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The Path to Power (1982)

– tekijä: Robert A. Caro

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2,130355,527 (4.56)78
Traces Johnson's life from his Texas childhood through his rise to political power and his successful 1948 senatorial campaign.

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Näyttää 1-5 (yhteensä 35) (seuraava | näytä kaikki)
My favorite nonfiction book. ( )
  chiefchirpa7865 | Apr 12, 2021 |
When I become a world-shaking political figure, I want my biography to written by a biographer like Robert A. Caro.

Caro’s biography of LBJ is something of a legend – he’s been writing it since 1982 and, as of 2020, the fifth and final volume remains unfinished. I knew the biography was reputed for the sheer relentless researching of its writer – Caro famously moved to the Hill Country of Texas for three years to immerse himself in LBJ’s childhood environment. And I knew Caro is primarily interested not (exclusively) in conventional political biography, but in power – how it is acquired, held, used, and lost.

The Path to Power lives up to its reputation, and then some.

Caro manages to pull off two often conflicting historical accomplishments – the book is impeccably researched, and it is eloquently written. The print version of the book clocks in at over 900 pages (fascinating, to think, that it only covers LBJ’s life from 1908 to 1941, plus some family genealogy), and it is just a breeze. Caro has a true gift for knowing when to go into granular detail and when to zoom out and focus on the bigger picture, when to quote anecdotes or primary sources, which chapters need to be long and which need to mimic The Da Vinci Code. Even the absolute driest chapters (there’s a lot about the soil quality of rural Texas) manage to deftly weave personal narratives, political developments, and environmental-geological-agricultural data together into an enjoyable yarn. Caro can switch effortlessly between describing drama in F.D.R.’s White House to “The Sad Irons”, which is a masterful microhistory of the backbreaking drudgery of pre-electrical existence. (Spoiler alert: washing clothes is a lot harder if you don’t have running water, soap, or handheld irons.) Very, very few historians can wear so many hats, equally comfortable discussing the politics and the policy and the psyche. (The only comparison I can readily draw is to Volume 1 of Stephen Kotkin’s biography of one Iosif Dzhugashvili.) Caro also benefited, as he noted, that Johnson died fairly young and fairly recently (at least, relevant to when he started writing), allowing him the opportunity to interview many of his childhood contemporaries, with the people whose lives he had shaped and been shaped by.

But, of course, there is far more than just the quality of the prose. The research is… breathtaking. Caro has conducted hundreds of interviews, sifted through reams of documents, consumed a veritable bibliography of secondary sources. He is able to pierce the mythology and the hagiography, synthesizing dozens of interviews until the man beneath the mask appears. (One of my favorite examples of this – Caro notes that many historians have psychoanalyzed the articles LBJ wrote for his student newspaper while still in Texas. Only problem – they didn’t realize they were ghostwritten, that Johnson had just slapped his name on pieces a college friend had written!)

And as to the actual portrait of the man? It’s certainly not a pretty one.

LBJ is obviously something of a mixed bag – on the one hand, he helped create some of the pillars of liberal policy – the Great Society, the War on Poverty, the passage of the Civil Rights Act which helped create modern American democracy. On the other hand… the Vietnam War. There’s a lot to balance on both sides of the scale. But that all comes later. The Path to Power focuses on LBJ as he was as a child, as a Congressional secretary, as a freshman Representative with next-to-no power. What was he liked, then?

Unpleasant. If Johnson had any philosophy other than the sheer accumulation of power, Caro couldn’t unearth it. Throughout his life LBJ manipulated those around him to almost sociopathic degrees. He charmed, ingratiated, bullied, abused, belittled, flattered, lied, cheat, stole – absolutely whatever was necessary to advance. He seems to have had few real, genuine political beliefs, equally comfortable with FDR’s New Deal and the reactionary Chamber of Congress conservatives. For all his desire to become President, there is very little explanation as to why. How did he plan to remake the world from its throne on the Potomac? Apart from electrifying a few rural districts, maybe paving a few more roads, Caro has nothing.

