Friday, October 30, 2015

The Path to Power by Robert Caro

My friend recommended I read The Path to Power by Robert Caro after she heard the author interviewed on the radio. She was fascinated by the fact that anyone would want to write a 3-volume behemoth on Lyndon B. Johnson. After reading the first volume, she could not stop recommending it. I finally got a chance to read the 800-page first volume. It was illuminating. 

Honestly, I felt like my friend. Who cares that much about LBJ? I don’t personally think he was a great president. I oppose his politics and feel he damaged the United States. But he was gone before I was born, so I know little about him. I was sure he was probably an interesting guy personally, but not interesting enough to spend weeks with him.

I was wrong. He’s a fascinating study in twisted, narcissistic human behavior!

The author starts off with a story of Johnson and an associate of his from Texas who had known him for years. After LBJ rejects some money from an oilman because he doesn’t want to be associated with oil money, and the taint it could put on his heretofore unknown presidential aspirations, the friend, George Brown, realizes he doesn’t even know Lyndon. That’s a story repeated time and again. He’s a chimera. Those that thought they knew him have to admit they didn’t. So Robert Caro sets out to find out just who exactly this man is. And Johnson doesn’t make it easy. He has repeatedly fabricated his own biography so that even Johnson’s own word cannot be trusted. 

Caro is told if he want’s to know anything about LBJ, he has to start in the Texas Hill Country. He goes back to Johnson’s ancestors and those that first settled in this hard, arid country. He first describes the Bunton family, one known for “temper and pride, ambition and dreams, and interest in ideas and abstractions,” but that is combined with the Johnson strain, known for fierce pride and their own flaring tempers, a passion for ideas, but none of the shrewdness and toughness of the Buntons. These strands combined in a family with big dreams and no sense of practicality. 

Lyndon’s dad, Sam Johnson, felt the zeitgeist of the people and ran for statewide legislature in Texas. He felt, as they all did, that they were trapped, and that there were forces too big to overcome stacked against the working man. Although it was generally agreed that the family was happy, everyone knew Lyndon was an exception. Not only was he never really happy, he was unusually precocious. From age 6 or 7, he would drop a game with his friends to listen to men discuss politics. He felt the need, not only to argue, but he had to win. As a teenager, Lyndon followed his father to the legislature and would imitate him so closely, people had a hard time telling them apart. But that changed in 1920 when his dreamer father experienced a devastating financial setback. After that, Lyndon never regained respect for his father and actually treated him with contempt. It marked a real turning point in his life. 

Lyndon became an incorrigible brat, defying all authority. His frenetic attempts to make something of himself were given “a powerful dose of insecurity and humiliation” by his family’s fall. He was a braggart and suck-up and public disgrace infuriated him. He lashed out in the most powerful way he could towards his education-loving parents, he refused to go to college. He decided to go to California to work for his lawyer cousin. Although he brags this was a time of tramping up and down the coast, scrounging for work and food, it was nothing of the sort. He lived in his cousin’s nice house and worked in his nice office. Not only was he a liar, he was a jerk. One friend recalls how he would pull up next to a car and hit it with his hand to get them to pull off the road and let him pass. Only Lyndon mattered to Lyndon. 

Returning to Texas, he worked for the State Highway Department. The grueling manual labor and a humiliating loss in a fist fight finally convinced him that if he ever wanted to be anybody, he had to get out of Hill Country and go to college. 

His fellow students were not impressed with his bragging and prevaricating. But he didn’t care. He only cared about impressing the president of the school. He sucked up to him with no shame and in return was given plum jobs and room assignments. While on campus, he took a little-known organization and challenged the popular “Black Stars” on campus. What, until that time, had been a meaningless student council, Johnson ramped up by getting people loyal to him to get elected. He worked the machinations of campus politics to his advantage, caring nothing for the people in his way. It wasn’t the last election he would steal. A fellow student describes him as “just the type of character who was snaky all the time. He got power by things you or I wouldn’t stoop to. But he got the power, and he cheated us out of jobs we had worked very hard for, and had earned.” Johnson would not let the integrity his father embodied stop him. He would not be a failure like his dad. 

After graduating from college with a teaching credential, LBJ first went to Washington on the staff of little known congressman from his area. He had a knack for picking people to work under him whom he knew he could control. He drove them as frenetically as he drove himself. Compliments were offered sparingly and criticisms were harsh and spewed in anger. “Dignity was not permitted in a Johnson employee.” In fact he would often make his underlings accompany him to the bathroom where he would insist they write down what he dictated from the toilet. He did it with the specific intent to humiliate them and show them his power. 

Caro states, “In Washington, his fellows would be astonished by his frantic, almost desperate aggressiveness — that aggressiveness would have been familiar to his college classmates. The desire to dominate, the need to dominate, to bend others to his will — and the manifestation of that need, the overbearingness with subordinates that was as striking as the obsequiousness with superiors — had been evident at San Marcos [college].”

