A Monumental Man

Robert Caro's evocative biography of Lyndon Johnson hits the mark on a forgotten Texas but misses the real LBJ.

January 1983By Comments

Illustration by Mark Weakley

Lyndon Johnson did not make life easy for his biographers. He laid false trails and destroyed true ones – even going to the extreme of arranging the removal of unflattering pages from college yearbooks – and surrounded himself with people so loyal that to this day they will not talk to interviewers without the blessing of his widow. Most of all, though, Johnson has defied definition simply by overpowering researchers with a presence that, in the words of his latest chronicler, Robert Caro, “seemed at times to brood, big-eared, big-nosed, huge, over the entire American political landscape.” The shelves are full of Johnson biographies – everything from J. Evetts Haley’s polemical A Texan Looks at Lyndon to the recent efforts by Merle Miller, George Reedy, and Ronnie Dugger – but not until Caro’s long-awaited first of three volumes, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, does Texas’ first president come alive on the page and the mystery of what made him both a mighty force and a controversial symbol through four decades of American politics begin to be solved.

Ordinarily that would be high praise. But The Path to Power was meant to be more. Seven years in the making, the work of a Pulitzer-prize winning biographer, 882 pages long, exhaustively researched, excerpted at length in the Atlantic to nationwide publicity, this book was conceived by its author as the definitive work on Lyndon Johnson, the book that would not just begin to solve the mysteries but would solve all of them for all time. In that it falls short, and not by a little. Robert Caro has produced a great book – full of unforgettable scenes, tense drama, piquant details, and original history – but in the end it must be judged as biography, and as biography it rates no more than fair. Nobody tells a story better than Caro, but biography is more than storytelling; it is also analysis. And Caro’s analysis suffers from two serious infirmities. One is a deep-seated hostility toward the complicated world of Texas politics that bred Lyndon Johnson, whom Caro regards as the instrument of “the robber barons of this century [who] have drained the earth of the Southwest of its riches and have used those riches to bend government to their ends.” The other problem is Caro’s excessive reliance upon the theme laid out in the opening scene of the introduction.

It is, admittedly, a wonderful scene. Told to Caro by Brown & Root’s George Brown, who was there, it has then-congressman Johnson, poor but desperate not to be, turning down a proffered share in some oil wells because, he says, it would kill him politically. For what office, Brown wonders to himself, would having oil properties kill a Texas politician? And then he realizes there is only one: the presidency. Time after time Caro returns to the major and minor premises of the anecdote: (1) Johnson always knew he wanted to be president, and (2) everything he did was designed to propel him toward that one goal. Consequently Caro’s Johnson is a man “unencumbered by philosophy or ideology,” a man hungry “for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them,” a man so determined to realize his ambition that “no consideration of morality or ethics, no cost to himself – of anyone else – could stand before it.”

Not even Robert Caro’s immense writing skills can restrain Lyndon Johnson within this narrow framework. Time after time Johnson surfaces – almost despite Caro rather than because of him – as a more complex and even more decent person than the words themselves admit. In the end Caro is ensnared in his own superstructure: too often he stretches his proof or warps his analysis in order to pull Johnson back inside the confines of that one anecdote. Even as Caro dwells on the dark side of Lyndon Johnson – his blatant defiance of his father as a boy, his manipulation of campus politics in college, his shameless flattering of those over him and his equally shameless exploitation of those under him, to name a few – the feeling grows that there is more to this man than Caro is letting on.

The Johnson of The Path to Power is rarely likeable, frequently malevolent, occasionally sympathetic, but always competent, astonishingly competent. We see him at seventeen, studying law in California under the tutelage of a cousin, somehow managing to keep the office functioning while his mentor is away on a two-month drinking spree – a runaway who had never been outside the Hill Country nonetheless able to advise clients to their satisfaction. We see him teaching at a Mexican school in Cotulla, and he is the best teacher that ever taught there. We see him coaching high school debate in Houston, and he is the best debate coach that Texas had ever seen. We see him as a congressional aide, so skilled at obtaining patronage that his boss – a representative lacking influence, seniority, or much interest in his work – ends up dispensing more New Deal jobs than any other congressman; he was the best there, too. We see him at 25, still a lowly aide, beating the vice president of the United States in a skirmish over patronage. We see him as a New Deal administrator, the state director of the best National Youth Administration program in the country. We see him as the most successful political fundraiser since Mark Hanna half a century before. And we see him as a congressman – as Caro writes, quoting veteran New Deal political operative Tommy Corcoran, “the best congressman for a district there ever was.”

Caro is the first biographer to make clear just how able the young Lyndon Johnson really was, even if his acknowledgement remains unspoken at times and grudging at others. But the reader is left to wonder how this Lyndon Johnson jibes with the Johnson of the book’s central thesis. Was it ambition alone that made him the first debate coach to tour the state in search of opponents? Was it ambition alone that made him go from town to town buttonholing farmers, trying to convince them that they must somehow find the $5 for an electrical hookup? The Johnson of those stories has a passion and a commitment that belie Caro’s main argument.

