Book Review: The Path to Power by Robert Caro

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.

Lyndon Johnson’s full term as President began in triumph: the 1964 landslide that Theodore H. White calls “the greatest electoral victory that any man ever won in an election of free peoples.” It ended—to the chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” from a generation to whom he was the hated war maker—with his announcement that he would not again ask the nation to elect him its leader.

In every election in which he ran—not only in college, but thereafter—he displayed a willingness to do whatever was necessary to win: a willingness so complete that even in the generous terms of political morality, it amounted to amorality.

According to attorneys close to him, attainment of the Presidency did not slake Lyndon Johnson’s thirst for money. Upon assuming the office, he announced that he was immediately placing all his business affairs in a “blind trust,” of whose activities, he said, he would not even be kept informed. But these attorneys say that the establishment of the trust was virtually simultaneous with the installation in the White House of private telephone lines to Texas lawyers associated with the administration of the trust—and they say that during the entire five years of his Presidency, Johnson personally directed his business affairs, down to the most minute details. Of this there was virtually no public awareness, and Lyndon Johnson left the Presidency, and lived out his life, and died, with the American people still ignorant not only of the dimensions of his greed but of its intensity.

Emmette Redford says that Lyndon’s intense interest in politics was in part due to the lack of any laboratory equipment, or so much as a single science course, in the Johnson City school. “There was no way anyone could have cultivated an interest in science even if he had wanted to, but we had first-rate history and civics teachers,” he says. And, Redford says, it was in part due to the town’s lack of other activities. “There were no movie houses then, no nothing. There wasn’t anything in the community except the three churches and the courthouse,

 He also remembered his father giving him many little pieces of political advice; one was, “If you can’t come into a room and tell right away who is for you and who is against you, you have no business in politics.”

Johnson did even on his own time. “He had a kind of idea of government as something that could do things personally for people,” Emmette Redford says, and since there was no one else to provide personal service in the Hill Country, he provided it himself, obtaining pensions for elderly constituents who had once been Texas Rangers or Army scouts, or for the widows of soldiers who had served in the Spanish-American War but who didn’t know how to apply for pensions,

For Sam Johnson, who could walk into a room and know in an instant who was for him and who was against him, was a man who knew what people were thinking. And what they were thinking about him had changed—rapidly and completely. In a span of time that seems to an outsider remarkably brief, he had been transformed in the eyes of his home town from a figure of respect to a figure of ridicule.

In Austin, he had seen the legislators who accepted the beefsteak, the bourbon and the blondes, who lived at the Driskill while his father lived at the boardinghouse. His father had refused to be like them, and he had seen what happened to his father. His mother had believed that poetry and beauty were the most important things in life, and she had refused to ever stop believing that, and he had seen what happened to his mother. The most striking characteristic of both his parents was that they were idealists who stuck to their ideals. They had been trying ever since he was a little boy to teach him that what mattered was principle, and sticking to principle. 

Within five weeks of his arrival at the college—before, in fact, he had even been admitted to it—he was working in the president’s office, in a job which hadn’t even existed before he got there.

He talked a lot about girls, too. His brother, Sam Houston Johnson, recalls that more than once, when he visited his brother at San Marcos, Lyndon, coming back into the room naked after a shower, would take his penis in his hand, and say: “Well, I’ve gotta take ol’ Jumbo here and give him some exercise. I wonder who I’ll fuck tonight.”

But the aspect of Lyndon Johnson’s character most remarkable to other students was his lack of embarrassment when caught out in an exaggeration or an outright falsehood. “You could catch him in a lie about something, and it was like he didn’t care,” Richards says. “The next day he’d be back lying about the same thing again.” Says Clayton Stribling: “He never seemed to resent [being found out]. He just didn’t care. He wouldn’t get mad. He’d be back the next day talking the same as ever.”

So incessantly did he harp on this last point that there was a general feeling that the basis of the romance was, in the words of another student, the fact that “She was a rich man’s daughter, and Lyndon was always looking for a way to help himself.” Says yet another student: “He was hinting: he wanted to find a girl who had a lot of money.” So unconcealed was his desire to marry for money, in fact, that it was to become the subject of a joke in the Pedagog.

Yet at the slightest sign—even a false sign: a typical schoolboy imitation, someone not singing his song—that that respect and affection might be less than absolute, he reacted so strongly. Was it possible that nothing could convince him that he had respect? That nothing could make him, deep inside himself, feel secure?

 “Quite obviously, since every practical politician knows that hate and fear offer more forceful tools for organizing than love and respect, Lyndon had a rather fertile field at San Marcos.… Lyndon had sized up the situation like an old pro.

 There was even an ingenious device to allow a White Star to deny with a straight face that he was one: immediately upon being asked if he is a member of the group, a White Star rule read, the member is—upon the very asking of the question—automatically expelled, so that he can answer “No”; he will be readmitted at the next meeting.

AND DID THAT TASTE LIGHTEN the gloomy side of his character—the side seen by almost no one, but so striking to those who did see it, the sudden, intense silences that Boody called “loneliness” and that one woman said meant that “Lyndon was really down,” the silences that were the outward sign of the doubts and fears that tormented him, of the depression that could be lightened only by the one person in the world of whose love he was sure? In December, 1929, he wrote to her: My dear Mother

 Nothing could change him. Some men—perhaps most men—who attain great power are altered by that power. Not Lyndon Johnson. The fire in which he had been shaped—that terrible youth in the Hill Country as the son of Sam and Rebekah Johnson—had forged the metal of his being, a metal hard to begin with, into a metal much harder. In analyses of other famous figures, college, being only part of the formulating process that creates character, deserves only cursory study, but the years Lyndon Johnson spent at college are revealing of his character as a whole—all the more revealing, in fact, because at college there are no complications of national or international politics or policy to obscure character.

One of the older secretaries in the group—Arthur Perry, a Capitol Hill veteran then secretary to Senator Tom Connally of Texas—was a shrewd observer of young men. Johnson, he saw, rushed through his food because he wanted to be done with it before the others got to the table—so that eating wouldn’t interfere with his conversation. “That left him free to shoot questions at us while we ate,” Perry would recall. The questions were all on a single theme: how to get things done in Washington, how to get ahead in Washington, how to be somebody in Washington. “He’d say, ‘But how did he do it?’ (Whatever it was.) ‘Did he know somebody? Is he a nice guy? What’s his secret of getting ahead?’ ” The simple answer—the shallow answer—didn’t satisfy him. If one of the other men at the table replied, “I don’t know as he has any special secret—maybe he’s just lucky,” Johnson would say, “I don’t believe in luck. You look into it and you’ll find it’s always a lot more than just luck.” He himself would not stop looking into it until he was satisfied. “If he didn’t like the answers he got, he would argue” on all sides of a question, worrying it from every angle, Perry says. “It took a long time” for Perry “to catch on” to what Johnson was doing, he says, but finally he realized “that most of his arguing was done simply to bring out every possible answer to his arguments. He wanted to be sure he knew all the answers.”

Despite the thinness of his suits, his first paycheck went not for warm clothing, but for a formal portrait—and a hundred prints—by Washington’s most expensive photographer. Inscribing and autographing the pictures (“To Gene and the members of the Sam Houston High debating club. I love you all—Lyndon B. Johnson”), he mailed them back to Texas, as if he were a Congressman responding to constituents’ requests

“Any kind of coarseness or crudeness just disgusted him,” a friend says. Johnson began making Jones take dictation from him while Johnson was sitting on the toilet. The toilet in Kleberg’s office suite was set in a short corridor between its two rooms. Johnson would sit down on it, and, Latimer says, “there would come a call: ‘L.E.!’ L.E. would say, ‘Oh, God,’ because he hated this.” He would take his pad, and go to the bathroom. At first, he attempted to stand away from the door, but Johnson insisted he come right into the doorway, so he would be standing over him, and “L.E. would stand with his head and nose averted, and take dictation.” In later years, Johnson’s penchant for forcing subordinates to watch him defecating would be called by some an example of a wonderful “naturalness.” Others would find it, as one journalist put it, “in part, a method of control. Bring Douglas Dillon into the bathroom with you, and he has a little less independent dignity.” This tactic was, indeed, “a method of control.” 