Soon, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal came to power. Although the man LBJ worked for, Congressman Kleberg, opposed the New Deal, Johnson saw that the people of the district would fare very well under the new infusion of federal spending. While Johnson worked for a conservative congressman, he also helped the Marxist congressman next door. He saw very early that having principles, like his father did, would do him no good. It was remarked that he was an ideological chameleon, taking on whatever ideology he needed to in order to gain power. A fellow secretary on the hill remarked, “Hell, a lot of us were pragmatic. But you have to believe in something. Lyndon Johnson believed in nothing, nothing but his own ambition. Everything he did — everything — was for his ambition.” He recognized early on that New Deal spending was his ticket up. 

As for a wife, Lyndon Johnson tried very hard to land a rich girl whose family influence could further his ambition. Perceptive fathers saw right through him and thwarted him every time. But when he met painfully shy, retiring, and most importantly, rich Lady Bird, he made his move quickly, before he could be rejected. He wrote her beautiful, flowery letters and in a very short time convinced her to elope with him. Yet after their marriage, everything changed. The man in the letters turned out to be a controlling jerk who humiliated her for fun and constantly imposed on her. However his plan worked, her father’s money would eventually pave the way to his first political run. 

Lyndon found just the man he needed to attach his star to in the powerful congressman from Texas, Sam Rayburn. Fortunately for Johnson, Rayburn was amenable to flattery and loved Lady Bird. Getting frustrated with only being a secretary, Johnson asked Rayburn for help. After talking with FDR, Rayburn got Johnson a job running the newly formed National Youth Administration in Texas. 

Although it did not seem to advance him towards his real goal, the Presidency, the NYA did afford him the opportunity to build a machine. He surrounded himself with sycophants and the power to disperse federal funds. 

Eventually Johnson’s political skills would be desperately needed by some of the most powerful people in Texas. A politically connected and ambitions attorney, Alvin Wirtz, already loved Johnson like a son. This was Johnson’s MO, get a powerful man to mentor and promote him. And Wirtz had a very important political project, a dam, he was shepherding that would enrich him and further his career. Fortunately he had a congressman in his pocket who could make sure the funding went through. Except, weeks before an important vote, the Congressman, Buchanan, died. Wirtz tapped Johnson to fill the seat, even though he’d be facing some powerful people wanting it for themselves. The lawyer knew that Johnson, and none of the others, would do his bidding. Taking a lot of illegal contribution from his father-in-law, Wirtz, and the contractors on the dam, George & Root, Johnson worked harder than anyone could imagine to get the seat. 

On this effort, Caro reflects, “All his adult life, because of the agonies of his youth, the insecurity and shame of growing up in the Hill Country as the son of Sam and Rebekah Johnson, had grasped frantically at every chance, no matter how slender, to escape that past. In Washington, and before that in Houston… he had worked so feverishly, driven himself so furiously, forced his young will to be inflexible — had whipped himself into the frantic, furious effort that journalist and biographers would call ‘energy’ when it was really desperation and fear. He had tried to do everything — everything — possible to succeed, to earn respect, to ‘be somebody.’” He won. This set him on the path to the Presidency, the Great Society, and Vietnam.

Once he got to Washington, this time elected in his own right, he began to cultivate friendships that would be very useful to him. And Johnson got right to work using those friendships to make the dam happen. The problems and obstacles were myriad. The state of Texan, being once a sovereign nation, had decreed that it would never give land to the federal government. The federal government had decreed that it would never build projects on land it didn’t own. Johnson used contacts in Roosevelt’s office to get the president on board with the illegal dam. Once his blessing was secured, the dam got the funding, and Johnson got the credit.

Another powerful friend, one highly susceptible to the flattery of Johnson, was the owner of the influential daily newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, Charles E. Marsh. Marsh owned a beautiful home in Virginia called Longlea, where he and his mistress, Alice Glass, entertained the most powerful people in Washington. Although Mrs. Johnson occasionally came to the parties, she was clearly out of her social league. While Johnson had cultivated Marsh as a powerful friend, that did not stop him from engaging in an affair with Alice Glass. She, as a principled liberal, committed to helping change people’s lives, saw in the chameleon Johnson, a fellow traveler. Their affair continued for years. It was one of the only times in his life that ran counter to his ambitious drive for power. Risking alienating Charles Marsh was “taking one hell of a chance.” Quite uncharacteristically, when it came to Alice, he was not his usual boorish self who would describe or make-up every detail of his physical relationships with women. That he kept to himself. 

Being a congressman was clearly only one step to his ultimate goal of the presidency. To gain a statewide reputation, he began to make speeches all over Texas and court the other members of the Texas delegation. He had his sights on being a senator. This was despite the fact that Texas’ two senators were relatively young, had no plans to leave, and there was quite a queue already in place for the job. As for his career as a congressman, because his only concern was his national ambitions, he didn’t want to make a name for himself ideologically. As a consequence, he introduced almost no legislation and didn’t fight for what he did offer. He made no speeches in Washington and didn’t even take advantage of the ability to enter speeches into the record without actually delivering them. All his efforts were directed towards Texas and securing support there for the job of senator.

