Rising to Power: Master of the Senate – Robert Caro

Master of the Senate (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, #3)

The Years of Lyndon Johnson Vol. 3: The Master of the Senate by Robert Caro

The third volume of Robert Caro’s massive Lyndon Johnson biography, The Master of the Senate is a huge, 1,000-page history not just of Johnson’s Senate years but also of that political body itself. It’s not just in-depth, though: it’s as compelling as any of the previous two volumes and actually a bit better.

Means of Ascent, Caro’s second volume, left off with Johnson taking the oath on the Senate’s steps. Here, Caro jumps back a ways, all the way back to the beginnings of the Senate. He writes of its origins, especially the special protections – six-year terms, staggered elections, two representatives per state – that prevented it from what Tocqueville called the tyranny of the majority. He covers both the glory years, when it kept a young United States from splintering apart and the darker ones in the early 20th Century, when it was a hotbed of corruption and prejudice, especially on the cusp of World War II.

It’s a long history, maybe a quarter of the book, but it’s effective: it shows both extremes of what the senate’s capable of. And it builds the scene for when Johnson got there: young, ambitious and inexperienced: three things working against you in the senate, a body priding itself on seniority. But it helps to have an ally in your corner. And with Richard Russell, Johnson had one.

Indeed, Russell and his complex relationship with Johnson is the backbone of this book, running throughout Johnson’s actions and rise to prominence. And Caro’s portrait of Russell is nuanced and fascinating: Russell was the archetype of the southern senator, dignified and literate, soft-spoken and well versed in parliamentary procedures. And racist, right to the core, too.

For everything positive Russell did – and Caro makes a good case for Russell’s importance – his legacy will always be marked by his beliefs in State’s Rights and segregation. Caro is evenhanded in his descriptions of Russell: he lets you admire his achievements, such as his role in the struggle between President Truman and General MacArthur, but he never shies away from the negative beliefs, either. It’s a much fuller picture than, say, his take on Coke Stevenson in Means of Ascent.

His account of Johnson’s Senate years are just as nuanced, showing the good and the bad. They’re more than a little frustrating, too. After realizing he couldn’t win power by powerful personality alone, Johnson gained power in cynical ways: a Korean War-era commission on wasteful Government spending that produced more headlines than results or a campaign of flattery towards elder politicians.

Most frustrating of all was his one-man demolition of Leland Olds, who was taken down to help out Johnson’s financial backers and Senate conservatives. In a section frustrating for Johnson’s nearly malicious destruction of a public individual, Caro shows LBJ as a master of dirty politics: laying traps, stacking panels and playing the press corps to turn opinion against someone. His betrayal of Olds rankled with liberal senators for years and it stuck with me throughout the book, especially when Johnson ran into Olds in public and reminded him “nothing personal, it’s just politics.”

That attitude runs throughout the second half of the book, as Johnson gains power: first as minority whip, then as majority leader. He took a mostly ceremonial position and imbued it with real power, thanks to his shrewd relationships with Russell and House leader Sam Rayburn, not to mention clever parliamentary maneuvers. And the book really kicks into gear when Johnson does, using this power to pass a civil rights bill in 1957.

Caro does a canny job presenting the unique complications of this fight. He presents it as a chance for Johnson to shed his Southern Senator image and appeal to northern liberals. But he also shows Johnson as sympathetic to minorities, reminding them of his years as a teacher and his anger over disparity. More than a few people quoted in the book are devout believers in Johnson’s intensity and sincerity.

The fight came against a Republican White House (Nixon was Vice-President at the time and becomes a key foe for Johnson) allied with liberals and the southern Democratic senators. As Caro explains, this was a group seemingly with no middle ground: liberals wanted a strong bill, with provisions on segregation, voting and the right to send people to jail on a judge’s order. The south was firmly against them, wanting a provision adding jury trials (after all, would a southern jury convict someone for something they also believed in?) and was against Federal intervention.

But somehow, Johnson found a middle ground. With weeks of hard work, by playing each side’s fears against each other, listening what was said on the floor (and what wasn’t said) and shrewd political maneuvers, he fleshed out amendment after amendment, agreement after agreement. He worked for one vote at a time while trying to hold each side from scuttling the bill: if the liberals forced a vote (which they had the votes to win), the southern senators would filibuster and kill the thing, not to mention other vitally important bills.

Johnson was up against the best but he bettered them all, finally working the Senate to passing the bill in the small hours of the morning. Caro’s book climaxes with the passage of a watered down bill, an infuriated Nixon and Johnson’s birthday. Sure, the bill was toothless: but it passed, the first civil rights bill to pass since the 19th century. It was only the beginning.

Rating: 9/10. In a long volume, Caro shows Johnson growing into his powers, rising to complex challenges and besting them with a unique sense of ability. It had the potential to become bogged down in detail, in legislative jargon or even under the weight of all Caro’s research. It’s to his credit that it never does: it’s just as readable as any of the two earlier volumes and reaches as frenzied a peak as any of them. Recommended, although I’d still recommend starting with an earlier volume.

Related: Means of Ascent by Robert Caro

Related: The Path to Power by Robert Caro




%d bloggers like this: