Just Had To

R.W. Johnson

  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Vol III: Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro
    Cape, 1102 pp, £30.00, August 2002, ISBN 0 394 52836 0

The French prefer an allusive style in biography, with as little as possible of the scaffolding of scholarship showing. Jean Lacouture’s magisterial De Gaulle is virtually unfootnoted, has only a small bibliography and contains many verbatim conversations or remarks by De Gaulle that we have to take on trust, as well as many ironic thrusts and tight logical turns which can nearly knock you off your chair. The result is an impressionistic Life in which little is settled beyond dispute. The British style is more careful and thorough, with the foundation work in sources revealed as proudly as any part of the superstructure. The aim is completeness and to settle things beyond doubt, but there is reticence even so. It’s not just that literary flourishes are avoided and psychobiography shunned, but that key debates can be carried on almost unseen in long afternotes. Even such an authoritative work as Philip Williams’s Gaitskell, with its unrivalled picture of postwar Labour politics, wholly omits Gaitskell’s colourful sex life. ‘I decided at the outset I wasn’t going into all that,’ he told me.

American biography, as Robert Caro’s vast Life of LBJ reminds one, is something else again. Whereas British political biography, with the (white) elephantine exception of Martin Gilbert’s Churchill is, almost as a matter of professional pride, a one-volume affair, there is a well established American tradition of monumentalism, based, it seems, on the assumption that a blockbusting person requires a blockbuster book. Caro seems intent on breaking all records with LBJ. This third volume takes us only as far as 1960, with the whole of Johnson’s Vice-Presidency and Presidency still stretching ahead, yet this volume on its own contains 645,000 words and the first two, The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, were each of similar size.

Mainly this is justified, for LBJ’s career, from the young New Dealer and confidant of FDR to the wartime Congressman to the man who ruled the Senate, can be seen as epitomising the century – or at any rate its middle years. Johnson was also the architect of the space age: Tom Wolfe correctly makes him a central figure in The Right Stuff and it’s no accident that mission control is anchored in Houston. With the Great Society programme he forced a torrent of social and economic reforms through Congress – only FDR did anything comparable – and, above all, he was the man who completed the work of black emancipation with the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965. Finally, he launched America’s full weight into the Vietnam War – and was crucified for it.

Yet Caro also seems to delight in providing mounds of essentially irrelevant detail. For example, at one point Johnson’s backers in the oil and power industries very much wanted to get rid of Leland Olds, the progressive chairman of the Federal Power Commission, whose determination to put consumers first threatened to cut company profits. LBJ obliged, with a cynical and unjustified McCarthyite witch-hunt which destroyed Olds for ever. This was ugly work without a doubt and Caro devotes 71 pages to it, including a lengthy biography of Olds complete with details of his parents and a painstaking analysis of his prodigious journalistic output in the 1920s.

Because travelling with Caro through LBJ’s life is like a slow walk across the Great Plains, periodic emotional highs have to be manufactured to add a few landscape features, and what he has said in earlier pages or volumes has to be recapitulated since it may now lie so far back along the trail. Both purposes are served by repeated perorations about LBJ forcing through the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which finally gave all blacks the vote, and about the canniness with which he foresaw Southern resistance in Congress – and grimly adopted the civil rights movement anthem, ‘We shall overcome’. The bitterness of those who had supported him all their lives up until that moment and could never forgive this treason to the Old South didn’t deflect him. Caro is not exaggerating when he says that LBJ stands next to Lincoln in the history of black emancipation: the problem is that he says it so often.

These faults are outweighed by three great virtues. First, Caro’s canvas allows him to use LBJ’s life as a lens through which to examine a period and, in this case, the institution of the Senate; this doesn’t just enrich the narrative, it changes one’s view. Second, there is the fascination of watching a wholly amoral man – LBJ bullied, lied, cheated, betrayed and stole elections – succeed against the odds and do a great deal of good. And third, there is the tremendously detailed and hugely enjoyable depiction of a master politician time and again winning legislative battles which were not there to win.

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