09 December 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (1)

Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson spans four volumes (so far) and over three thousand pages.  The volumes are as follows:

  1. The Path to Power (Published in 1982.)
  2. Means of Ascent (Published in 1990.)
  3. Master of the Senate (Published in 2002.)
  4. The Passage of Power (Published in 2012.)

Over the past five weeks I have been steadily working through the series.  It has impressed me to such an extent that I would like to review each volume now, before their rich detail fades from my memory.  So this will be the first of a number of posts reviewing the four volumes—not just assessing them generally, but offering summaries and notes on points of interest.


Before I begin, one question needs to be answered:  Why Lyndon Johnson?  Johnson is certainly one of the least romantic, least personally interesting characters to have occupied the Oval Office in the past century.  He was a career politician, responsible for some important social legislation, sure, but remembered mainly for the Vietnam War.  His eyes look shrewd and calculating, and nothing about the man on the surface seems to promise any great depth.  All of these facts and impressions make the prospect of poring over the minute details of his life for several thousand pages unappealing.  One anticipates dry historical minutiae and utter boredom.

Robert Caro has said repeatedly that he chose to write about Johnson because he wanted to write about power in national politics, and Lyndon Johnson embodied the mechanics of that power more than anyone else in his era.  Caro's motivation casts an interesting light on the series, but I will confess that Caro's reason for writing has not been my reason for reading.

One of the main reasons I read biographies is to gain a sense of the conditions experienced by people at various times and places, their daily habits, and their progress in life.  Some biographers are good at conveying a sense of the manner of living of a subject, some are not.  Jean Edward Smith, for example, in his biographies of Eisenhower and Grant, is so preoccupied with their military service that sometimes the details of personality and personal habits are given short shrift.  Some, like William Manchester in his biography of Churchill, are so expansive in their treatment of the personality and the milieu that the chronicle of actual events is rendered obscure.  Caro avoids both faults.  He is a master storyteller, and his story is based primarily on extensive interviews and oral histories, so that it takes on the richness and vivid characterization of all the various individuals whose paths Lyndon Johnson crossed throughout his life.  (Occasionally Caro will stop to describe one of his interviewees or the conditions under which they met, and these moments add to the credibility and vividness of his narrative.)  His biography of Lyndon Johnson has the narrative complexity and thematic repetition of a classical epic.  Great figures emerge and fall in it, characteristic lessons and memories are hashed out and re-hashed over and over again, and in the course of our journey we become so familiar with certain lines and anecdotes that we can almost repeat them for Caro as he drums them up — to great effect — each new time.  "If you do everything—", Robert Caro must have thought as he started his great work, "—if you interview everyone, if you find every fact and document every memory, somewhere in that infinite mass of human experience there is a story to be told, and it is a great story."

Each biographer, by choosing the thread to follow through his subject's life, creates that life, indirectly.  What Caro has done is to follow the most interesting thread possible, however winding its path, and, out of a mess of ambition, corruption, and deceit, he has created the story of a great man.


The first volume begins with an illustrative moment early in Johnson's congressional career.  He is lying on a picnic blanket in 1940 with his two biggest campaign financiers: George Brown (of the Brown and Root construction company, later a subsidiary of Halliburton) and Charles Marsh (real-estate magnate and owner of several Texas newspapers).  Johnson complains about his personal financial woes, and Marsh offers to sell him (effectively, to give him) his share of a highly profitable Texas oil company.  Johnson refuses for political reasons.  Caro explains that, based on Johnson's stated ambition (to leave the House of Representatives and become a U. S. Senator), Johnson's refusal made little sense—involvement in the oil business could do a man no political harm in Texas.  Thus his refusal is revealing: it showed that Johnson's true ambition, unstated though it was at that time, was to reach the White House, not the Senate.  Caro then gives a conspectus of that ambition and its history in Johnson's life, pointing out the ruthlessness with which he pursued it—endlessly scheming, lying, stealing, and manipulating to clear the path forward to the power he wanted.  The man we see in Caro's introduction is evil, profoundly wicked, and resembles some of the great villains of popular fiction.  (In particular he reminds me of "Lord Voldemort" in the Harry Potter series.)  With our appetite whetted by a series of shocking anecdotes, Caro begins his tale.


After such an impressive introduction, the first part of the book seems anticlimactic.  Readers of long biographies are accustomed to authors beginning with the lives of parents, or sometimes grandparents, in order to provide a context for the subject's youth.  Caro, however, begins with Johnson's great-grandfather, Robert Holmes Bunton.  And Caro's account of Bunton and his family is not just a brief mention of the clan, but a full-fledged treatment of the Buntons' struggles as they settled down in west-central Texas, near the Hill Country west of Austin.  Caro uses the Bunton clan, and later the Johnson clan, to illustrate the cruelty and difficulty of life in the Hill Country, which he describes as a massive geographical trap, richly baited and devastatingly effective in snaring 19th century homesteaders.  He tells us about the terrifying Comanche raids, and the massive cattle drives of the mid-1800s, which made the Buntons so much money.  He also explains the climatological and geological reasons for its agricultural poverty.  (Readers who are dismayed by descriptions of aggregate rainfall distributions should not be—the information plays a vital role in LBJ's story.)

