66 of 67 people found the following review helpful
I loved "The Path to Power" but I held off on reading this volume because I could not understand why Caro would devote an entire volume to seven years in LBJ's life. After I read this book, I have no doubt that this decision was a good one. These years--particularly the 1948 Democratic Senatorial Primary--were some of the most historically significant events on the last hundred years. It was this election that perhaps more than any other lay the foundation for politics as we know it. Without the eventual win in this election, Caro argues that LBJ's political career would have been finished. If that were true, he never would have gone on to be president. And if that did not happen, one most ask would Vietnam or "The Great Society" ever have happened quite the way they did. Caro is very convincing in arguing that this dramatic election is one of the most important in U.S. History.
Aside from the significance of the year, I would like to emphasize what a truly exciting read this volume is. I was utterly enthralled to read about what unfolded next in the battle for the democratic candidacy for Texas' senatorial seat. This in spite of the fact that everyone reading the book already knows the outcome. Many have said that this is a hatchet job on LBJ. While this is not a positive portrait of LBJ as a moral figure, it praises him highly as a calculating politician--possibly one of the greatest of all times. The other thing to remember is that Caro is highlighting an election in 1940s Texas, which has always been notorious for corruption in politics (witness the cartoonish and stranger-than-fiction Pappy O'Daniel). The difference in this case was that Coke Stevenson was not as willing to accept that corruption as LBJ was. It is also a lament for the loss of politicians like Stevenson, who one feels Caro holds in much higher regard than LBJ, as will most readers--despite political leanings--once they complete this volume.
This volume is--hands down--one of the most exciting books I have read in a long time. I found it fascinating and could not put it down. I look forward to moving on to the third volume (The Master of the Senate) but I fear how long I will have to wait for the next volume after that.
87 of 91 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2002
This book, published in 1982, has already achieved a legendary status among history and political buffs. When it was released its author, Robert Caro, won enormous acclaim for his unprecedented research and engrossing writing style - and plenty of criticism for his harsh and unsparing portrait of Lyndon Johnson. Caro literally spent years living in and interviewing people in the arid Texas Hill Country where Johnson was born and raised, and in the process he acquired a level of knowledge about his topic that few other biographers even approach. Like William Manchester's "Last Lion" biographies of Winston Churchill, "The Path to Power" is far more than a simple biography of the young Lyndon Johnson's desperate desire to escape the grinding poverty of rural Texas in the 1930's and achieve power in Washington. Caro writes unforgettably of the Johnson family, the culture and history of the Texas Hill Country, the incredibly corrupt political system in Texas at the time, and of how Johnson both brilliantly and cynically manipulated that system for his own purposes. Caro's descriptions of the people in LBJ's life - from his mother to his wife Lady Bird to fellow Texan Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives and Johnson's mentor in national politics - are superb and detailed.
However, Caro's unsparing portrait of LBJ as a power-obsessed liar and bully who would stop at nothing to succeed greatly offended many of LBJ's associates whom Caro had interviewed, as well as liberal historians who cherished Johnson's activism on Civil Rights and other liberal causes (and who conveniently wanted to forget Johnson's record in Vietnam and elsewhere). Many of Caro's sources have refused to be interviewed for his later books on Johnson, and historians such as Robert Dallek have written their own LBJ biographies in which they specifically single out and criticize Caro's view of Johnson. Yet far from disproving his arguments, the release of once-secret documents about Vietnam, as well as other biographies written over the last 20 years, have only confirmed many of Caro's assertions about Johnson. LBJ's bullying of even his closest aides, his vote-stealing in his 1948 Senate election, his illegal business schemes that allowed him to go from being literally "dirt poor" to a multimillionaire on a government worker's salary, his shameless brown-nosing of powerful politicians and businessmen, even while he had love affairs with their wives and girlfriends - all of the allegations made by Caro in 1982 have since been confirmed elsewhere. The fact that Lyndon Johnson was a lousy human being shouldn't be blamed on Caro - he simply dug up the facts (much of which Johnson had tried to hide from the public, such as cutting out all the unflattering photos of himself in hundreds of his college's yearbooks!)
