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Customer Review

104 of 111 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the greatest biographies of our time..., February 21, 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1) (Paperback)
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!
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