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Lyndon Johnson

January 8, 2013

Great biography, dreadful man

Means of Ascent, Vol 2 of Robert Caro’s biography is superb. Skip the childhood stuff – Caro summarises Vol 1. Jump in with Lyndon in 1942, a 3rd term US representative, who had risen to influence on FDR’s coat-tails, and through control of the Democrat’s donations from Texan oil. Now with better audited accounts, and having just lost his first Senate race, he returns to Washington a frustrated man. He had promised voters he would rush to the front line when the US entered the war, but delays – getting in a bit of adultery on the way – until his apparent cowardice threatens his future electoral chances. He wrangles a congressional investigatory trip, joins one bombing raid as an observer, and for the rest of his life portrays this single action as a brave fighting campaign in the Pacific.

After the war he makes a fortune peddling political influence into broadcasting licences held in his wife’s name. And then the meat of the book – “the 87 votes that made history”. How he stole the 1948 senatorial primary from Coke Stevenson, the most honest politician in Texas. He did it by flying around in a helicopter, by portraying his opponent, a genuine friend of poor farmers, as in the pockets of business, the place where Johnson himself really lay, and finally by buying votes. Texan politicians had been doing the latter for years, but Johnson stole more, and more brazenly than anyone before. Despite all this, and Johnson’s shocking treatment of his wife and underlings, Caro somehow makes us care about the outcome, as he leads us through the dramatic post-election intrigues, all the way to the US Supreme court ruling, that finally installed Johnson as senator.

How could such a man have gone so far? Caro credits energy, charisma and ruthlessness. Although Johnson hid his villainy from electors, behind closed doors he boasted openly of doing whatever it took. He had power, and he made sure people knew it.

Jim Thornton

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