on April 13, 2015
Master of the Senate is a quite valuable and often entertaining account of LBJ's tenure as US Senate majority leader. But at over 1000 pages of length, I believe it could have been trimmed considerably and gain much more in readability and coherence than it would have lost in completeness; in other words, Alfred Knopf publishers should have wielded the editor's pencil with a bit more temerity. Is Mr. Caro attempting to write literature or history? I'm not certain he really knows, and often the narrative is an uneasy amalgam of both--too stylized in some parts, not rigorous enough in others. Perhaps 'character study' is the best description, and it may be that it's in describing with pitiless detail the supremely selfish and ruthless Lyndon Johnson, that Caro makes the greatest contribution: seldom have I encountered a more naked, repellent portrait of single-minded thirst for power as the one the author brilliantly compiles. Caro also does a very good job of taking the reader inside the tactical and strategic workings of passing or obstructing legislation in the senate, the cynical back-room deal-making, even threatening at which LBJ excelled Morality, friendship, legality, the lives or reputations of others, family, wife, children, even his own health--even, or especially, this little thing called 'truth', nothing stood in the way of LBJ's pursuit of power. And not even America, because LBJ pursued his own agenda of advancement, even to the detriment of the nation he supposedly served. Now, having done great service in immortalizing a monster of egotism, this is where Caro, in my opinion, fails to consummate the conclusion he had inexorably brought his readers to: that LBJ was an SOB, and that if an SOB can thrive in the US political system then, ipso facto, this has to mean that something is fundamentally very, very wrong in Washington DC, not just in the personalities and the parties, but in the architecture of political power as practiced under the Capitol Dome (and in the lobbyist's hotel suites) itself. Did Caro, as Bob Woodward, as he wrote exposes of the government, get too close to the subject, the establishment, and, to some extent, become co-opted by it, skewing his conclusions, if only unconsciously? Caro suggests that, yes, well LBJ, was an SOB, but hell, only an SOB could have engineered such legislative triumphs as the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (according to Caro, the first successful civil rights legislation passed for 85 years), and, later of course, the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Caro seems to be on solid ground in this contention; after all, isn't this the consensus, that surprisingly, the conservative Texan ends up being the 'savior' of Black folk in America. Caro basically says that if not for LBJ's ingenious maneuvering, civil rights would not have progressed, and that, sure, he gutted the 1957 bill of much substance, but still, he got things moving. I'm not so sure of this, of the 'Great Men' of History theory, that if LBJ had succumbed to his big heart attack in 1955, there would have been no progress, that he was instrumental. The injustice done to Black people was real, it was bad, and with TV, and the rise of Black voting constituencies in the North (which Caro does allude to), something HAD to happen, and it would have happened with LBJ, or without him, and, potentially, it would have been even more meaningful. Is social and political change something conceded and directed from above, or does it issue from the people themselves? If the Southern Caucus under Russell had continued filibustering and obstructing, the pressure would probably have only gotten greater and greater, the clashes more frequent, more intense, the publicity more damaging. LBJ, by dampening the process (as Caro documents, not for the good of America, let alone for the good of Black people, but for the good of his consuming lust for the Presidency, to which patching together a North-South Democratic compromise was key) did hasten passage of a nominal civil rights bill, but this arguably hindered rather than helped civil rights, and ultimately, the United States as well, because the blight of institutionalized racism weakens the whole country by consigning millions of our people to a 'less than human status' and diminishes the contributions they can make to our society. Is this a stylistic device also, the seeming paradox that this villain, in the end, did something virtuous? I wonder; in the previous volume, Means of Ascent, it seemed that Caro had similarly created and accentuated a dramatic contrast between Coke Stevenson and LBJ in the 1948 Texas US Senate election; is something similar going on here; the darkness of LBJ's compulsive drive for power, relieved by the light of an ultimate redemption via his championing of civil rights, a happy ending of sorts?
A quick note on some small matters of detail: on page 1027, Caro, writing about the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, by the USSR, writes: "The launchings showed that the Russians had indeed developed rockets with more thrust than America's, but it was not thrust but rather the rocket's accuracy and the destructive power of the nuclear warheads they carried that would count in war." Well, the last bit, to me doesn't make sense: the destructive power of a nuclear warhead (especially in those early days) depended on the amount of fissile material it carried, and whether it was a fission (A) or fission-fusion (H) device, meaning the total energy of the explosion does ultimately hinge on how much uranium and plutonium is in the device, and YES, this means thrust does matter, because the more your rocket can lift, the bigger, or the more numerous, your warheads can be. On the same page, Caro also writes: "Quite sure of these facts (the USA's nuclear weapon superiority vis a vis the USSR) in part because of amazingly detailed photographic evidence from U-2s, supersonic reconnaissance aircraft that overflew the USSR at heights of up to 15,000 feet (sic)." This couldn't be a simple typo, inverting 15,000, rather than 51,000, it seems to be just plain bad proofreading or 'proof thinking', because military aircraft were already reaching heights in excess of 20,000 during the later stages of the 1914-1918 war. And finally: based on the copious, copious anecdotes--many of them not from enemies of LBJ, but his friends and associates-- in this book, and in Means of Ascent, there can be little doubt that Lyndon Baines Johnson would have been perfectly capable of crimes, and even of being associated in a murder, if such crime(s) would have brought him the power he desired above ALL else, so yes, LBJ, judging from Caro's very thorough character study, could have been a party to a plot to assassinate JFK. I am not saying that LBJ was complicit in such a conspiracy, just that it appears that he would have been morally capable of it.