Summer Reading Review: The Path to Power (1982)

Black and white photo of Roosevelt and Johnson
Presidents present and future, Roosevelt (left) and Johnson (right), first meet at Galveston, Texas in 1937. From: tribupedia.com

The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume 1: The Path to Power
Robert A. Caro


Robert A. Caro is the consummate chronicler of political power – its acquisition, use and abuse. The New Yorker has spent half a century writing 4,500 pages over five books on the subject, explored through biographical portraits of Robert Moses – the “master planner” of 20th century New York City – and America’s 36th president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Caro has created a non-fiction reading challenge equivalent to War and Peace four times, and we still anticipate the fifth and final instalment of The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Thanks to the weight restrictions on a certain budget airline, I could only take his first tome on Johnson, The Path to Power, on holiday. This details the Texan’s prodigious rise from Hill Country poverty to the U.S. House of Representatives by 1937 and his first (failed) Senate campaign in 1941, at the age of thirty-two.

It was a stunning read. Immediately clear is the timeless quality of Caro’s storytelling; he has argued that great histories should command the same universal acclaim as great fiction. Intricate descriptions of the history of Johnson’s birthplace – its vicious aridity; remoteness; the time and effort required by families simply to subsist – show Caro’s strength as a method-writer, if there is such a thing. He spent three years living in rural Texas, not only to access archival material and seek out an unlikely cast of interviewees, but also to immerse himself in a setting which has scarcely changed since it was inhabited by his principal "characters" in the 1920s.

Caro’s style may not lend itself to more casual readers – sentences are sometimes whole paragraphs, festooned with an array of punctuation – but this is deliberate. It might reflect the agitation in Johnson’s mind as he was chauffeured between endless campaign stops: a candidate who never rested until a job was done. Even in his year-long stint as a Houston high school teacher, Johnson devoted his waking hours to reviving a defunct debating club and raising it to within one place of winning the Texas state schools’ championship. (One disastrous exception to the rule was his 1941 Senate candidacy: due to the inadequate policing of polling stations by Johnson’s team, his nearest opponent was able to falsify election returns at the last minute and steal the Senate seat by 1,500 votes. Caro concludes: 'he had relaxed for one day. And he had lost.')

Caro’s supposed digressions always serve to magnify the importance of decisions, schemes or situations. For instance, a chapter detailing the gruelling routine of a Hill Country wife intensify the reader’s perception of how transformative the provision of electricity to rural Texas was in 1938-9, and the power Congressman Johnson therefore possessed to lobby for such action. Equally, a long description of the House of Representatives’ appropriation of funds for a hydroelectric dam near Austin suddenly becomes relevant as Johnson’s role in securing the contractors (Brown and Root, Inc.) gave him a lucrative, lifelong connection: he would never have to worry about campaign financing again.

Despite the focus on political power, individual character studies are masterful and poignant. Caro conveys the inner warmth of the cantankerous future Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn. He implies from Rayburn’s loneliness a native condition for many members of Congress and the Washington elite, bereft of companionship outside the daily grind of bargaining, fixing and voting. It afflicted Johnson’s introverted wife, Lady Bird, and his once venerated father, Texas State Congressman Sam Ealy Johnson. In an illuminating recourse to Freudian psychoanalysis, Caro presents the congenital “Johnson” trait of idealism; having commanded his son’s awe and respect as a legislator, Sam Johnson doubles down to invest what little agricultural wealth the family has generated on the expectation of good harvests – and in brutal drought loses it all, along with his health (dying of heart disease at 60) and his reputation.

Nonetheless, Caro’s most commanding character study is, naturally, Lyndon Johnson himself. The intrinsic desire to be not just anyone, but someone (as the author repeatedly stresses), motivates the future president throughout his formative years, from Johnson City to San Marcos College and Washington, D.C. (The eponymous childhood town bore no connection to LBJ’s immediate family, but he would always introduce himself as “Lyndon Johnson from Johnson City” to insinuate a higher status.) The Texan is attention-seeking and callous in the pursuit of self-promotion. For instance, in 1940, Johnson betrayed his political mentor Sam Rayburn in order to manoeuvre himself as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s chief congressional liaison in Texas. And like any good chess player, he always thought several steps ahead. It took enormous confidence and charisma for a mere congressional secretary arriving in Washington at 23 to develop a network of state-wide connections upon which Johnson would draw, a decade later, in campaigning to be Texas’ youngest U.S. Senator in generations.

While marvelling in his magnetic appeal and prodigious talent at “playing politics”, Caro clearly dislikes the principle-free Texan. He was a slave-driver to subordinates, who would doze off in a group conversation if he was not the centre of attention. Conversely, he could be a sycophant who would only listen in the company of older, more powerful men, be they liberal or conservative. Many colleagues, interviewed in the 1970s, could not determine whether Johnson actually supported Roosevelt’s New Deal, despite basing campaigns in 1937 and 1941 solely on his association with the great President. Caro’s pronouncements foreshadow the tenure of one of the United States’ most secretive and deceitful commanders-in-chief.
Caro sat at his desk with a typewriter
Caro at work - he still uses a typewriter. From www.nybooks.com

Still, as a by-product of Johnson’s relentless desire to win and accumulate authority, he appears capable of extraordinary charity and empathy. Disappointingly, an examination of his position on race in segregated Texas comes in the second volume. But it is notable that while teaching in Cotulla in the Mexican-dominated south of the state, Johnson showed a genuine desire to educate and assimilate destitute Latino children to give them a flavour - however small - of the "American Dream". If Caro shows Johnson to believe in anything, it is surely the power of self-improvement. If he could rise from an isolated town in mid-Texas to the White House through the power of hard work, so could anyone.

Caro’s study refuses to accept previous, one-dimensional analyses of Johnson such as that of Doris Kearns Goodwin (1977), who served as a presidential secretary to LBJ and appears to have been subdued in her historical analysis by his persuasive power. Caro has sought out Johnson’s childhood acolytes, classmates from San Marcos, and even his campaign chauffeurs to overcome established myths. By his death in 1973, the President had resorted to destroying evidence of his machinations and warping his own recollections of his young career. It is small wonder that Lady Bird Johnson refused Caro’s interviews as his meticulousness became clear. Caro’s methods hold obvious relevance as America endures a similarly duplicitous character, Donald Trump, in its highest elected office. I fully intend to read the next three (hopefully one day, four) volumes as Robert Caro, now 82, continues to unpick the motivations of Lyndon Johnson and his virtuoso acquisition of political power.