LBJ at His Best and Worst

reviewed by Joe Rosenberg

The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate
Robert A. Caro, Knopf, 2002

Amateur psychologists acting as biographers are having a field day with the lives of the two Presidents who were caught knee deep in the Vietnam muddy, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Milhous Nixon. While Stephen Ambrose seems to have produced the most balanced books on Nixon and also Eisenhower, Robert A. Caro has the concession on the life of LBJ.

Mr. Caro’s latest installment covers Johnson’s Senate career in 1,049 fact-filled pages. A master storyteller, Caro cannot resist filling in the background of any major politician and government official whose path crosses our protagonist. In so doing, he shows Johnson at his best and worst as he evolves as a leader and man of compassion. Caro shows “Lyndon the ruthless” destroy Leland Olds, Federal Power Commissioner, at the behest of Texas and natural gas interests, and Lyndon the avatar showing the ropes to Hubert Humphrey and Frank Church. But those events are just preludes to Caro’s main drama.

What makes this book so compelling is how we see Johnson come to realize that the key to becoming President is finding a way to use Congressional action to enlarge the civil rights of its African-American citizens. Johnson took the best of his instincts and made his fellow southerners realize that resistance to some form of voter rights legislation was self-defeating. What Johnson accomplished in 1957 was a prelude of the Great Society. It was also a prelude to his methods of treating opposition. Leland Olds had his professional life destroyed and liberal Senators like Herbert Lehman and Paul Douglas were frozen out of influence, while bigots and racists like James Eastland and John Stennis were embraced.

As usual, Caro illuminates those whom history has forgotten: misguided men of conscience like Richard Russell and hard-working LBJ aides like George Reedy.

All of this is but a prelude to the next chapter in Caro’s series. From the depths of the ignored Vice Presidency to the JFK assassination and the Great Society, Caro is the biographer poised to open the sores of those who controlled Johnson and how they advanced his career. This book lays the groundwork for the future triumphs and tragedy, and shows a man who was capable of much good and unimaginable evil.

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This story was published on November 9, 2002.