BY THE TIME Lyndon Johnson arrived in Washington, the district’s arrogance was gone; its people were asking the government for help now—for government participation in relief funding; for government refinancing of farm mortgages; for government support of crop prices; and, more and more, because “surplus is ruin,” for government-enforced crop controls. There was desperation in the mail sacks he opened each morning.

His tone with these powerful men was very different from the tone he used with them; he was as obsequious to those above him as he was overbearing to those below. “In talking with these guys,” L. E. Jones says, “Lyndon was very much the young man, very starry-eyed, very boyish. It was very much the junior to the senior. ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘No, sir.’ ”

Ambition was not uncommon among those bright young men in the Dodge, but they felt that Johnson’s was uncommon—in the degree to which it was unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of philosophy, of principles, of beliefs. “There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic,” a fellow secretary says. “Hell, a lot of us were pragmatic. But you have to believe in something. Lyndon Johnson believed in nothing, nothing but his own ambition. Everything he did—everything—was for his ambition.” A saying about Johnson had gained wide currency among these young men because they felt it described him accurately: “Lyndon goes which way the wind blows.”

Attempting to impress these influential men with his entrée and competence, to make them feel secure in his hands, he was careful not to let them realize what young and low-level hands they were; he tried to never let them see his living quarters (one prominent visitor from Texas who saw the Dodge basement—Welly Hopkins—was shocked: “They were living just like youngsters, like in a dormitory,” he recalls). When they asked for hotel reservations, he provided them—as if it were easy for him to do so; they never suspected that because he possessed in fact no influence with hotels, he was often forced to frantically telephone one after another until he found a room—and, sometimes, when he had been turned down everywhere, to make a trip in person to see a reservation manager, and spend his own money on a big tip. He never gave them even a hint of the difficulties he might encounter in attempting to secure interviews for them with high-ranking officials—difficulties which occurred frequently with officials who did not need Congressman Kleberg’s support on a pending bill, and who had never even heard of Congressman Kleberg’s secretary. His care was rewarded. Businessmen from the Fourteenth District were as impressed as he could have wished. And when businessmen from other Texas districts complained to them that their Congressman couldn’t provide much help with the Washington bureaucracy, they would suggest that they contact Dick Kleberg’s secretary.

 Terrible as were the toil and the poverty, the loneliness was worse. Poverty, he was to say, only “tries men’s souls”; it is loneliness that “breaks the heart. Loneliness consumes people.” – Sam Rayburn

All his adult life, because of the agonies of his youth, the insecurity and shame of growing up in the Hill Country as the son of Sam and Rebekah Johnson, he had grasped frantically at every chance, no matter how slender, to escape that past. In Washington, and before that in Houston and Cotulla, he had worked so feverishly, driven himself so furiously, forced his young will to be inflexible—had whipped himself into the frantic, furious effort that journalists and biographers would call “energy” when it was really desperation and fear. He had tried to do everything—everything—possible to succeed, to earn respect, to “be somebody.” “There was a feeling—if you did everything, you would win.”

Sam Johnson had a favorite saying: “You can’t be in politics unless you can walk in a room and know in a minute who’s for you, and who’s against you.” Sam’s son possessed the gift to which his father had referred. He could see who was for him—and he saw that very few were for him.

There was a tactic, Sam Johnson said, that could make the leaders’ opposition work for him, instead of against him. The same tactic, Sam said, could make the adverse newspaper polls work for him, instead of against him. It could even make the youth issue work for him. If the leaders were against him, he told his son, stop trying to conceal that fact; emphasize it—in a dramatic fashion. If he was behind in the race, emphasize that—in a dramatic fashion. If he was younger than the other candidates, emphasize that–in a dramatic fashion.

