The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson #1, Robert A Caro, Alfred A Knopf, 1982, 768 pp
So far in my quest to read a biography of each President who held office during my lifetime, I have covered Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. I have been mostly content with the biographers I chose but Robert A Caro tops them all. He even managed to keep me interested for at least 80% of the time.
Reading presidential biographies feels a lot like being in school, except that most of the American history I studied in school was deeply slanted towards the sentiments that all of our Presidents were awesome dudes and America is the most democratic country in the world. Reading these carefully researched books has given me the education about my country I need to be a confident and wise citizen and voter.
The Path to Power only covers Johnson's first 36 years from his birth to his election to the House of Representatives to his first failed campaign for the Senate. He was born in the Texas Hill Country, an impoverished farming area. His father had been a well-loved member of the Texas House of Representatives but later fell into debt and alcoholism. It was at his father's side as a child that Lyndon became fired up about politics, but where his father wanted to serve his constituents, Lyndon was in it purely for the power, the attention, and therefore the votes.
Caro portrays him as a fairly disreputable character with a genius for the political game. No morals, no deep love of country, no mission to make America great, though quite a few of his actions did improve the lives of many. What drove him was a burning desire to be somebody and a great capacity for working the game for his personal gain.
He was not a good student, he was not admired or even liked in his childhood by anyone but his mother and one cousin, and later Lady Bird. But once he set his sights on a goal of his own choosing he was tireless. His goal was to be President of the United States. This volume covers the years when he began to build the connections that would take him to that goal. Because he would do anything to win, he often did and thus eventually gathered around him several slavish and devoted admirers who would do anything for him.
I have always viewed politics as a dirty game with the occasional bright star I could respect. The book did nothing to disabuse me of that notion. Johnson learned all the tricks and invented some of his own. In a time when due to the Depression, campaign spending was fairly low, Johnson managed to work his way into the confidence and gratitude of men with money and spent more than any candidate for public office had, at least in Texas. He was not above stealing votes, stuffing the ballot box and later buying votes.
I could go on and on but if you want to learn about the state of the union from 1920 to 1944, just buckle down and read the book. It is an eye-opener.
Because I started my project with Truman, I didn't know much about Franklin D Roosevelt, President from 1933 to 1945. I know more now. I also got a pretty good history of Texas from the years before LBJ's birth up to WWII. If I didn't know better from reading those other biographies, I would have finished the book thinking that Texas single-handedly invented dirty politics.
Ahead of me are three more volumes to read about this man (and possibly four since Caro is writing the final volume as I write this review.) This kind of reading takes longer to get through than reading novels. I read this one for over two months, averaging 20 pages a day while reading 24 novels in between.
It has enlightened me a great deal as to how the world of government and politics works. I am less upset about our current administration than I had been before I read it. My country has had truly awful Presidents before; dishonest, ignorant, unstable human beings who nevertheless were elected into office. Somehow our system of government survives and the country powers on. Plato was right however. A republic cannot stand when the populace is uneducated, when the franchise is not universal, and when money/business/finance is the main engine behind the government.
The least I can do is get educated and vote.