After 768 pages of text and more than 350,000 words, the reader of Robert A. Caro’s The Path to Power might easily come away wondering:
“Well, who was Lyndon B. Johnson?”
In this book — the first of what is now expected to be five volumes in a series titled The Years of Lyndon Johnson — Caro writes deeply about many aspects of LBJ’s personality.
About Johnson’s flattery of older, powerful men, a latter-day Uriah Heep. About Johnson’s physical and emotional restlessness. About Johnson’s need to be the center of attention.
About Johnson’s ability to attract men of strong skills but weak personalities and his cold use of them, regardless their desires, for his own purposes for decades at a time. About Johnson’s convoluted relationship with his father, the man in whose footsteps he followed, the man whose mannerisms he copied, the man he once idolized and then came to disdain.
About Johnson’s compassion in teaching, for a year, a classroom of Mexican-American children in Cotulla in South Texas near the Mexican border and in obtaining for the isolated farms and towns of the Hill Country, then living a medieval existence, the miracles of electricity.
About Johnson’s ability to brilliantly spot how to accomplish a job that others thought impossible and his willingness, indeed, inner drive, to do that job in every detail, even the most minute, with grueling, unsparing energy over weeks and months — and to lead others to devote themselves heart and soul to that accomplishment. About Johnson’s readiness to stuff ballot boxes and to subvert election machinery and to buy votes with cash money.
About Johnson’s desperation to escape poverty. About Johnson’s ferocious hunger for power. And about Johnson’s talk from early in his life about becoming President of the United States, a goal that framed nearly everything he did as an adult, a relentless, unswerving, devious, intense focus to his life and relationships.
His first 33 years
“Well, who was Lyndon B. Johnson?”
He was all of this, and more. The Path to Power only covers the initial 33 years of Johnson’s life (1908-1941), and it ends with, first, his defeat in an election for the U.S. Senate from Texas, one he had been certain to win, and, then, with the derailing of all his plans by World War II.
Of course, anyone reading The Path to Power today knows that Johnson was able to get back on track — to win election to the Senate in a second race, to rise in the ranks to become the powerful Senate Majority Leader, to seek to run for President only to be elbowed out of the way by John F. Kennedy, to accept the Vice Presidency, to rise to the White House with Kennedy’s assassination and, then, as president, to force through the Congress a wealth of social legislation while, at the same time, engaging the nation every deeper in the Vietnam War.
I knew all that back in early 1983 when I read the newly published The Path to Power, a Christmas present from friends. At that point, Caro was planning to complete the biography in three volumes, so I knew that this book was the set-up for the ones who could come after.
And what a set-up it was!
It was a breathtaking biography to encounter, unlike anything I had read before in its eagerness to spend pages, sometimes dozens of pages, in providing historical context and in telling the stories of important figures in Johnson’s youth and rise to national prominence.
It was a biography that avoided simple statements, one that refused to summarize. When Caro would write, for example, about Johnson’s deviousness in his dealings with others, such as in his grab for power — power for itself, with few benefits — among his fellow students at Southwest Texas State Teachers College at San Marcos, he tells how this extended even to the point of having a handsome though weak-willed ally take Student Council girls on dates to win their votes for Johnson’s candidates and then having him drop them once their usefulness was done.
It was a biography that looked full-face at the many dark and inhumane aspects of Johnson’s personality while, at the same time, recognizing the ways in which he showed empathy and benevolence, such as his year of teaching at the Wellhausen School in Cotulla.
“The little baby in the cradle”
At the school to make money to go back to finish at San Marcos, Johnson got his students recreational equipment, demanded that they pay attention in class, instituted extracurricular activities and inspired them:
Teaching them — and telling them that if they learned, success would surely be theirs. Says another of his students, Daniel Garcia: “He used to tell us this country was so free that anyone could become President who was willing to work hard enough.” Telling them with an absolute assurance, hammering in the theme over and over, inspiring them with it. He would often begin class with a story about a baby. “The little baby in the cradle,” recalls Juan Ortiz. “He would tell us that one day we might say the baby would be a teacher. Maybe the next day we’d say the baby would be a doctor. And one day we might say the baby — any baby — might grow up to the President of the United States.”
Demanding though he was, moreover, he was demanding in a way that made his students like him. “He put us to work,” says Manuel Sanchez. “But he was the kind of teacher you wanted to work for. You felt an obligation to him and to yourself to do your work.”
While in Cotulla, Johnson made friends with the school janitor Thomas Coronado.
He told Coronado that he, too, should learn English, and with his own money bought Coronado a book to learn it from. He always arrived at school before anyone else did, and left later, and therefore had time to tutor Coronado. “After I had learned the letters, I would spell a word in English. Johnson would then pronounce it and I would repeat.”
