The Years of Lyndon Johnson

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Lyndon Johnson was first elected to the United States Senate in 1948. In that year, the Senate was, as it had been for decades, an institution where tradition was king, custom ruled, and change came, when it came at all, with infinite slowness. Power, in the form of chairmanships, choice committee assignments, and even the right to speak with authority, was gained through seniority and seniority alone. The sheer number of years a man (and aside from Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, they were all men, white men) spent in the Senate was the sole measure of his eligibility for the perks and powers of office, and woe to the upstart who sought a benefit or took to the Senate floor before he had been properly seasoned.

Seniority was power and a weapon, but in the small world of ninety-six senators (Alaska and Hawaii had not yet achieved statehood) there were other weapons, and none was greater than the filibuster. Through tradition, senators jealously guarded their right to almost unlimited debate upon any subject. Unless two-thirds of the Senate voted for cloture, debate could not be stopped and a small band of determined senators—or even a single senator, if he possessed the determination and stamina—could effectively halt all legislation. Nowhere was the filibuster and the threat of filibuster used more consistently and effectively than by the senators from the South in their unyielding struggle against any and every civil rights bill. So potent was the filibuster in their hands, and so powerful were they because of their seniority, that although they constituted a minority of the body, they effectively ruled the Senate. The leader of the South, and in many ways the leader of the entire Senate, was Richard Russell, senior senator from Georgia.

This was the place where Lyndon Johnson arrived in January, 1949, to be sworn in as the junior senator from Texas. At forty- one, Johnson was relatively young and, although he had served in the House of Representatives since 1937, he had no seniority in the Senate. However, he moved quickly, adopting Richard Russell as his mentor and favoring the older man, a life-long bachelor, with almost constant attention and lavish flattery. As a Texan, Johnson naturally allied himself with the southern senators and became one of Russell’s key lieutenants in blocking civil rights legislation year after year. Impatient with the seniority system and unable to bide his time, Johnson at once threw himself into the hard work of understanding the Senate and his fellow senators. A shrewd, natural reader of human beings and a phenomenally gifted politician, Johnson knew what it would take to change a senator’s mind, secure his vote, or retain his loyalty. He was seemingly unimpressed by ideals: Bills passed, not speeches made, was Lyndon Johnson’s criteria of legislative success. He became a master of campaign finance, knowing where hefty contributions could be found and channeling them to his supporters in the Senate.

As a result, Lyndon Johnson moved ahead in the Senate with phenomenal speed. In 1951, he was named Democratic whip, his party’s second-in-command in the Senate. Four years later, he was elected to the post of minority leader and, in 1955, when the Democrats regained control of the Senate by a narrow margin, Johnson assumed the post of majority leader.

Still, as Robert Caro points out, the position of majority leader carried with it no inherent powers of its own and was, in many ways, as much a danger as an honor. Since the majority leader could not appoint committee members or name committee chairmen (seniority alone determined that) and lacked even the authority to assign office space (another of the seemingly endless perks of seniority) he had little power to punish or reward. Even his leadership responsibilities were not backed by sufficient resources, since committee chairman (the “barons,” as Caro calls them) determined when bills would be reported out of their committee to the full Senate.

By the time he became majority leader, Lyndon Johnson had already begun to overcome the difficulties he faced and secure the powers he needed. His close association with Russell and his dedication to the fight against civil rights legislation had gained him the solid backing of the southern senators, yet he managed to retain the respect (sometimes grudging) of the more liberal northern members. He worked well across the aisle with his Republican counterparts without alienating the Democratic leadership. Most tellingly of all, he gained power in the traditional, if often underused fashion of legislative leaders: He read all the bills, knew all the arguments, and kept track of all the details. Early in his service as Democratic whip, Johnson was master of the intricacies of the legislative process, knowing better than committee chairmen the status of their bills and,...

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The Years of Lyndon Johnson

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1982, Robert Caro published the first volume of a projected three-volume biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. That first volume, subtitled The Path to Power; traced Johnson’s family history and recounted his early years and growing ambitions. In the second volume, Means of Ascent (Caro now says he may need four volumes to tell the whole story), the narrative picks up where the first volume ended, in 1941.