Backtracking to FDR… I never really appreciated how much LBJ and FDR’s careers were intertwined. Initially, LBJ managed to obtain real political power by hitching his wagon to FDR, prominently promising to support Roosevelt’s court-packing efforts and making his by-election in middle-of-nowhere, Texas a referendum on the Presidency. He gradually became Roosevelt’s go-to man on Texas issues, doing favors for the President and getting massive favors (like an IRS investigation curtailed) in return. LBJ also benefitted from the unusual position of power Texans held in Washington at the time, through Vice President Garner and future-Speaker Sam Rayburn. He benefited from the growth of independent Texan oil barons, and was one of the first to capitalizing on their newfound wealth. And Johnson also lucked out in that the first Congressman he worked for – Representative Richard M. Kleberg – wasn’t really interested in the job at all, giving Johnson free reign to build up a massive network of his own while only in his twenties, acting as Congressman in practically everything but the voting.

And when it comes to questions of power, Caro really is in a class of his own. The whole book is littered with detail examples of how exactly LBJ acquired power. Caro is fairly dismissive of the idea of pure charisma, of the popular image of the famous “Johnson treatment” where he could win over lesser men through sheer force of will. Behind much of that “charisma” lay money, and lots of it. LBJ’s political career got started because some Texan contractors needed someone to get them out of a permitting fix, and when he did, they provided him with ungodly amounts of cash to finance the rest of his political career. Like pre-modern Super PACs, LBJ was able to spend more money than just about anyone in politics before him. During the 1940 elections, LBJ was able to raise huge sums of money for candidates across the country, buying him goodwill, leverage, and connections from sea to shining sea.

“The new power he possessed did not derive from Roosevelt’s friendship, or from Rayburn’s. It did not derive from seniority in the House, nor even – despite the relationship that power in a democracy bears to the votes of the electorate – to his seat in it. His power was simple power of money.”

But it wasn’t just the money, as Michael Bloomberg recently realized. Some of the other takeaways of LBJ’s method I noted:

Make friends with everybody. LBJ knew everyone who was anyone. He built vast networks of acquaintances, and did everything in his power to make them all like them. That involved a degree of two-faced-ness, admittedly, as Johnson could play Roosevelt’s man for one crowd and the Southern conservative for the one in San Antonio. And he knew what people needed – to some, he was a domineering authority figure, to Sam Rayburn, he played a professional son.

Figure out where the real power is. Johnson made himself invaluable by building up connections in every government department, in every Congressional office. During the 1940 election, he seems to have been the only person who was actually collecting information about the state of every race from the candidates themselves, ultimately allowing him to act as an information clearinghouse for the White House.

“Ever since he had arrived in Washington nine years before, Lyndon Johnson had, first as a congressional secretary and then as a Congressman, been touching every base: cultivating not only bureaucrats, but their secretaries and their assistants, and their assistants’ assistants, and their secretaries, until entire government bureaus knew him, liked him – wanted to do things for him.”

And do all the work. LBJ worked like a Harvard dropout trying to code Silicon Valley’s next unicorn. Johnson put in insane hours, and worked his staff just as hard. The sheer volume of correspondences he oversaw is mind-blowing. He pushed his team to respond to practically every letter that arrived in his Congressman’s office the day it arrived, and generate mail of their own if it was a slow day. When he was a congressional secretary for Kleberg, he also did the work of other Congressional districts that accidentally got routed his way, allowing him to build up contacts far beyond his Congressional boundaries. It helps if you are one of those lucky few born with an insane amount of energy.

“Answering every request, he did everything he could.”

And as loathe as I am to cite Malcolm Gladwell, one can see how Johnson might’ve benefited from the so-called ‘10,000-hour rule’, gaining invaluable political experience while still a child by watching his father in the Texas Legislature.

