Lyndon Johnson’s johnson was called Jumbo. He named it that himself. As a friend of mine pointed out, in olives, at least, jumbo is not the biggest size. LBJ was nevertheless generous in displaying Jumbo—to women, of course, and to men as well. Like Walt Whitman, he might have said, “There is that lot of me, and all so luscious.” He was also unselfish with other bodily functions. In the full flush of his egotism, a toilet for LBJ was just another seat of power, and he routinely conducted business from his porcelain throne.
All these details of the body are part of the intimate portrait of our thirty-sixth president by Robert Caro in the third installment of his magnum opus, The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Alfred A. Knopf), which was launched in 1982. Subtitled Master of the Senate (the sobriquet is borrowed from that old phrasemaker Doris Kearns Goodwin), it weighs in at a whopping 1,040 pages of text, with an additional 141 pages of sources and notes.
For almost a decade Caro “owned” Johnson, but in the past ten years or so new claimants have come forward. Robert Dallek’s Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960 and Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 cover much of the same territory as Caro but in a less compelling narrative style. A frequent talking-head historian on cable TV shows, Dallek is a favorite among the considerable number of Johnson loyalists who live in Austin, while the redoubtable Caro, with his darker, more damning view of LBJ, is Mr. Non Grata in some parts of Texas. Historian Michael R. Beschloss, another familiar face from TV, is giving us the actual private words of LBJ in—so far—two volumes of oral history, Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964 and Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965.
Thus Caro, whose new volume spans only twelve years, from Landslide Lyndon’s ascension to the Senate in 1949 to his departure in 1960 to serve