I realize that we are way behind, but we must push on…
Just a few thoughts after reading the Rayburn chapter:
We are supposed to be struck by the similarity between Samuel Taliaferro Rayburn and Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr. But I was also struck by the differences. Rayburn was Southerner in many ways that Sam Johnson was not. I don’t get the impression that Johnson loved Robert E. Lee and hated Abraham Lincoln quite as much. Rayburn did not frequent the whorehouses on Congress Street, and he was a much more effective politician and arguably did become a much bigger man than Joe Bailey. He was also perhaps a much less tragic human being, his dying single and childless notwithstanding.
Parts of his career mirror more closely that of the younger Johnson. Johnson also had plans to advance very quickly, biding his time before he would reach the constitutionally mandated 25 years of age to be a Representative. Even after he entered Congress, he would have to wait, in despair, for years before a Senate seat opened up.
After a rough few hundred pages of background, family history and youth, this is where The Path to Power hits its stride — and in fact this week’s chapters cover a great range of topics. The first chunk is about Lyndon Johnson’s first years in Washington underscored by the New Deal legislation of the era; while the last two chapters are portraits of two extremely important people in Johnson’s life, Lady Bird Johnson and Sam Rayburn. Frankly, I’m much more interested in the first chunk, so I’ll make that the subject of this post — and then do follow-up notes for chapters 17 and 18 to keep content flowing over Christmas.
We pick up as Johnson arrives in Washington to begin his new job as a congressional secretary, and the image is one of a young man (LBJ is twenty-three at this point) with very little potential to succeed: He doesn’t know the city, doesn’t know its institutions, have never really worked in politics — and moreover, his Congressman is newly elected, junior and disinterested in the work.
Over and over though, Johnson manages to combine his impatience with a skill for using his limited resources as a positive rather than an negative. I love the stories of the young, green LBJ running up Capitol Hill. Literally sprinting to the office, not wanting to waste a single second more than necessary on such silly challenges as transportation. (Caro, by the way, loves this image as much as I do. It’s a story he will tell in different incarnations over and over to illustrate Johnson’s impatience and rush to succeed.)
There’s a constant drive in Caro’s storytelling. Almost every page in these chapters has Johnson in over his head (piles of letters, no knowledge of his secretarial duties, desperately poor, no valuable connections, no experience with the district he’s serving, no network in Texas, no available help to return for the pleas in letters, …) and every point is resolved through Johnson’s relentless personality:
He had always done every job “as if his life depended on it.” Believing that “if you do absolutely everything you could do, you would succeed,” he has tried to perform perfectly — even minor task that no one else bothered with.
It makes for a great portrayal of Johnson’s character, but it becomes tedious at times — and I wonder if this pattern is thrust onto events for the sake of the story?
Caro admires Political Johnson, and many of the anecdotes in the first few chapters do describe a master in the making. For example, when Johnson out-manoeuvres the Vice-president. Or when he manages to use his political skills to navigate a New Deal policy and single-handedly save sixty-seven family farms. In looking at the telling of stories like these it’s hard to read Caro as unfair to LBJ; and in fact I can worry at times that we’re getting a simplified story for the sake of narrative, leaving out the caveats in order to sustain a single-sided image:
Four hundred and thirty-five Congressional districts: among them districts represented by Congressmen of long seniority whose favor even a President had to court; among them districts represented by Congressmen who chaired powerful committees; among them districts represented by Congressmen who were allies of the New Deal; among them districts represented by Congressmen who worked hard for their districts. Few districts fared better under the New Deal’s programs than this district with a junior Congressman who opposed the New Deal, a Congressman who seldom visited his office — this district whose only asset on Capitol Hill was a young secretary who worked for it with a frantic, frenzied, almost desperate aggressiveness and energy.
