinces them that his friend Hubert is not such a bad guy after all. Russell is the Senate's most effective defender of "the lost cause" of the Confederacy. A cultivated patrician, he has only disdain for foul-mouthed Southern demagogues such as Mississippi's Senator Theodore G. Bilbo and Georgia's Governor Eugene Talmadge. But Russell is an avid white supremacist, and he uses his considerable parliamentary skills to frustrate the bipartisan legislative majority that wants to prod the Senate into the 20th century.

Like Johnson, both Russell and Humphrey aspire to the Presidency. Caro shows how LBJ seduces and uses both men in his rise to power. And that rise is impressive: With the blessing of Russell, Johnson becomes Senate Democratic Whip, the second-ranking leadership position, just two years into his first term. Two years later, at age 44, he becomes the youngest Senate Majority Leader in American history. Using the skills he learned from his brilliant mentors, LBJ then concentrates unprecedented powers in the leader's office, hoping to use his clout to become the first Southerner elected President since the Civil War.

In Caro's portrayal, Johnson is perhaps the most skilled politician on the mid-century American stage, although the author frequently reminds us that Johnson was a man of flexible principles whose overriding goal was to gain power. He placed his interests first, writes Caro. But "there were times when those interests coincided...with the highest of America's interests, the great liberal cause, the cause of social justice. And when they did, the cause advanced."

Caro describes how LBJ used guile and, occasionally, parliamentary tricks to expand public housing, increase the minimum hourly wage from 75 cents to $1.25, and smash the seniority system that denied institutional power to liberals. But his signal accomplishment was to pass the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. Granted, the 1957 voting-rights bill was so watered down that liberals cried betrayal. But Johnson, the sometime segregationist, managed to accomplish what no other lawmaker could--and what no Dixie Democrat had ever contemplated in those days of American apartheid.

Caro's extended discussion of the legislative maneuvering and backroom drama is adept. But the author is at his best when relating the impact of congressional action on Americans' lives. You can almost smell the musty offices in the Barbour County Courthouse in Eufala, Ala., as black citizens try in vain to register to vote. And you can feel the pain of Maud Olds after LBJ leads the savage confirmation fight against her husband, Federal Power Commission Chairman Leland Olds, in a heavy-handed attempt to curry favor with Texas utility companies.

At times, Caro's Johnson-loathing gets annoying. There's plenty of evidence LBJ sought a better life for the downtrodden, such as those living in the impoverished rural areas where he grew up--and not just for himself. Flaws and all, this massive book is difficult to put down.

Former Texas reporter Dunham has followed the Caro-Johnson saga since its beginning.

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