Loomed larger in memory
Re-reading The Path to Power now, 35 years later, I was surprised that the Cotulla chapter takes up only eight pages or roughly one percent of the book.
It loomed much larger in my memory of the book, larger than the 36 pages that Caro devotes to Johnson’s work to bring electricity to the Hill Country, easing the burdens of farmers and farmer’s wives and families.
One reason for this, I think, is that Johnson’s efforts in the Hill Country involved him pulling the levers of government and cashing in on his friendship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to bring that rural area out of its isolation. By contrast, in Cotulla, it was the man Johnson himself who was directly having an impact on the children in his school. As an example of compassion and caring, Cotulla was much more immediate.
Another reason is that, since reading The Path to Power, I’ve also read the three volumes that, so far, have followed: The Means of Ascent (1990) about his successful theft of the 1948 senatorial election; Master of the Senate (2002) about his rise to and his use of immense Congressional power as Senate Majority Leader; and The Passage of Power (2012) about his time as Vice President and his assumption of the Presidency after JFK’s slaying.
At key points in those books, Caro makes reference to Johnson’s work in Cotulla and in the Hill Country as indications early in his career that there was a part of him that wanted to do right, a part that would be exhibited later in efforts for civil rights legislation.
The title of the 10-page introduction to The Path to Power is “Patterns.” Caro uses it to give the reader a framework in which to view the many sides of Johnson that he puts on display in his deeply researched and deeply detailed book.
The key pattern, though, is set forth in an anecdote on the first two pages. The book begins:
Two men lying on the blanket that day in 1940 were rich. The third was poor — so poor that he had only recently purchased the first suit he had ever owned that fit correctly — and desperately anxious not to be; thirty-two-year-old Congressman Lyndon Johnson had been pleading with one of the other two men, George Brown, to find him a business in which he could make a little money.
The second rich man, Charles Marsh, told Johnson that he could help. He would pass along to Johnson a partnership in an oil company — a partnership worth, maybe, $750,000 (the equivalent of about $13 million today) — and it wouldn’t cost Johnson a dime.
Johnson thanked Marsh, polite, ingratiating and deferential as he always was to the older man. But he was also, Brown recalls, quite firm….he felt almost certain he was going to have to decline with thanks. I can’t be an oil man, he said; if the public knew I had oil interests, it would kill me politically.
“An oil man”
For Brown, Johnson’s decision of decline the offer a few days later didn’t make sense. Being an oil man wouldn’t hurt Johnson as a Congressman from Texas, and, in his run for the Senate from Texas, it wouldn’t hurt either.
For what office, then, would Johnson be “killed” by being “an oil man”?
Only when he asked himself that question, George Brown recalls, did he finally realize, after three years of intimate association with Lyndon Johnson, what Johnson really wanted. And only when, at the end of that week, Johnson firmly refused Marsh’s offer did Brown realize how much Johnson wanted it.
A desperation for power
That anecdote sets up the entire book of The Path to Power, and it sets up the entire series of Johnson books by Caro.
Johnson was desperate for money, just how wildly desperate the reader knows after Caro’s chapters about how Johnson grew up in comfortable circumstances to have the rug pulled out from under the family when he was in his early teens and about how much he hated living in poverty, at the bottom of the social heap, looked down on and ridiculed.
Yet, what the rest of the book and the rest of the series make clear is that his desperation for wealth and financial security took a back seat to his desperation for the greatest power available to an American.
Knowing Lyndon Baines Johnson — understanding the character of the thirty-sixth President of the United States — is essential to understanding the history of the United States in the twentieth century….
Knowledge of the inner workings of Lyndon Johnson’s character illuminates a Presidency; knowledge of the broader outlines of his life illuminates far more.
Wanting and seeking power
It illuminates, in many ways, the evolution of the nation during the first two-thirds of the century, but also, deeper, it illuminates the nature of power in the American democracy and the nature of those who are drawn to seek that power.
Each American President of the 20th century has been distinctive. Yet, all, in entering politics and in aspiring to the highest job, display a common desire for power.
None was forced into the job, not even the Vice Presidents who assumed the power upon the death of the President. They wanted power, and they sought power.
“Well, who was Lyndon B. Johnson?”
What Robert Caro has done in his Johnson books is to offer a case study in how power is achieved and how it is used — and why it is sought.
Political strategists attempt to cloak their candidates, for whatever the office, in a simple narrative. What Caro’s books show is that power is never simple, and neither is the person wanting to hold power.
Patrick T. Reardon