A Monumental Man

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

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