Yet despite the shocking and disturbing revelations in this book, Caro does seem to have a sneaking admiration for Johnson's unceasing drive and energy - the LBJ who emerges in this book may be unappealing in many ways, yet he also manages to move his beloved Hill Country into the twentieth century with cheap electrical power, good roads and schools, and other modern conveniences which its residents might never have gotten without his help. There are flashes in this book (albeit only briefly) of the more appealing LBJ that shows up in Caro's sequels to this biography - the college student who teaches English at a mostly Mexican-American school in Texas and genuinely tries to help his students succeed; the young man who begins to develop a real feeling and concern for America's poor and needy. If Caro's thesis is that even the most self-centered and crass politicians can still do some good, then in Lyndon Johnson he has found his perfect subject. And, it's worth noting that while Robert Dallek and others may have criticized Caro's "interpretation" of Lyndon Johnson, not one of his critics has dared to challenge Caro's research or findings. Indeed, many of his critics have shamelessly used Caro's findings to try and support their own agendas. However, given that it was Caro who actually did the interviews and legwork, and given his unprecedented familiarity with Johnson's life, background, and career, it's difficult not to believe that Caro has a much better view of the "real" LBJ than any of his critics. If you're looking for a book that has passages that will stick in your memory for years, and which gives a view of a great American politician's early life which puts all others to shame, then the "Path to Power" will not be a disappointment. Superb!
76 of 79 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2000
Forget about what your opinion of LBJ is. You still need to read this book. I don't care if you like him, hate him, care nothing for him, or whatever. The way Caro writes a biography is almost breathtaking. Ever wonder what a summer day deep in the Texas Hill country is like? You'll find out in here, and rest assured, it won't put you to sleep.
This book is a great introducation to 20th Century Texas politics. The first few chapters hardly mention LBJ as Caro goes back to LBJ's father and discusses his life. For those of you that have read this book and the 1987 sequel, Means of Ascent, you may be wondering why the third volume covering the 1960s hasn't been written. I have it on good authority that the entire LBJ clan -- family, friends, and close advisors -- have made it clear to Caro that he is unwelcome around them. Hatchet job, or sour grapes because of the truth? Well, read the book and find out. But my guess is that Caro's terrific sources have simply dried up, and he isn't going to put his name on something where the quality is less than this book. Unfortunately for him, that might be near impossible.
One more thing to the quality of this book: there are about a dozen other LBJ books out there ranging from good to just plain bad. Every one of them without exception use this book as a source.
UPDATE: I am extremely happy to be wrong with my guess about Caro's sources drying up. I am looking forward to reading Master of the Senate.
94 of 100 people found the following review helpful
on July 3, 2000
Thank God for Robert Caro, who is a brilliant researcher, complier of facts and an outstanding writer. His way with words is leagues ahead of other historical biographers, he writes with the flair of a novelist but he backs up his words with years of dilligent research. What other biographer pulls up stakes and lives for *five years* in the Texas hill country in order to better understand his subject? This first volume stands at the pinnacle of the biographical art.
Many have criticized Caro (John Connelly most vociferously) for being overly critical of Johnson. I share this concern and feel he sometimes bends over backwards to "stick it to" Johnson. Caro has said repeatedly that he will deal with LBJ's Presidency with a more charitible outlook and this is to be hoped.
I am an unabashed fan of Lyndon Johnson and this will stand as the definitive biography of him for many years. Though it's caustic and critical, it's so beautifully written you can read it again and again. A masterpiece of biography.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on April 26, 1999
I love this series. I perused this site to see if anyone knew when the third volume would be out. No one did, so I e-mailed Randon House. Their response: "Robert A. Caro is hard at work on the last part of Volume Three of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, in which he shows how Johnson mastered the United States Senate as no one else has before or since. You know the amount of research Caro does, how he leaves no stone or paper unturned in his insistence on getting every fact and detail absolutely correct in his life of LBJ and his history of America in the 20th century. And you know what a great writer he is. Such research and writing take time, and we have not as yet set a publication date."
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 1999
Robert Caro portrays Johnson as a compulsive liar with a need to prevaricate and steal that could make a politician cringe. I believe that the domestic program of Lyndon Johnson, civil rights legislation in particular, makes him one of the great US Presidents - even after reading this book. Given the disparity in these views of Johnson, it is remarkable that I found "Ascent to Power" compelling reading.
Caro's book is extensively researched and written with a gripping intensity worthy of the best detective novel. His work gave me an insight that went beyond politics to that of human nature, the drive to power and impact that one individual could have on the course of the 20th century.
My greatest regret - Volume 3 in this biography is years behind schedule. Robert, stop the foolin' around and finish that book!
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on December 13, 1999
The text closely matches information about LBJ's election hijinks described in a much later book, "The Fall of the Duke of Duval" by John Clark. Johnson's first try for senate in 1941 failed, not because of his enemies but because powerful liquor lobby forces wanted Gov. W.Lee O'Daniel, his opponent, out of Texas to Washington,DC to keep him from appointing prohibitionists to the state liquor control board.