When Robert Bunton's daughter Eliza marries a man named Johnson (Sam Ealy Johnson, Lyndon's grandfather), Caro uses the well-characterized Hill Country "trap" to show us the great differences between the Johnson "strain" and the Bunton "strain" which were mixed in Lyndon Johnson.  The Buntons are men and women of heroic resolve, who are willing to take risks, but capable of fighting to make their plans work, and immune to the idealism which leads to failure.  The Johnsons too have heroic resolve, and are willing to take great risks, but they are also men of impractical optimism and ideals, interested in philosophy and principles and incapable of hardening their lives to meet the demands of necessity.  The Johnsons, generation after generation, have meteoric careers: first poverty, then a rise to fabulous success, and then a calamitous and untimely fall.  For Sam Ealy Johnson and his brother, the fall comes after a massive gamble on cattle prices, and is the result of the progressive degradation of the Hill Country soil (incapable of sustaining so much grazing so many years in a row) and the saturation of the cattle market.  Sam goes overnight from fabulous riches to destitution, and ends his days scraping by farming cotton on a poor ranch barely capable of supporting him and his family.

The story then turns to Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr. (Lyndon's father).  Sam Jr., like his father before him, has dreams of grandeur.  He wants desperately to escape the drudgery of Hill Country farm life, and he does, eventually becoming affiliated with the Progressive movement and William Jennings Bryan, and serving several terms in the Texas House of Representatives.  Sam's ideals get the better of him there, however, and Caro emphasizes again and again the poverty which resulted from Sam's insistence on being one of only a handful of representatives who held out against "The Interests" and rejected the "beefsteak, bourbon and blondes" being doled out by lobbyists.  Sam marries Rebekah Baines, the daughter of a prominent lawyer and grand-daughter of one of the presidents of Baylor University.  Sam and Rebekah share a profound love of ideas, argument, and education; a love which seems to have greatly enriched their bond and characterized the home life they made for their children.  Unfortunately, however, Sam's inability to survive on his Congressman's salary, together with some imprudent gambles (by this point a Johnson theme) on cotton futures, leave him destitute and force him to move back to a Hill Country shack with Rebekah, near the rest of the Johnson clan in the (extremely) rural Gillespie County.  There, in 1909, their eldest son is born, and there, finally, the story of Lyndon Baines Johnson begins.

We are told repeatedly that neighbors who first saw baby Lyndon repeatedly remarked that "he has the Bunton strain".  Caro makes much of this fact, because the Bunton strain (in contradistinction to the Johnson strain) indicates an impetuosity wedded to fierce pragmatism, which breeds success.  Lyndon's impetuosity shows itself from a young age.  His first distinction in life is a habit of running away from home.  As a toddler he is perpetually vanishing, and his mother is too sensitive to punish him.  Rebekah, thrust into a miserable backwater far from anyone (aside from her husband) with whom she can share her love of books and ideas, breathes all her lost hopes and dreams into young Lyndon.  After a few more years in Gillespie County, the Johnsons move to the (slightly less desolate) backwater town of Johnson City, in Blanco County, about fifty miles west of Austin.  In Johnson City, Sam begins to do well for himself again (this time in the real-estate business), and, due to a combination of his winning personality, style of dress, and attitude of civic  responsibility, ends up being elected once again to the Texas State Legislature.  Lyndon (by this time around 10 years old) accompanies his father to Austin and assists him in his work, admiring him and imitating him in every way possible.

Around this time, Sam Sr. passes away, leaving the old Johnson Ranch to his children, who want to sell it.  And here, again, the tragic idealism of the Johnson clan wreaks destruction.  Sam Jr., refusing to allow the ranch to pass out of family hands, mortgages everything in order to buy out his siblings, planning to grow a cotton crop on the land and profit off of high cotton prices.  He tries desperately to produce a crop, but the land is unfitting and the weather uncooperative, and the Johnson family nearly loses everything in the resulting crisis.  For the rest of Lyndon's childhood Sam and Rebekah are destitute, incapable of paying their household bills or supporting themselves, plagued by illness and depression.  Lyndon, witnessing his father's failure, begins to despise his parents, fiercely rejects their idealism, and starts to distance himself from them as much as possible.

The community of Johnson City is described in great detail, and characterized so vividly that much has to be left out here.  Caro spends a good deal of time describing Lyndon's social habits as a child there.  One story is repeated frequently in later volumes, so it needs to be mentioned.  Baseballs were scarce among children in Johnson City, and so sometimes when Lyndon was playing with his friends, he would be the only one with a ball.  And young Lyndon would use this fact to his own advantage, demanding (though he was not a talented player) that he be allowed to pitch, and making this the condition on which his ball could be used for a game.  If he was not allowed to pitch, he would take his ball and go home.  Other similar stories from Johnson City residents and relatives confirm the fact: if Lyndon could not be the center of attention, he wanted no part in the game; if he couldn't lead, he would just go home.

Lyndon finishes high school by the age of 16, and his parents (so committed to ideas and education) want him to go to college.  Lyndon, however, wants to do anything other than what his parents have planned for him, and he spends the next two years struggling to find a path to success (by now he has already started dreaming of the Presidency), by any route other than a college education.  He runs away from home to work at a cousin's law firm in California, hoping to take advantage of loose bar requirements in the state of Nevada.  But his cousin is a reckless drunkard whose firm is on the verge of collapse from negligence, and the Nevada regulations are stricter than they seemed.  Johnson returns home.  Then he runs away again, this time eastward to work in a factory.  After some time with that, he returns home again.  Finally he spends about a year working on a road gang, doing backbreaking work with an ox and plow.  Desperate, convinced there "has to be a better way", Johnson finally submits to his parents' dreams, and enrolls in the Southwest Texas State Teachers College at San Marcos (now Texas State University).  This concludes part one of the first volume.