Caro’s work-in-progress is a distinguished example of a new class of biography, which in recent years has recaptured the methods and intent of the classical biography of ancient Greece and Rome. The ancient biographers, most notably Plutarch of Chaeronea, were moralists, anxious to edify as well as entertain their audiences. They filled out portraits of their subjects through a subtle blend of narrative and anecdote. In Plutarch’s skillful hands, ancient statesmen and generals became exemplars of virtue and vice, models of proper public behavior for students of his and succeeding generations. Ancient biography still makes compelling reading, but the relation of these portraits to the actual characters of their subjects remains problematic.

For Robert Caro, and others like him, such as Roger Morris, author of Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician (1989), biography is once again an instrument with which to inculcate civic virtue. These authors are obsessed with a vision of the decay of American institutions. They regard modern mass politics, with its reliance on messages and imagery communicated by the media, as a degradation of public discourse in America. In their eyes, men such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, who created and then dominated modern American political history, are poor successors to the statesmen of earlier generations. But these authors’ tale of corruption extends beyond the political realm. For writers such as Caro, the people get the leaders they deserve. Politicians such as Johnson and Nixon rose with the support of the people, their achievements reflecting perversely the deterioration of American citizenship. There could have been no debasement of the political system without a major spiritual crisis affecting the whole of American society.

Thus Caro’s Means of Ascent is as much jeremiad as biography or history. In his hands Lyndon Johnson, like the subject of an ancient biography, is exhibited as an exemplum, rather than as a man. Caro makes only a half-hearted effort to present a balanced assessment of Lyndon Johnson. He begins the book with a dramatic recounting of the day in March, 1965, when President Johnson threw his administration behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson’s embrace of the Civil Rights movement would have far-reaching consequences for American society, and must be accounted one of the noblest initiatives ever undertaken by an American president. Johnson’s swing toward the cause of civil rights was more than a calculated political maneuver. Johnson had long sympathized with the underprivileged of American society. In his early years as a schoolteacher, he had gone out of his way to help his poverty- stricken and officially neglected Mexican pupils. As a New Deal congressman, he had worked with enthusiasm to better the lot of his constituents. Caro concedes that this was a bright thread running through Johnson’s character. But he takes pains to point out that a dark thread ran alongside the bright one. Caro juxtaposes Johnson’s speech on voting rights for blacks with his commitment of American ground troops to Vietnam the following month. Soon many of the same people who cheered Johnson’s pursuit of equal rights were bitterly protesting the war in Southeast Asia. Johnson’s conduct of the war would be characterized by a persistent pattern of lying to the American public. This lying, and the war it obfuscated, squandered America’s moral authority and created the famous “credibility gap.” Indeed, Caro believes that Johnson’s legacy was the undermining of the American people’s faith in the presidency, ushering in a period of widespread cynicism regarding American institutions. Caro regards the Vietnam War, and the moral pollution it engendered in America, as a truer expression of Johnson’s character and statesmanship than the Great Society.

Thus the real task of Caro’s biographical enterprise is to trace the trail of Lyndon Johnson’s corruption. This he continues to accomplish with indefatigable thoroughness and obsessive detail. Caro has spent fourteen years thus far on his project, and has combed archives and interviewed dozens of people to accumulate an impressive array of facts and anecdotes. Caro is a skillful writer, and he has masterfully organized his voluminous material into a fast-paced and highly readable narrative. Means of Ascent concentrates on a relatively brief period in Lyndon Johnson’s life, from 1941 through 1948, when his political career hung in the balance and his life reached a turning point. In Caro’s estimation, these were the years when the dark thread in Johnson’s life overshadowed the bright one, and he set out on the course which would ultimately lead to the Vietnam War, personal failure, and national trauma.

Caro declares in his introduction that Lyndon Johnson had a “seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit, deception and betrayal.” The rest of this lengthy book is simply an extended illustration of this assertion. For Caro, the touchstone of Johnson’s character was ambition. Johnson’s great failing was to surrender principle and policy to his overweening egotism, making him, ultimately, a moral monster.

Lyndon Johnson’s hunger for advancement resulted from a traumatic childhood. For the first decade of his life, Johnson enjoyed the comforts of a middle-class upbringing. His father, Sam Johnson, served six terms in the Texas legislature, winning a reputation for idealism and devotion to the best interests of his constituents. An ill-advised business venture proved Sam Johnson’s undoing. The Johnsons were ruined financially, and Sam Johnson swiftly lost the approbation of his neighbors and became an object...

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