 The first letters to be answered, moreover, were those not from friends but from enemies: the concession messages from his opponents. And while their congratulations had been strictly pro forma, his replies were not. You didn’t lose, he told Avery, just as I didn’t win. “It was a victory for President Roosevelt.” He repeated that to Sam Stone—“My dear Judge: Thank you very much for your kind telegram. The people voted to support President Roosevelt and his program, and the victory is his”—and, since the Judge would be a more dangerous future opponent than Avery, went on at more length: “You warned me you would show us how to carry Williamson County, and I congratulate you upon the support the homefolks gave your candidacy. Please tell your and my friends there that I admire the way they stood by you.”

EVER SINCE HIS BOYHOOD in Johnson City, Lyndon Johnson had displayed a remarkable talent for making a favorable impression on older men who possessed power—and for making it with startling rapidity.

“At parties, he was fun,” Elizabeth Rowe says. “That’s what no one understands about Lyndon Johnson—that he was fun.” He was, in fact, the life of these parties. Quick wits flashed at them, and none flashed quicker than his. “When I think of the old Lyndon, I think of old-fashioned joshing, kidding around,” Goldschmidt’s wife Elizabeth Wickenden says. “The small talk was great,” Jim Rowe says. “He always had a good Texas story that was in point.”

And if he was not the center of the stage, Lyndon Johnson refused to be part of the cast at all. He would, quite literally, go to sleep. In a group of people in a living room, he would be talking, someone else would begin talking, and Johnson would put his chin down on his chest, his eyes would close—and he would be asleep. He might stay that way for quite some time—twenty minutes or half an hour, say; he probably wouldn’t wake up until Lady Bird nudged him. And when he woke up, as Rowe puts it, “he woke up talking.”

In later years, such delicacy would not be one of his more striking characteristics. Displaying the same coarseness that, at college, had led him to exhibit his penis and call it “Jumbo,” he would show no reticence whatever about the most intimate details of extramarital relationships. His descriptions of his amours were not only exhibitionistic but boastful; particularly with cronies, he would seem almost to need to make other men acknowledge his sexual prowess. There was, seemingly, no aspect of an afternoon in bed—not even the most intimate details of a partner’s anatomy—that he did not consider grist for his vivid storytelling ability. About the physical aspect of his relationship with Alice Glass, he spoke not at all. About her, he was as reticent as a young man in love.

As for other causes, Johnson’s overall record on the introduction of national legislation—legislation which would have an effect outside his own district—was equally striking. Lyndon Johnson became a Congressman in 1937. He did not introduce a national bill in 1937—or in 1938, 1939, or 1940. When he introduced one in 1941—on December 9, two days after Pearl Harbor—it was a bill to create a job for himself by merging the National Youth Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps into a single agency

He didn’t introduce legislation himself—and he wouldn’t fight for legislation introduced by others. He wouldn’t fight publicly. He didn’t write laws—and he didn’t write speeches, at least not speeches to be delivered in Washington.

observed what classmates had once observed: that, while he might be speaking very volubly during a conversation on a controversial issue, he wouldn’t take a position on the issue—or, indeed, say anything of a substantive nature. He tried to avoid specifics, and if pinned down, would say what the other person wanted to hear. He did it very well—as discussions with his congressional colleagues reveal. If the Congressman was a liberal, he believes that Lyndon Johnson, as a Congressman, was a liberal. Says the staunchly liberal Mrs. Douglas: “We agreed on so many of the big issues. He basically agreed with the liberals.” But if the Congressman was a conservative, he says that Lyndon Johnson, as a Congressman, was a conservative.

 He had shouted “Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt” to get to Congress; in Congress, he shouted nothing, said nothing—stood for nothing. Not only was he not in the van of any cause, he was not in the ranks, either.

One facet of Lyndon Johnson’s political genius was already obvious by 1940: his ability to look at an organization and see in it political potentialities that no one else saw, to transform that organization into a political force, and to reap from that transformation personal advantage. He had done this twice before, transforming a social club (the White Stars) and a debating society (the Little Congress) into political forces that he used to further his own ends. Now he was to do it again.

