08
Apr
14

The War Years: Means of Ascent – Robert Caro

Means of Ascent (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, #2)

The Years of Lyndon Johnson Vol. 2: Means of Assent by Robert Caro

The second volume of Robert Caro’s massive Lyndon Johnson biography is shorter than the first, both in size and scope. But like the first it’s an addicting, gripping read and even with its smaller scale, it does just as interesting a job in capturing a fascinating man.

Where the first volume covers the rise of LBJ to power, the second shows what happened once he had some. It opens on the eve of World War Two. Although LBJ had just lost a close senate race to “Pappy” O’Daniel, he was still a congressman with an impressive resume. On one hand, he’d brought electricity to small towns bypassed by utility companies. On the other, he’d secured lucrative construction deals for his major financial backers.

But as the United States went to war, LBJ followed on a campaign pledge and joined service. But Caro explains it wasn’t anything typical: LBJ chafed at serving under commanding officers and largely spent his time touring shipyards and partying along the west coast, even finding time to sneak in a photo shoot with a Hollywood photographer. Eventually, as pressure for him to actually do something mounted, he goes to Australia, where he’d pick up a Silver Star, giving him something to boast about for the rest of his life.

Thing is, he picked it up under dubious circumstances, only flying on one mission and as an observer at that. Granted: the plane he was supposed to ride (and was kicked out of when he left his seat to take a leak) was shot down. But Caro points out that Johnson was hardly the war hero he billed himself as.

After the war years, the forties were largely quiet for LBJ. As he focused on building a business empire, starting with a radio station, he was quiet on the congressional floor. He rarely gave speeches and introduced just a handful of bills throughout the decade. Caro largely breezes past these years to get to the meat of his work: the 1948 Senate election.

A single summer takes up nearly half of this volume, but the further Caro explains the election, the more it makes sense. The campaign was largely between two people: Johnson and former Texas governor Coke Stevenson. Each represented something different in politics: while LBJ was of the new school, heavily advertising in print and on the radio, giving state-wide speeches, Stevenson was the flip side, running an older, quieter campaign. He barely gave speeches, instead telling people to look back at his record and decide for themselves. The contrast can best be explained in their choice of getting into town: Stevenson would ride a horse up main street; LBJ would fly into town in a helicopter baring his name.

At times, Caro gets carried away with the two. He writes a mini-biography of Stevenson, painting him as a throwback to a simpler time. He comes off as a heroic figure, someone who works hard and does the right thing. Only rarely does he show a darker side to Stevenson, like his bitter racism towards black people (“Stevenson accepted all Southern stereotypes about that race.”). It’s a drastic contrast to LBJ who can only come off negatively against such an image.

(A side note: I’m told Caro addresses this in an afterward contained in the paperback edition; I’ve only read the hardcover, which does not contain this afterward).

As most political wonks know, this was a close, close election. It teetered back and forth, going through two primaries and ended days after the polls closed with Johnson winning by a handful of votes, by less than one percent.  It’s a political drama of the highest order, going from dirty tricks and buying votes to a crowded conference room. And from there, it turns into a courtroom drama, with the stakes going higher and higher, up to the Supreme Court.

It’s an eventful few weeks, filled with twists and turns. Caro takes readers inside Johnson’s desperate, late-night strategy sessions and along with Stevenson and a Texas Ranger as they walk through dusty Texas towns, stared at by gun-toting workers of the local ranch owner. He doesn’t just explain a convincing case that Johnson stole an election (and not by a handful of votes, but by thousands), but takes readers inside how it happened with testimony from those who did it.

Rating: 8/10. Shorter and more accessible than the first volume, this is a great look at Johnson. While it covers just a short period, the 1948 election showcases a little of everything that makes Johnson such a compelling figure: his amorality, his innovative approach to campaigning and his cool under fire. Recommended; this might even make a better starting point than The Path to Power.

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