01
Apr
14

A Portrait Of The President As A Young Man: The Path to Power – Robert A. Caro

The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, [#1])The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro

Down in the United States, they’re entering an election year. It’s one here too, with Rob Ford running for reelection against political heavyweights like Oliva Chow and John Tory. So lately I’ve had a hankering for a good political read; watching Game of Thrones and House of Cards kind of scratched that itch, but not in the way I wanted. So, instead, I turned to something I’ve meant to read for years: Robert Caro’s multi-volume (and still, as of this writing, uncompleted) biography of Lyndon Johnson.

Even with all the hype and praise around this series, I was still surprised by The Path to Power It’s not just a detailed, engrossing look at the 36th President’s early years, it isn’t just a top-notch biography, its a detailed look at the tricky, crooked and utterly fascinating world of Texas politics in the first half of the 20th century.

As Caro makes clear, this was a hard world to live in. There was complete poverty in the hill country where Johnson grew up; even in the 1930s, this rural community was without electricity and indoor plumbing. People washed clothing by hand in front of a roaring fire (gotta keep the water hot, not to mention the sad irons), even on summer’s hottest days. And, politically, it was even harder: campaigning was a lot of hard travel and was often against the big shots in the city. LBJ’s father tried his hand at it for a while; before long, he was crushed by the land, by the politics and eventually, by debt. LBJ made sure that wouldn’t happen to him.

It’s a long book, but even through 700 pages, it’s compelling, taking readers along for LBJ’s rapid ascent, showing the inner workings of a complicated, opportunistic and driven young man. Drive is the key word when describing the young Johnson: while he demanded a lot from his staff – Caro at one point mentions how Johnson drove one worker to several nervous breakdowns over the years – he also worked insane hours, especially when campaigning. And the campaigns are the backbone of this book: the long drives through desolate Texas back roads, walking through fields to meet with isolated farmers and the backroom dealing with oilmen, construction barons and other wealthy, influential men. As Caro makes clear, LBJ was not going to end up like his father.

One may think this was a more naive, simple era of politics, but in many ways it was even more cynical than ours. Johnson wasn’t shy with money,  scheming to buy billboards, to grease newspaper editors and to buy votes en masse. Everyone else did, too. Caro doesn’t shy away from this; if anything, he makes a 1941 senate campaign sound like two groups of influential millionaires trying to out-bribe the other; it ended when one group managed to buy more votes than the other. The reporting here is top-notch: he doesn’t just keep track of where the money’s going, he turns what could be a confusing jumble into a clear narrative.

And that’s maybe the best way to describe this thing in brief, too. Johnson’s early years were complicated and shaded in misdirection. Caro doesn’t just cut through Johnson’s embellishments, he makes the dry Texas hill country come alive. He starts with the years when settlers first arrived, runs through his father’s years in state politics and looks at LBJ’s student years, when he turned a loose social group into a political machine. And it goes beyond just Johnson, too: this book has fascinating portraits of other influential Texans like Sam Rayburn, the Kleberg family and W. Lee O’Daniel.

Rating: 9/10. Detailed, compelling and packing a hell of a punch, The Path to Power is a startling look at the 36th president. Political biographies don’t get better than this. Recommended.

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