Johnson would not have won his second try for U.S. Senator in 1948 without the corruption of the famous ballot box 13 in Jim Wells county, Texas -- vote fraud orchestrated by "The Duke of Duval", George Berham Parr. Mr. John Clark's test in "The fall of the Duke of Duval" provides full disclosure of the vote theft that made LBJ win this election.
As a third generation native Texan, I can tell you LBJ was not popular with many Texans and was losing by a few hundred votes LEGALLY in 1948. But Parr came through from South Texas and provided about 200 extra votes that made LBJ win by about 87 votes out of 1,000,000 cast. He never was considered Presidential Material but was selected as VP to get Kennedy more southern votes. Even at that Kennedy nearly lost. Considering Kennedy's age, no one expected LBJ to last long enough to becomne president after 2 Kennedy terms.
A very good book showing LBJ just didn't get the way he was "Yesterday".
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 1999
Caro's work is simply flabbergasting. I read the 768 page book in a week flat (and ordered Vol. 2 at the mid-point to ensure I could seamlessly continue).
The key to the work is the way in which Caro is able to take a complex set of events and explain it in the context of a central theme. For example, Caro uses the building of the Marshall Ford dam to explain the urgency with which Herman Brown and Alvin Wirtz worked to get Johnson elected to the House.
In short, the book is well-written, thorough, and smart. Caro adds the extra value we require of a historian -- that is, he doesn't merely retell events, he places them in a coherent context so that we can understand what made LBJ. In the end, the portrait is a complex but ultimately scary one of power sought for power's sake.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The pinnacle of biographical art.
Most people have strong opinions about LBJ and many have a divided opinion, admiring him in one sphere such as the Great Society and disdaining him in another such as Vietnam--or vice versa. Such opinions tend to slant our factual beliefs. Objective fact is elusive, but the principled historian's task is to strive hard after it. No biographer ever strived harder than Caro.
The bottom-line judgment you will derive from this first of four volumes is that LBJ was fiercely insecure, fiercely ambitious, and almost maniacally driven; and that these traits made him unendingly duplicitous in pursuit of personal grandeur. (In college, his nickname was "Bullsh-t Johnson")
What is so impressive about this book is not the ultimate judgment, but the heroic investigative journey. Caro's purpose, as in his earler "The Power Broker", was to examine power--how it is obtained and how it is exercised. LBJ is the perfect vehicle for that inquiry. He started with none and accumulated the maximum. No matter how sophisticated you may think yourself in the ways of politics, you will be fascinated and appalled. You will never look at politics in the same way again.
This book is also a rebuke to the "armchair" and "library" biographers. This is how it's done right. Doing it is very hard work.
A cross-country trip by car afforded an opportunity to re-read this masterpiece after 25 years, while transiting the Texas Hill Country that figures so large in the story. More is gained on re-reading than the first time 'round. That's part of how you identify a classic.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2002
I picked up this book largely ignorant of LBJ (he died 4 months before I was born), so I had little preconceived notions of the man. This fine bio really opened up the future president as a real person to me.
Too often, books about presidents try to paint the subject as either a great man or a scoundrel. While seeming to do the latter, the author actually dodges both categories and simply tells a tale of the creation of a president. Caro subscribes to a hybrid of the "nature or nurture" theory (one of genetics or surroundings affecting what kind of person you become). Accordingly, Caro doesn't even really address his subject until fairly deep into the text, the first part of the book being more of a brief history of the Texas Hill Country through the eyes of LBJ's family line. By doing so, he thoroughly covers LBJ's origins (both familial and geographic).
When he does start looking at Johnson it is, admittedly, less than flattering. But it is REAL. Not really knowing much about the man he would become, I found the boy and man that he had been to be surprisingly real. This book doesn't seem to take a political tone that so many of the biographies of recent figures do. Caro avoids the commentary common on famous people that are still remembered (as opposed to say Teddy Roosevelt or George Washington) who still carry with them an emotional context for many Americans.
Caro certainly has strong opinions, but he makes a clear distinction between those opinions and facts, often phrasing opinions in a paragraph of questions to make the reader think about the material he just digested. It is clear what he thinks the answers are, but he refrains from actually answering them for you.
Whatever your take on Caro's Johnson, one has to respect his view as an informed one. Caro immersed himself in LBJ's life, lived where Johnson lived, interviewed thousands of those who knew him, and spent years reviewing LBJ's papers in Austin. Some take issue with his conclusions, but he is well qualified to make them.
(For another well documented biography that covers the often glossed over early years of great men, try "The Invention of George Washington" by Paul K. Longmore.)