A HALLMARK OF JOHNSON’S CAREER had been a lack of any consistent ideology or principle, in fact of any moral foundation whatsoever—a willingness to march with any ally who would help his personal on a scale unprecedented in that district. Now he was using money on the same scale in twenty-one districts—all across Texas. Lyndon Johnson, in his first campaign for the Senate, was using money on a scale Texas had never seen.

Johnson shouted his speeches in a harsh voice almost without inflection except when he was especially determined to emphasize a point, when his voice would rise into a bellow; the tone was the tone of a lecturer uninterested in any opinion but his own: dogmatic, pontifical, the tone of a leader demanding rather than soliciting support. Reinforcing the tone were the gestures, as awkward as ever but now authoritarian to the point of arrogance. He spoke with his big head thrust aggressively forward at his listeners, and sometimes it would thrust forward even more and he would raise his hand and repeatedly jab a finger down at them. Sometimes he spoke with one hand on a hip, with his big head thrown back a little, shouting over their heads. His attitude went beyond mere inability to learn public speaking. His rare smiles were so mechanical that they seemed calculated to let the audience know they were mechanical, as if he wanted to let them know that he didn’t need them, that he was the leader and they the followers.

And Douglas noticed that “Lyndon gave each of them two pumps with the arm and one slap on the back before greeting the next comer.” The two-pump, one-slap technique was, in fact, one that Johnson had rehearsed; he boasted that, using it, he could, with his aides prodding the voters past him in a fast-moving single line, shake forty-two hands per minute. The method was efficient, but not effective. Far from establishing rapport with voters, he only managed to emphasize the feeling that he was not one of them, and that, while he might be asking for their help, he didn’t really need it. And he would not allow a voter more than a hurried word or two, if that; Bill Deason says, “He never missed anybody on the street.… He shook hands with every one of them, but he never let them involve him in an argument. He moved fast.…” In fact, he seldom let them involve him in a conversation; the candidate moved through crowds in a cordon of officious aides who pushed people aside, none too gently, hurrying him along as he flashed mechanical smiles…

The change may have come as a shock to Harold Young and Bill Kittrell; it might have shocked Pa Watson, who had considered Lyndon Johnson the “perfect Roosevelt man.” But it would have come as no surprise to the young men who had lived in the Dodge Hotel with Lyndon Johnson, and who had said, “Lyndon goes which way the wind blows.” His relationship with the President and the New Deal demonstrated how well these young men had understood him. Before the paint had faded on the billboards proclaiming his loyalty to Franklin D, Lyndon B had turned against him…

6 comments on “Book Review: The Path to Power by Robert Caro
  • What does the literature say about the qualities and background of successful people? I imagine this is much-studied.

    After reading Freedom’s Forge and Arsenal of Democracy, I was really struck by the change in the nature of the — for lack of a better term — “business tycoon” between WWII and today, where “today” is “the digital age.” The kind of struggle that entrepreneurs go through today is materially different than the kind of struggle an entrepreneur went through at all other times in human history — there is vastly less work to get to scale, the exits are bigger and happen much faster and much earlier than before. We have a world of younger and by any earlier measure much less experienced “successful” tycoons. How old were you when your business was bought out? That was unheard of in Johnson’s lifetime.

    I also wonder whether today’s young tycoons are nearly as ambitious as earlier generations. There are well-known cases of people with a blood instinct — Gates, Bezos — but the nature of digital business seems to reward those with rabid curiosity as much as rabid lust for money and power, or perhaps it’s created a perception bias: the digital economy rewards mere curiosity for the first time in history, which makes the earlier gateways seem less prevalent.

    Success born of insecurity is a particular kind of pathology. What have you seen as Reed’s assistant? Lots of Nixons? Is there a particular personality type you encounter over and over again?

    For those of us with a keen interest in the Vietnam War, our great fear is that Caro will die before writing the fifth volume. I have a hunch — a hope — that it will change how we think about what Johnson did.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment. Tech entrepreneur culture may be different than other industries, in terms of the types of people it attracts, so I won’t generalize too much based on my own personal experience…

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