When the first part of the book, the Texas part, isn’t trying to hammer home the lessons of the opening anecdote, Robert Caro is at his best. Using obscure but firsthand sources (he even found the man who cut Johnson’s hair in San Marcos) and little details that give the presentation the ring of authority (he describes the way Johnson ducked into doorways to comb his hair whenever an influential person approached – and the color of the comb), Caro has, in the best sense of the phrase, rewritten history. The Lyndon Johnson of earlier books, who admired his Populist father, who followed his mother’s teachings, who was a popular campus figure in San Marcos, is altogether different in The Path to Power. Because Caro will probably be the last biographer to interview Johnson’s now-aging contemporaries, his view will be the one that survives. And that view is not only of Johnson but also of the other main character in the book, Texas itself – the Texas of the teens and twenties and thirties. This is the rural Texas of Pa Ferguson and kneepads for picking cotton and wood stoves that had to be fed all day, even in the searing summer heat; the Texas that was an economic and psychological colony of the Northeast; the Texas before electricity, the Texas before oil.

Read Caro’s chapter on Southwest Texas State Teachers College and you will understand the depth of feeling in rural Texas even today about education as a political issue, and why Texas is still at the bottom nationally for college tuition. Caro takes us back to enrollment day, 1927, when students from nonaccredited high schools came to San Marcos to beg admission, knowing as Lyndon Johnson knew that this was their one chance to escape a life of physical toil. Read the chapter on Lyndon Johnson’s first campaign and you will understand something of the mystique of the highways in Texas, for Caro writes of the terrible isolation of the Hill Country when Johnson searched out voters farm by farm, turning off the main highway onto roads that were unpaved and ungraded and then cutting off onto other roads that were mere paths into the hills, looking for someone to take his message to.

All of these influences helped shaped Lyndon Johnson, but by far the greatest was the Hill Country itself, the land that during his presidency would become known for its idyllic beauty. But the reality of the Hill Country for young Lyndon was altogether different, for Caro shows how it broke not only the finances but also the spirits of men, including Johnson’s father. “The fire in which he had been shaped – that terrible youth in the Hill Country” forged Johnson for all time: the iron will, the driving energy and ambition of a man “fleeing from something dreadful,” the need to dominate others and bend them to his will.

Unfortunately, the book does not consistently reach the same heights in dealing with Johnson’s life as an elected politician. There are still wonderful passages, even wonderful chapters – most notably, the haunting story of bringing electricity to the Hill Country. But while Caro has learned some aspects of Texas very well – its land, its people – he has been less adept at learning its politics. The second half of the book, the political part, is most successful when it is not about Lyndon Johnson.

Caro is particularly unconvincing in making three charges against Johnson stick: that he was a poor congressman, that he was treacherous to his friends, and that he lacked any political philosophy. The chapter evaluating Johnson’s performance as a congressman uses standards straight out of a high school civics text – “a legislator is a maker of laws” – leading Caro to condemn Johnson for not introducing more bills of national significance and, believe it or not, for failing to insert remarks into the Congressional Record. Caro compares Johnson unfavorably to Maury Maverick, his San Antonio colleague and friend, who headed a group of young congressmen that met every week to discuss strategy “for confounding the House’s conservative leadership.”

But there are other ways to play the game. As a freshman, Lyndon Johnson gained entrée to an after-hours drinking group composed of then-majority leader Sam Rayburn and Rayburn’s peers in power. Which was more important – to meet with Maverick’s dissidents or with the power structure no freshman had ever been so close to? As a result of this relationship with Rayburn, Johnson was also invaluable to young New Dealers in the White House, among whom he had a reputation as “a great counter” in predicting votes. Which was more important – to introduce bills or to help the president’s bills pass? Because of his contacts, he succeeded in getting for his district a dam that was in desperate political and legal trouble, and, subsequently, rural electrification aid for which the district was not technically eligible. Which was more important – to have speeches in the Congressional Record or to be “the best congressman for a district that there ever was”?

Caro, of course, attributes Johnson’s unwillingness to be a highly visible, ideologically committed congressman to his ever-present ambition (“The House seat was only a staging area; it was not the destination at the end of that road . . . No matter how safe a particular stand might seem now, no matter how politically wise, that stand might come back to haunt him someday.”) But there is another, simpler explanation. The kind of congressman Robert Caro admires would have been an outsider with no access to the leadership, no intimacy to Rayburn, no alliance with the White House, no dam, no electricity, and no political future – not just for the presidency or a Senate race but even in the House. Sure, Lyndon Johnson was consumed with ambition. But ambition was not the only fuel that powered the engine. He was an insider not only because of ambition but because he understood the game. To write of Johnson that “colleagues committed to causes began to regard him with something akin to scorn” is to miss the essence of Lyndon Johnson, which is that he returned the favor.

The book’s view of Johnson as a backstabber lies behind one of its more sensational – and dubious – chapters. Caro tries to show that the young congressman turned on Rayburn, his political godfather, in order to advance himself politically. Although Caro’s mini-biography of Rayburn earlier in the book is a masterpiece, this account of the 1940 presidential campaign – when Rayburn found himself obligated to his old Texas friend, Vice President Jack Garner, who was challenging Roosevelt’s renomination – fails to deliver the goods. Caro charges that Johnson, acting through allies running the Roosevelt campaign in Texas, exploited Rayburn’s dilemma by trying to discredit him in Roosevelt’s eyes; the object, Caro says, was for Johnson to emerge as the president’s man in Texas, especially in the awarding of federal defense contracts.

As Caro concedes, however, Rayburn was never interested in political spoils like contracts or patronage and thus was not a rival for the role Johnson coveted. Nor does Caro demonstrate that Johnson’s Texas allies were acting at his direction and for his benefit. In fact, they were powerful and ambitious men with an agenda of their own in a fight that was for high stakes quite apart from Lyndon Johnson’s future – their own influence and control over the state Democratic party for years to come. The whole notion of a plot against Rayburn is based on Caro’s interpretation of telegrams sent by Johnson’s allies – subtle inferences that would be worthy of a State Department diplomat poring over the latest communiqué from the Kremlin. But Caro only sees the absence of a smoking gun as further evidence of Johnson’s deep cunning. The entire chapter is the work of an author reasoning backward from his own thesis: everything Johnson did was designed to advance himself toward the presidency; therefore, if he advanced, he must have planned it that way.

Finally, and most seriously, Caro fails to shed light on what is the central question about this most elusive public figure of our time: did Johnson really believe in anything other than expediency? Caro’s answer, of course, is an unequivocal no. Johnson’s ambition, he writes, was “unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of philosophy, of principles, of beliefs.”

But the rhetoric outweighs the proof. Amazingly, considering the magnitude of Caro’s research, he cites only one vote in the entire book: Johnson’s aye in 1943 to continue funding for the House Un-American Activities Committee. That, Caro says, was a sign that Johnson’s abandonment of New Deal principles and programs had begun, and his onetime liberal allies recognized it as such. Maybe they did, but he vote shouldn’t have come as any surprise – Johnson had voted the same way in 1940 and 1941, while he was running for the Senate as a New Dealer. But you won’t find those votes in the book. Nor will young find a mention of Johnson’s crucial vote in 1938 for the first minimum wage bill, which was highly unpopular in Texas. Anything that doesn’t support Caro’s thesis is omitted.

Caro never explores the vast middle ground between believing in nothing and being a committed ideologue; just as with Johnson’s personality, he sacrifices nuance for dramatic effect. To Caro it is “symbolic proof” of Johnson’s lack of principle that in one summer he could work simultaneously as a congressional aide to Richard Kleberg, one of the most conservative members of Congress, and as campaign adviser to liberal Maury Maverick. To seasoned politicians, this is symbolic proof only that Caro doesn’t understand politics. Alliances like that one occur all the time, especially when the principals, like Kleberg and Maverick, are friends. The game transcends ideology.

The Path to Power never does. If only Robert Caro had been able to overcome his good-guys-and-bad-guys view of politics, he could have seen that Lyndon Johnson, while certainly not an ideologue, nevertheless was of a piece, a logically consistent political figure. But Caro can’t forgive him for taking money from oilmen and Brown & Root, “the robber barons of the Southwest”; he can’t forgive him for allowing the big economic interests to be a part of his political universe instead of fighting them the way his father and Sam Rayburn once did.

Had Caro understood the politics of Texas as well as he understood its history, he would have seen that Johnson’s relationship with those interests provided the clue to his philosophy. Lyndon Johnson was a New Deal liberal only in the sense that he believed in a strong central government that helped people. He never shared the liberalism of those New Dealers who viewed politics as an extension of a class struggle: he was not for labor against capital or for a wholesale redistribution of income for its own sake. Those threads were consistent throughout his entire life. Lyndon Johnson can only be understood as a Texas politician; while his ambitions were national, his philosophy was thoroughly Texan. He was the only politician to survive the transition of Texas from a rural to an urban state; he survived it because he saw it coming – and welcomed it. Johnson came to power in an era when Texas was still a province. He was friendly with Dr. Bob Montgomery, the UT economics professor who hated the big Northeast corporations and told everyone who would listen that Texas was the largest colony owned by Manhattan. Another Johnson mentor, Austin power broker Alvin Wirtz, shared the same viewpoint; he regarded the 1940 fight for Roosevelt against Garner as a war against the Wall Street bankers. Johnson likewise regarded the Northeast as the enemy, whether it was Wall Street or the Kennedy liberals; and it follows that the big Texas interests, insofar as they were countervailing forces, were in Johnson’s cosmology on the side of the angels. To Lyndon Johnson, the “robber barons of the Southwest” were not robber barons at all; they were liberators of colonial Texas.

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