Caro states, “Lyndon Johnson did not participate — neither with legislation nor with debate, not on the well of the House or on the floor or in its cloakrooms or committees — in these battles. He had shouted “Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt” to get to the Congress; in Congress, he shouted nothing, said nothing — stood for nothing. Not only was he not in the van of any cause, he was not in the ranks, either. Lyndon Johnson would later be called a legislative genius. A legislator is a maker of laws. During the eleven years that Lyndon Johnson served in the law-making body that is the House of Representatives, few of its 435 members had less to do with the making of its laws than he.” He did not ever want to be confronted with a record. 

When Roosevelt debated running for an unprecedented third term in 1940, his disillusioned vice president, John Garner decided to throw his hat in and try to keep Roosevelt out. As he was from Texas, the Texas delegation, including the powerful Sam Rayburn, was expected to back him. In their loyalty, they did, but Johnson could see which way the path to power lay. While seeming to support Garner with the other delegates, he secretly met with Roosevelt to appraise him of what was happening in the Garner group of supporters. Although Rayburn was a huge fan of Roosevelt’s and only supported Garner out of a sense of Texas loyalty, Johnson even managed to smear his friend and mentor as a member of the “Stop Roosevelt” coalition. HIs behind-the-scenes smarmy behavior gained him Roosevelt’s trust and made him Roosevelt’s “man in Texas.” Rayburn was never aware of Johnson’s double crossing. 

Through more back-room dealings, Johnson was able to revamp the way the Democratic National Committee gave money to candidates. And through Rayburn’s connections, Johnson was able to tap into a new vein of political donations, Texas oil money. Johnson became a very powerful player in Washington, someone all Democrats had to bow before in order to get much needed funding. When he helped shepherd unexpected wins with his timely, and in many cases illegal, funneling of funds to the various candidates in need, he received the accolades of a grateful party. Once again, this shows Johnson working very hard, not as his job as a congressman, but at shoring up for himself power and powerful friends. He was simply brilliant at perceiving opportunities to put himself in a position to forward his interests. 

Then, the senator from Texas died of a stroke. Johnson and his supporters kicked into action. Johnson, more than any other candidate, knew how to campaign and how to pull in favors. His biggest opponent was the well-liked New-Dealer Gerald Mann, the attorney general of Texas. But Johnson felt confident he could outflank him. Then the very popular and charismatic governor of Texas, Pappy O’Daniel entered the race. At one point, Johnson, feeling completely hopeless, suffered a nervous breakdown. He refused to campaign and sunk into a deep depression. He eventually pulled himself out of it with an ingenious plan. He would get those that supported O’Daniel to fight for his defeat, saying that they needed him more in the governor's mansion than in the Senate. 

Plus, he knew where to buy votes. However, Johnson made a fatal mistake. He announced the unofficial tallies of votes he received in the bought counties too early on election day. There was another group of powerful people who saw what Johnson was doing by trying to keep O’Daniel in the governors chair. They actually wanted him out of the chair. So despite their opposition to him, they worked hard to get him to Washington DC. After seeing how many votes Johnson had bought, they knew exactly many they had to buy back. They set out to change those unofficial tallies with numbers in their favor. Everyone was shocked when what looked like a clear victory for Johnson the night of the election abruptly shifted to a win for O’Daniel in the morning. 

Johnson returned to the House, but World War II was brewing. He had made a promise while campaigning for Senator in Texas that if he ever had to vote to “send your boy to the trenches” he would go with them. Once Pearl Harbor was attacked, Johnson made good on that promise. He became a Lieutenant Commander in the United State Navy. This display of patriotism so affected his mentor Rayburn, that a new level of closeness resulted. 

Then Roosevelt died and Johnson boldly proclaimed that he had never been Roosevelt’s man and was not a New Dealer. He saw the winds were shifting. The next book picks up here. 

Caro aptly sums up Lyndon Johnson, “The more one thus follows his life, the more apparent it becomes that alongside the thread of achievement running through it runs another thread, as dark was the other is bright, and as fraught with consequences for history: a hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will. For the more one learns — from his family, his childhood playmates, his college classmates, his first assistants, his congressional colleagues — about Lyndon Johnson, the more it becomes apparent not only that this hunger was constant throughout his life but that it was a hunger so fierce and consuming that no consideration of morality or ethics, no cost to himself — or to anyone else — could stand before it.”

Wow. What an epitaph. 


  1. Volume 2 contains a blow blow-by-blow account of Johnson's 1948 Senate campaign, and a biography of his opponant, Texas Governor Coke Stevenson. I recommend the section of the book that describes Stevenson, as a sort of antidote to Lyndon Johnson. Although the bitterness of that battle did make me finally abandon the book, it is still worth reading for people interested in governance and character. I do plan to take on volumes 3 and 4.

  2. Volume 2 contains a blow blow-by-blow account of Johnson's 1948 Senate campaign, and a biography of his opponant, Texas Governor Coke Stevenson. I recommend the section of the book that describes Stevenson, as a sort of antidote to Lyndon Johnson. Although the bitterness of that battle did make me finally abandon the book, it is still worth reading for people interested in governance and character. I do plan to take on volumes 3 and 4.