Personal Johnson, on the other hand, balances between an abusive and a sycophantic character; whichever is best suited for his personal ambition (this was also touched in the comments from last week). In this version, Johnson isn’t just a reader of men, but also an abuser of them — and he consciously seeks out week-willed people for him to dominate. In these pages, the differences between his relationships to Latimer and Jones are fleshed out to prove the point, and were left with little doubt about how The Chief are using his subordinates to further his own goals. His other side, the deference to men of power and his abilities as a personal son show the same character trait, only with different tactics.
Similarly, Personal Johnson seems to be secondary to Political Johnson when it comes to conviction: In these years, LBJ confirms to himself that ideals are an obstacle to ambition: “He never took strong positions, positions where you knew where Lyndon stood. […] He was only interested in himself and what could help himself.”
Finally, the Little Congress is an early example of what I love about these biographies: How Johnson manages to transform dormant institutions and build power for himself. To me, this is Political Johnson as his best: He captures an institution which is little more than a social club; restates its purpose and rewrites its rules — only to use it for himself to climb the next step on the Washington ladder.
Johnson giving dictation on the toilet is one of the most told stories about his time in the White House, and its genesis is revealed here. I wonder if anyone has tried to emulate this tactic?
Johnson felt that coffee would distract Latimer and Jones — not only making the coffee, but also the small act of drinking it would waste valuable time.
“Burn this — others probably won’t understand the personal references” is a great way to end personal correspondence.
(I know what the schedule says, but I didn’t finish chapter 13 yet; sorry!)
We are only a fraction of the way through The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and all the major themes of the series have now been established, including, I can only assume, the yet unpublished volumes.
Lyndon Johnson is lazy and petulant, but will pull himself together when it’s really necessary, when he has to teach for a year in Cotulla to have any hope of advancement or when he has his first serious health scare: “Once Lyndon Johnson fully understood the reality of his circumstances, he wouldn’t go on fighting them” (but not a moment before?).
Lyndon Johnson craves power beyond all else, even when he doesn’t really know what to do with it. This is true at Southwest Texas State Teachers College and it will, to some extent, be true in the House of Representatives and the Senate: “He had won believing in nothing—without a reform he wanted to make, without a principle or issue about which he truly cared.” Even when he finally has complete control over student politics at San Marcos, money-obsessed Lyndon Johnson will not give himself one of the best political jobs because they are too valuable as a political tool.
To attain power, Lyndon Johnson will often create it where none existed. He invented student politics at San Marcos, to no particular end beyond his own career: “If he hadn’t done the politicking and maneuvering, he couldn’t have been outstanding,” Edward Puis tells us.
Lyndon Johnson will steal elections.
Lyndon Johnson will relentlessly kiss the asses of more powerful men—Prexy Evans, Sam Rayburn, FDR, Richard Russell—and play the “professional son” to achieve his ends.
Lyndon Johnson will only have attained power when he has complete control over an institution.
It was a pretty vicious operation for a while. They lost everything I could have them lose. It was my first real big dictat——Hitlerized—operation, and I broke their back good. And it stayed broke for a good long time.
In my reading only Johnson’s liberalism is less than fully established at this point, even after the year in Cotulla. Did I miss anything?
Our biographer opens his work at the beginning—chronologically as we were promised in the introduction. Not with our subject’s childhood or the particular circumstances that shaped it, but really with the place and times of his grandfather’s generation.
I find this 100-page mini-history of the Hill Country fascinating, but is it really worth it and necessary to understand Lyndon Johnson and advance the broader goals Caro sets forth in the introduction? (In a few months we might ask the same question about the 100-page mini-biographies of Richard Brevard Russell and Hubert Horatio Humphrey.) The Hill Country does not fit into our traditional understanding of both the American South, with its plantations and cotton, and the West, with its freedom and opportunity. It’s made quite clear to us how poor its inhabitants are, which is probably why the Hill Country was so much more receptive to the People’s Party and its crypto-socialist message than other areas of the country.
