I first read Robert A. Caro’s Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson in the spring of 1990, right after it was published. I mean to say, I gobbled it up. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.
In the early 1980s, I’d read his monumental biography of Robert Moses of New York City, The Power Broker (1974) — which, decades later, I still consider the best book ever written about an American city — and the first installment of his biography of Johnson, The Path to Power (1982), an engrossing, absorbing, riveting examination of the rise and early congressional career of the future president.
I was a young newspaper reporter when I read those two books, and Caro was a journalist-turned-biographer who conducted research to a depth I’d never seen before (nor would see ever from anyone else) and wrote with a forceful passion that was better than any novel.
When 1990 rolled around, I was around mid-career at the Chicago Tribune, and I was primed for the next Johnson book from Caro.
Means of Ascent is Caro’s detailed, painstaking account of how Johnson stole the 1948 U.S. Senate election in Texas from former Gov. Coke Stevenson, saving his political career and opening the door to his rapid run up the ladder of political office to the presidency. And I read it in a white-hot heat of page-turning. I devoured it. I wolfed it down. I think I went through its 412 pages of text in a week or less.
Since then, I have re-read The Power Broker and The Path to Power when those books were the selections of the History Book Club to which I belong.
In addition, the group and I read his third and fourth LBJ volumes, Master of the Senate (2002) about his use of his position as Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate to pass civil rights legislation, and The Passage of Power (2012) about his time as Vice President and then, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as the new President whose actions Caro calls “heroic.”
At my request, Caro joined our club by telephone for our discussions of those two books. I’d interviewed him once on the phone for the Tribune and, then, when Master of the Senate was published, talked to him in person.
“ The word is ‘awe’ ”
Indeed, that was the day I took him to City Hall for an interesting off-the-record conversation with Mayor Richard J. Daley. Afterward, Caro and I sat in the food court of the state government’s James R. Thompson Center across the street to discuss writing and power and the long road he was on with the Johnson books.
At that point, the idea was that Caro would wrap up the LBJ books with the next volume, and he told me he’d probably need another five or six years for that.
As we talked over bagels, I mentioned that an LBJ defender had asserted that Caro had “a loathing” of Johnson. Not true, he said:
“I don’t even think the words `like’ or `dislike’ are applicable. The word is `awe.’ He was a legislative genius. If you’re interested in political power and you’ve watched Johnson use that in the Senate, it’s hard not to be awed by it.”
As for the stirring way he uses his research to set scenes and delineate character and describe action, he told me:
“History is a narrative. It’s a story…If I didn’t write a scene so it had the same excitement [for the reader] that it had for the people of that time, then I would really be unfair to history.”
Twenty-one years have passed since then, and the fourth volume was published a decade ago. But the big one about Johnson’s presidency is still not finished. And Caro turned 87 last October.
While waiting for that next LBJ book, like the thousands or tens of thousands of other fans, our group decided to read the one book we hadn’t yet gotten to, Means of Ascent.
This time through, I read more slowly than I had three decades ago. For one thing, I’m twice as old as I was then. For another, I was taking my time to study how Caro does what he does.
Midway through my reading, there was email chatter among the book club members about whether Caro goes overboard in depicting Stevenson as an admirable, squeaky-clean citizen-statesman.
One of the members noted that, according to Johnson biographer Robert Dallek, Stevenson was a vicious racist who used the n-word and condoned lynching. Other published critics contended that the former Governor had benefitted from election fraud in the past. If Johnson stole the ’48 election, it was to make sure it wouldn’t be stolen from him as the 1941 Senate campaign had been stolen by the forces of Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel.
In the face of such criticism, Caro published in the New York Times on February 3, 1991, “My Search for Coke Stevenson,” a 6,000-word essay in which he explains that he had started his research thinking Johnson’s opponent was as crooked as other Texas politicians.
However, the more he researched, the more he came to understand that the image promoted by Johnson allies of Stevenson was false. Caro gives the nuts and bolts of the facts he unearthed, answering his critics point by point.
A civic saint?