If I have one minor complaint, it’s that Chapters 35-37 feel just a little rushed. I sincerely hope that this is simply because the material is going to be covered in the second volume, because it would be a shame if LBJ’s wartime career was glossed over in a couple of sentences. (It seems a slight oddity that Johnson’s obtainment of a commission in the Naval reserve is mentioned only after the attack on Pearl Harbor.) And Caro really doesn’t spend too much time on events outside of Texas, with very few exceptions most relevant to the Roosevelts. There are maybe three sentences in the book about the progress of the war in Europe – a smidge more context would have been appreciated here and there. The book could probably have safely ended with the “Mister Speaker” coda.

Bibliography is excellent, with detailed endnotes. Though – and I can’t tell if this is just an error in my ebook or in the original design – my endnotes end with the “Longlea” chapter.

One of the strange takeaways I had from this is that Caro would be exactly the sort of man I wish could write a biography of Donald Trump. His strength is not in political philosophy – in LBJ, there was almost none – nor the geopolitics of the global stage. Caro is the sort of man who could untangle a lifetime of corporate and financial interests, map out patronage networks, pierce the veil of secrecy that has been draped over Trump’s tax returns. There’re even some similar strains of self-centered egomania between the two Presidents. But short of a finding a fountain of youth, that is a dream that must be unfulfilled.

One can only pray that Caro is able to finish his fifth and final volume. (This seems morbid, but Caro has made the same actuarial observations himself.) I really am curious as to how he will engage in the hyper-contentious scholarship of the Vietnam War, how he chronicles the most ignoble of endings for the man who had sought the Presidency all his life. ( )
  pvoberstein | Dec 14, 2020 |
Possibly the greatest biography ever written. ( )
  easytarget | Feb 6, 2020 |
Outstanding scholarship. Riveting narrative. Eye-opening insight on major national figures. Fascinating perspective for current American political dynamics. Looking forward to the next volume on the series, absolutely. ( )
  larryerick | Jun 20, 2019 |
Path to Power is the first volume of Robert Caro’s exploration of Lyndon Johnson’s life and rise from a Texas farm boy to President of the United States. This volume, which is one of the longest in the series, follows Johnson from birth to his first, unsuccessful Senate campaign. I found two things notable: 1) Caro often doesn’t seem to like his subject very much. While Johnson’s talents are certainly addressed, Caro doesn’t skimp on unflattering anecdotes and qualities, making sure the reader gets the implication that Johnson was a gold digger who annoyed (almost) everyone around him. And, 2) Caro goes on several tangents for whole chapters that, while enlightening, are sometimes of dubious necessity. The best example of this is the 50+ page chapter on the career of Sam Rayburn, one of Johnson’s early mentors and friends. While some context on Rayburn’s career and influence was likely necessary, I found it interesting that Caro chose this figure to devote so much ink to, as opposed to, for example Lady Bird or Klieberg, the Congressman Johnson worked for before beginning his own political career. ( )
  Jthierer | Apr 20, 2019 |
Näyttää 1-5 (yhteensä 35) (seuraava | näytä kaikki)
For readers who want to believe that the President Johnson of the Vietnam War years not merely was, but always had been, an unprincipled monster, ''The Path to Power'' will be rewarding reading. For those who seek to understand this remarkably complex, singularly gifted and tragically limited man, Mr. Caro's book will seem more like a caricature than a portrait.
For whatever the drawbacks of ''The Path to Power,'' they seem slight in the framework of its overall impact. The details that Mr. Caro has dug up are astonishing, and he has pieced them together to tell a monumental political saga.
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For Ina

"More is thy due than more than all can pay."
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(Introduction) Two of the men lying on the blanket that day in 1940 were rich.
On the day he was born, he would say, his white-haired grandfather leaped onto his big black stallion and thundered across the Texas Hill Country, reining in at every farm to shout: 'A United States Senator was born this morning!'
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Traces Johnson's life from his Texas childhood through his rise to political power and his successful 1948 senatorial campaign.

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