In addition to the roots of Lyndon Johnson’s liberalism—we could call it the Johnson strain in LBJ’s political identity—the stage is also set for the flipside of his political identity, the Southern conservative part, not just in the introduction but in the very first sentence of chapter 1. This will be better resolved in Master of the Senate, but we are meant to be impressed when when Lyndon’s white-haired grandfather rides around exclaims “A United States Senator was born this morning!” In any other part of the country a grandfather might predict that the new-born would be president, but because Lyndon Johnson was, despite what we learn about the Hill Country and its 30-inch isohyet, still a southerner, and United States Senator was the highest office a southerner could hope to attain.
In most of the 20th century, being from the South was limiting, being from the Hill Country even more so—which is why Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., would never reach higher office than the Texas House of Representatives—and LBJ would eventually break free of those limits, but it would take a long time to fully break free of the oilmen who financed his political career and the considerable lengths he would have to go to advance it, the Bunton strain of the political LBJ.
What exactly does the Macbeth quote at the beginning mean?
William Jennings Bryan argued in the Cross of Gold speech for bimetallism, which in the language of modern economics was a policy to credibly increase the money supply in order to stop deflation and promote growth. We are essentially engaged in the same economic debate today.
Caro draws a lot of his Texas and Hill Country history from T.R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star, which I wholeheartedly recommend. Rick Perry recently got in trouble for distorting Fehrenbach’s comparison between Texas and Israel.
There seems to be a suggestion that many Hill Country kids were very smart and if they had had better science labs and fewer excellent civics teachers in the schools, LBJ might have been a scientists. Hm.
All this talk about Johnson’s physical cowardice and petulant behavior will come up again.
What should we make of all this fuss about ear-pulling and nickels?
Welcome to the book club everyone. Let’s use this thread to introduce ourselves. My name is Guan and I am a graduate student living in New York. I first read Master of the Senate years ago, then I read Path and Means later. I visited the LBJ Presidential Library and his ranch in January 2008.
My own exposure to Caro and LBJ began several years after Master was published, and I read the most positive treatment first. As I read reviews of Caro’s books, I am nonetheless surprised at the negative reaction from the circle surrounding LBJ, Lady Bird and the staff at the LBJ Library, and the general perception that Caro was overly critical of LBJ. It’s perfectly reasonable to see Means of Ascent and parts of The Path to Power as a portrayal of a flawed character, but rereading the introduction to Path, it is hard to see Robert Caro as anything but a deep admirer of Lyndon Baines Johnson. He is, after all, the biographer who wrote:
The story of Lyndon Johnson is the story of the great dams that tamed the rivers of the West, and turned their waters into electric power—for it was because of Lyndon Johnson that great dams were built in the Hill Country. And the story of Lyndon Johnson is the story of the electric wires … for it was Lyndon Johnson who brought those wires to the Hill Country.
What were the demands for railroad and bank regulation, for government loans, for public-works projects, but an expression of a belief that after man have banded together and formed a government, they have a right, when they are being crushed by conditions over which they have no control, to ask that government to extend a helping hand to them—if necessary, to fight for them, to be their champion?
They had asked too early, that was all.
Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t their President yet.
Lyndon Johnson wasn’t their Congressman.
Anyway, please leave a comment introducing yourself and perhaps include a few thoughts on Caro, LBJ, America in the 20th century, or why you are participating.
The utility of biography, Dr. Johnson argued, rests on the fact that we can enter by sympathy into situations in which others have found themselves. Parallel circumstances to which we can conform our minds shape every life. Even the great are not removed from the factors common to all: “We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by anger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.
Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton.
The Path to Power and Means of Ascent were supposed to be released as e-books on November 23. Means is already on the Kindle Store, but Path isn’t. It is, however, available as a Nook book, which you can read on Nook devices or Nook apps for Mac, Windows, iOS or Android.
If you must read it on a Kindle or other non-Nook device, you can buy the book from B&N and then search online for ways to break the digital restrictions on Barnes & Noble ePubs.