I recently completed a 16-month immersion in The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro’s sprawling biography of our often-overlooked 36th President. Between April 2013 and August 2014, I buried myself in the 3,500 pages – and thirty-five years of research – that comprise a series of books that is not just a biography of a man, but the history of a country, a 101 course in American government and a psychological study of power whose effects still shape our political, economic, and social policies.
I approached the Johnson series having just read two entirely different biographies: Benzion Netanyahu’s Don Isaac Abravanel, the eponymous portrait of the 15th century Jewish philosopher, statesman, and author, and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, the biography of Apple’s now legendary founder. For reasons other than sheer length, The Years of Lyndon Johnson was a different undertaking entirely. Robert Caro is an author famously – and sometimes, torturously – attuned to detail, and unafraid to spill ink or chop trees in the pursuit of the history of Texas Hill Country or esoteric Senate procedure. It is this detail that makes the title The Years of Lyndon Johnson so apt. Caro is not just reporting on the triumphs and tribulations of Lyndon Baines Johnson, but of the years of social, familial, psychological, political, economic, geographic and historical factors that shaped Johnson’s life and those of his contemporaries. Indeed, virtually none of those within Johnson’s orbit escape description shorter than three or four pages. By the conclusion of the (for-now) final volume, the reader has not only read a biography of Lyndon Johnson, but absorbed smaller biographies of Johnson’s parents and grandparents, his siblings, classmates, and immediate family. The reader comes away with detailed histories of oil magnates George and Herman Brown, Texas governor John Connally, President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey, Southern paterfamiliae Richard Russel and Harry Byrd — to name just a few. These mini-biographies stand alongside the extensive geographic histories of Texas, exploration of Senate parliamentary procedure, and descriptive policy narratives.
Given the enormous amount of time I invested in the books, and, out of a sense of tribute to the sheer amount of research Caro has done for the series, I made a special effort to visit the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, where much of the President’s writings and paperwork are kept. The Library, which is also a museum, is superb, and does an excellent job of placing Johnson within the larger sweep of history – the Cold War, the Beatles, Civil Rights and Vietnam – while also engaging the visitor through interactive exhibits that challenge museum-goers to “make some of the same decisions as the President,” such as whether or not to respond to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The museum and library inhabit the same building, and it was indeed humbling to see rows and rows of bound presidential papers behind glass – papers which Caro undoubtedly footnoted in the 300 pages of endnotes spread across the four volumes.
During the same trip to Austin, I visited the State Capitol, the nexus of power where Johnson’s political colleagues and patrons rubbed shoulders and shaped Texas history between the 1930s and 1960s – not infrequently at Johnson’s behest. Much as there is something outsize about Texas, and Texas politics, the State Capitol is fittingly outsize as well, rising several yards higher than the actual Capitol building in Washington, DC.
On a recent tour of the US Capitol Building, I tried hard to view the structure – and, more specifically, the Senate Chambers – through Johnson’s eyes. Johnson was a legendary “reader of men,” to use Caro’s term, whose uncanny grasp of politics and personality enabled him to work best in small groups – particularly small groups of US Senators – to help pass legislation. Caro writes that Johnson, upon entering the Senate floor for the first time as a Senator, observed to himself that it was “just the right size” – a body large enough to wield power, but small enough to be influenced by just one man.
I remain struck by the extent to which Johnson’s influence still reverberates across the decades, in both policy and public discourse. Johnson’s early benefactors were the wealthy oil and construction tycoons George and Herman Brown, owners of contracting firm Brown & Root, for whom Johnson procured New Deal contracts in the 1930s and extraordinarily lucrative ship-building and oil-rig contracts in the 1940s. In return, the Brown brothers funded Johnson’s Congressional campaigns, and skirted campaign finance regulations through the use of shell corporations, individual donations, and unreported political contributions. Brown and Root would eventually become Kellogg, Brown and Root – or, KBR – a subsidiary of Halliburton for nearly forty years, and still an enormously profitable contracting firm with feet in Afghanistan and Iraq. (To this end, Gary Shteingart’s Absurdistan does an excellent job of satirizing the contracting business in the Middle East).
Johnson’s means of attaining campaign funding was shady, but his drive to pass Civil Rights legislation – an obviously positive goal – was accomplished with equal cunning: He first passed the pared-down Civil Rights Act of 1957 while Senate Majority Leader, and placated the South with assurances that the law could not truly be enforced, and only subsequently pushed through greater Federal enforcement powers in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which, just last year, had some of its key statutes struck down by the Supreme Court.
And within the world of media, there are two performances that undoubtedly draw upon the life and legacy of Lyndon Baines Johnson. The first is, of course, Robert Schenkkan’s now-concluded 2014 play, All the Way, starring Bryan Cranston, which centers upon LBJ’s hard-fought efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. True to Caro’s description of Johnson’s attempts to alternately cajole and threaten other lawmakers – often over his trademark black telephone – the play was all about the delicate balance LBJ sought to strike between producing a bill his Southern constituency could swallow, but with meaning enough for Johnson to win the liberal vote in the 1964 election. Much like the Years of Lyndon Johnson, All the Way was a big work that entailed a commitment to understand the workings of Congress, the prejudices of the South, and the duplicity necessary to pass legislation.
To this end, the protagonist of Netflix’s House of Cards, Frank Underwood, bears surprising resemblance to Johnson in his duplicity, his “magnolia accent,” and wicked ability to pass legislation at any cost. I am certainly not the first to point out this connection, or that Underwood is seen reading Caro’s fourth volume, The Passage of Power, in HoC‘s first season. That the show openly borrows from Caro’s portrait of LBJ is a testament to the importance of the books – and, of course, to Johnson’s presidency itself.
I cannot recommend The Years of Lyndon Johnson strongly enough. In fact, I’ve come to recommend the books to passing acquaintances, or even just random strangers on the street. Caro’s incredible articulation of history, psychology, and politics provides a lens through which to view current issues like healthcare, income inequality, factional violence, an uncooperative Congress, and a belligerent Russia – all things that Johnson dealt with between 1963 and 1968. Although Caro is yet to directly address Johnson’s second term – the book is forthcoming – I would most recommend the third (and longest) volume, Master of the Senate, which traces Johnson’s rapid rise from Hill Country to Capitol Hill, and his iron grasp over what were likely the most productive years of the Senate.
But if you’re like me, you might find yourself two-hundred pages in, realizing that it’s best to go back to the beginning, to Volume I, to dry, unforgiving Hill Country at the turn of the century, and the fascinating portrait of a man driven by insecurity and poverty, acting upon duplicity and cunning and kindness, making his fevered drive toward the highest echelons of power and the pages of history. Don’t forget the coffee, or the bookmark.