One of the club members suggested that, while Caro’s facts might be right, he made Stevenson out to be something like a civic saint. Caro could have countered that easily by giving more attention to the less attractive aspects of Stevenson’s career.
On a single page (170) — about 500 words — Caro discusses the weaknesses of Stevenson’s administration as governor, particularly its “narrowness of viewpoint.” This was expressed, Caro writes, in Stevenson’s his acceptance of Southern stereotypes about African Americans, his refusal to intervene in race riots and his refusal to investigate an infamous lynching. And also in his opposition to unions and his refusal to intervene in a key issue of academic freedom at the University of Texas.
And then he goes on to write about “the strengths in [Stevenson’s] frontier philosophy of government.”
Robert Caro is a master at taking digressions deep into what can seem to be a tangent in order to enable the reader to understand some aspect of his main subject, such as his long examination of life in the Texas Hill Country before the electrification that Congressman Lyndon Johnson brought to the area.
In this case, he could have stepped out of his narrative to discuss in greater detail these conservative and prejudiced aspects of Stevenson’s character, maybe even contrasting them with some of Johnson’s attitudes. For instance, early in his career, LBJ was not the most enlightened of public officials with regard to race relations.
Six or eight pages is all it would have taken, maybe less. It would have been worth it, I think.
Maybe Caro’s failure to do this — when he works overtime in so many other ways in all of his Johnson books as well as his Moses book to give a fully rounded portrait of the major figures in his story — has something to do with his intensity as a researcher and writer.
With his laser-like intensity in looking at Lyndon Johnson, as he had looked, laser-like, at Robert Moses.
In Means of Ascent, Caro was using Stevenson as the good-government, good-character contrast to Johnson’s corrupt, vote-stealing persona. He believed — and shows in his writing — that the former governor was a decent, principled public servant.
In this context, he apparently thought that it wasn’t necessary to provide a more nuanced image of Stevenson regarding the prejudices he would have shared with a great deal of other white Texans.
Both Moses in garnering and exercising immense power in New York City and state and Johnson in rising from the poverty of his father’s failure to wrest success from the American political system all the way to the White House were intense and driven men.
Caro is an intense and driven man.
Both men, for complex psychological and characterological reasons, moved heaven and earth — up to and beyond the edges of the law and morality — to achieve great power. Both men were hugely skilled at what they did. Their abilities and ambition and willingness to give their heart and soul to this effort was something that, to use Caro’s word, struck their contemporaries with “awe.”
Reading Caro’s books, I’m struck with awe at his genius as a researcher and a writer — at his lust for information of all sorts from all sorts of sources, at his willingness and ability to synthesize immense mountains of documents, at his courage to use that research to identify the key character aspects of his subjects and at his talent to take that research and that synthesis and write books in which the reader sees and experiences the key people and key moments in the story.
Moses and Johnson spent their lives to gain power — to put themselves in control of their situations. It was their tragedies that, at the end, they lost control through hubris and circumstance and lost that power.
Caro has spent more than half a century to obtain — what? Knowledge might be the best word.
He set out to determine what made Moses and Johnson tick — to learn, understand and relate their stories to an unprecedented depth. To show the reader what the facts of their lives say about these two men. And to show what those facts and those men say about power in America in the 20th century.
And about America itself.
A kind of power
In a way, this has given him a kind of power. He has the final word on both men. Anything written about Moses or Johnson by other writers seems superficial when put next to Caro’s books.
Is this a way for him to gain control of some kind? What are the psychological underpinnings of all his work? That’s for some future biographer to grapple with.
What I can say is that, after re-reading Means of Ascent and after reading all of his other books, I am astonished at what Caro has accomplished. He has created a model of biography that few, if any, future writers will be able to aspire to.
We, as Americans, know much more because of the books Caro has written.
He has taken these two men who clouded themselves and their actions and motives throughout their lives, who maneuvered in the dark and who hid themselves from everyone, and he has shed a bright spotlight into their shadows.
He has shed a bright spotlight on power in American society — how it is gained and how it is used.
And he has shed a bright spotlight on what makes America tick.
We are the better for those books.
Patrick T. Reardon