paths-to-power

Review :

"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. When he became President, 16,000 American advisors were serving in Vietnam - in a war that was essentially a Vietnamese war. When he left the Presidency, 536,000 American combat troops were fighting in Vietnam's jungles, 30,000 Americans had died there, and the war had been "Americanized" - transformed into a war that would, before it was ended, exhaust America financially and soak up the blood of thousands upon thousands of young men; into a war abroad that at home caused civil disobedience that verged on civil insurrection; into a war that transformed America's image of itself as well as its image in the eyes of the world. Lyndon Johnson's full term as President began in triumph: the 1964 landslide that Theodore H. White calls "the greatest electoral victory that any man ever won in an election of free peoples." It ended - to the chant, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today" from a generation to whom he was the hated war maker - with his announcement that he would not again ask the nation to elect him its leader. The Great Society; Vietnam - the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson, only five years in span, was nonetheless a watershed in America's history, one of the great divides in the evolution of its foreign and domestic policies"
- Robert Caro, The Path to Power

Warning: Once you begin The Path to Power, the first volume in Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson, you can never go back. You will never again be able to read a biography without comparing that biography to this. You will never again read about a person's life without saying: Caro could have done this better. For me, the still-uncompleted series (up to four books now) comprises the greatest biography I have ever read.

It is not even a contest.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson is like a baby's first gulp of oxygen; it is like your first kiss; it is like scaling a mountain and looking down at everything around you.

It's that good. Seriously.

Any great biography has to begin with a great subject. Here, that subject is Lyndon Baines Johnson, a poor Texas boy born in the dry Hill Country, who went to a no-name teaching college, who taught Mexican kids on the border, who worked himself nearly to death to win a congressional seat, who likely stole his Senate seat, who became the most powerful Majority Leader in Senate history, who became an accidental president, who spent his life accumulating power, and then spent that power on civil rights, voting rights, and the poor, and who then broke himself on the rock of Vietnam.

William Manchester said of Douglas MacArthur: "He was a thundering paradox of a man."

So it could be said of Johnson. His complexities are titanic; the smallness within him was at constant war with the transcendent. He was crude, cruel, a money-grubber, quite possibly a lawbreaker. But he was there when the wheel turned on civil rights, when the dam in the Senate, shored up by a century of southern obstruction, broke.

He helped turn the wheel. He helped break that dam.

In this, the first volume, Caro spends a massive amount of time on Lyndon's family, his birth, and his upbringing. You know the parts of a man's life that the typical biographer spends between thirty and sixty pagers covering Caro devotes hundreds of pages. He dives into Lyndon's family history, especially his father, a Texas politician known for his hard work, his honesty, and his poverty.

A big chunk of The Path to Power is given over to bringing the Hill Country to life, because its problems formed a crucial part of Lyndon Johnson's psyche. Much of his drive, his ambition, his need to dominate, came from growing up in this hardscrabble land. In telling this tale, Caro employs elegantly structured prose and a deep reservoir of facts. "The Hill Country," he writes, "was a trap baited with water."

When first settled, during a wet period, newly-arrived pioneers thought this was a suitable place for farming. It was not. Instead, it was on a meteorological borderline that determined the fate of all who came to live there:

The line was an "isohyet" - a line drawn on a map so that all points along it have equal rainfall. This particular isohyet showed the westernmost limits in the United States along which the annual rainfall averages thirty inches; and a rainfall of thirty inches, when combined with two other factors - rate of evaporation (very high in the Hill Country), and seasonal distribution of rainfall (very uneven in the Hill Country, since most of it comes in spring or autumn thundershowers) - is the bare minimum needed to grow crops successfully. Even this amount of rainfall, "especially with its irregular seasonal distribution," is, the United States Department of Agriculture would later state, "too low" for that purpose. East of that line, in other words, farmers would prosper; west of it, they couldn't. And when, in the twentieth century, meteorologists began charting isohyets, they would draw the crucial thirty-inch isohyet along the 98th meridian - almost exactly the border of the Hill Country. At the very moment, in which settlers entered that country in pursuit of their dream, they unknowingly crossed a line which made the realization of that dream impossible. And since rainfall diminishes quite rapidly westward, with every step they took into the Hill Country, the dream became more impossible still.

What separates Caro from other biographers is that Lyndon's world is as important as Lyndon, both because he was shaped by it, and because later, he would do the shaping. Caro never got to interview Lyndon himself, and - as though to make up for this - he is fanatical about talking to everyone else. The result is a flood-tide of details, many of them quotidian, that show us Lyndon's development from the day of his birth.

Because this is a multivolume work, Caro is able to expand his view, giving us long digressions on the other stars in Lyndon's orbit. There is, for example, an entire chapter on Sam Rayburn that is almost worth the original hardcover price alone. When Caro discusses Lyndon's attempt to push rural electrification for the Hill Country folk, he does it by taking us through the life of a Hill Country woman, and how much water she needed to haul and boil every day to cook and clean. Caro does not tell - he shows. Not only does he show, but he delivers incredible narrative set-pieces that put you right in the moments, big and small, that shaped Lyndon's journey.

My two biggest complaints in any biography are this: Lack of inner knowledge on who the subject is as a person; and lack of context. These are two facets at which Caro directs a laser focus.

One of the things that surprised me when I first read this was Caro's barely-concealed disdain for Johnson (which is even more striking in the second volume). I've thought about it a lot, since it is such a strange phenomena. Most of the time, a biographer tends to be sympathetic to his or her subject, even if that subject happens to be a terrible person. It is only natural. After all, if you are a writer, you are probably not going to spend years of your life researching someone you find absolutely abhorrent or without redeeming virtue (biographers of Hitler and Stalin excepted, of course).

Upon reflection, though, maybe Caro's skepticism is a good thing. It might be, in fact, the only way to get to the unknowable core of Lyndon Johnson.

The Path to Power ends on the verge of Lyndon's infamous U.S. Senate race against Coke Stevenson, a race that is covered exhaustively in Means of Ascent, the second volume in the series.

When you finish, you will find yourself reaching immediately for that next entry. You will want to read it, and read it quickly. If anything slows you down, it will be the knowledge that once you have finished it, you can never read it for the first time again.

Lyndon B. Johnson is a gargantuan figure in American history. Caro is his equal as scribe.


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