The movie Selma, which debuted a few weeks ago, shines a spotlight on Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for civil rights. It’s also sparked a side controversy over its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. Some say it unfairly diminishes Johnson’s positive role in the civil rights movement.
How many Americans really know the story of Lyndon Johnson?
Over the years, several people have recommended to me Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography. It’s a four-part series on the life and career of America’s 36th president, with the fifth and final edition due out in a few years. People say it’s one of the best political biographies ever. I just finished volume one, The Path to Power, and I can report that it was totally compelling, at turns a gripping narrative of larger-than-life characters and a well-written explainer on 1950’s Texas.
Caro would argue it’s a vitally important topic: “Knowing Lyndon Baines Johnson—understanding the character of the thirty-sixth President of the United States—is essential to understanding the history of the United States in the twentieth century.”
The civil rights legislation that Johnson championed in the Senate and then later as President are addressed in the later volumes, which I have not yet read, so here I will pose just one general observation and question.
The question is this: Does everyone who achieves historic status in the world of business, entertainment, and politics possess a pathological level of ambition and hunger for power? Johnson reached the peak of global power despite being born in one of the poorest parts of the United States. It takes a certain kind of person to climb the tallest mountain when you start at the very bottom. Do these people suffer from insecurities and a need to be liked that’s so totalizing and so severe that these insecurities serve as the fuel for said ambition? And, moreover, is it the case that for most people who make it to the top, they sacrifice almost everything, from relationships to privacy to hobbies?
The more you read biographies of people who led historic lives, especially in politics, the more you begin to see an usual level of ambition that’s fueled as much by darkness as by light: where darkness takes the form of some primal character flaw, or an abusive or absent father, or an unforgettable injustice that molds the character.
This volume one by Robert Caro is an extraordinary of portrait of exactly that kind of ambitious, deeply flawed person: Lyndon Johnson. The portrait does justice to both the man himself and the varied influences around him that enabled his rapid rise from Hill Country Texas to Congress.
Johnson’s hunger for power knew no ends. He once said, “I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me. I know where to look for it, and how to use it.” In the early part of his career, which this volume focuses on, we see how willingly he works crazy hours, lies, kisses ass, compromises, whatever it takes, really — in order to slowly move up the political pecking order. The moment he attained power, he immediately used it to position himself for the next rung up.
Eventually, as Senator and then President, he came to use his power tragically in Vietnam but also wonderfully and historically in championing civil rights legislation that had been voted down time and time again. His Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965 were the first meaningful civil rights legislation on the books since 1870.
If you want to understand the president in the movie Selma — or you just want to understand American history better — begin Robert Caro’s series The Years of Lyndon Johnson. It’s terrific.
Various highlights from the book are included below the fold.