The Magazine

Mastering the Senate

All the way with LBJ.

Apr 29, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 32 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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Master of the Senate
The Years of Lyndon Johnson
by Robert A. Caro
Knopf, 1,167 pp., $35

IT HAS BEEN twelve years since publication of "Means of Ascent," the second volume of Robert Caro's "The Years of Lyndon Johnson," but the long-anticipated third volume, "Master of the Senate," is worth the wait. Portraying Johnson's most productive and effective years as Senate majority leader, the book, which covers the years 1949-1960, reveals how an insecure southern politician suddenly emerged as one of American history's greatest legislative leaders--and thereby opened the door for himself to the White House. The Lyndon B. Johnson who emerges in Caro's multi-dimensional portrait is infinitely more powerful and vastly more interesting than the Senate leaders who preceded and followed him.

Caro seems finally to have come to terms with his subject. Many biographers fall in love with the people they scrutinize so closely, but Caro has tended to demonize them. Robert Moses seemed something close to pure evil in Caro's 1974 book "The Power Broker"--as the reader might guess from the subtitle: "Robert Moses and the Fall of New York." The first volume in his biography of Johnson, "The Path to Power" (1982), was so withering in its attack on the ambition-crazed young Texan that Johnson's old friends who had granted Caro interviews closed the door to him.

Caro certainly does not disguise Johnson's cruelty, duplicity, and mendacity in "Master of the Senate," and his subject, having reached his forties, remains a coarse bully and philanderer. Yet Caro now finds a public purpose in Johnson's obsession for power. In the introduction, Caro sees "hints of a compassion for the downtrodden, and of a passion to raise them up" in Johnson. "Once he had acquired power in the Senate, the compassion, and the ability to make compassion meaningful, would shine forth at last." Johnson's device was the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which sounded the death knell of legal segregation in the South and opened the door to a different America. For it to pass without a southern filibuster that would put the majority leader in a politically impossible situation was considered miraculous then--and, indeed, it remains so now. This extraordinary accomplishment is the burden of Caro's third volume.

Not that he gets to the point quickly. Leisurely is an understatement to describe Caro's biographical style. He spends the first hundred pages on a political history of the Senate, its decline from magnificence prior to the Civil War to an institution of mediocrity and absenteeism when Johnson entered after his disputed election of 1948. The Senate's dominant figure, a giant among pygmies, was Richard Brevard Russell of Georgia, and Caro spends another forty pages on the life of the southern patriarch who was to play a critically important part in Johnson's story. This means that it is not until page 232 that Caro gets to Johnson's performance as a senator, when he portrays Johnson's brutal red-baiting in managing the Senate's rejection of liberal Leland Olds, nominated by President Harry Truman for another term on the Federal Power Commission. An incident brushed over by most biographers is given forty pages and three chapters by Caro--not because it allows him to depict Johnson at his worst, but because it demonstrates Johnson's need to show the Texas oil barons who backed him that they had put their money on the right man.

BUT JOHNSON had greater ambitions than being just another southern Democrat voting for oil and against civil rights. The austerely dignified Russell was not the kind of person usually attracted to Johnson, but Johnson courted the lonely Georgia bachelor and brought him around. Russell "saw that Johnson was capable of adapting the Senate to the new age," Caro writes. The Democratic party in the Senate was still dominated by the southerners, which allowed Russell to pick the party's leaders, and he made the ambitious freshman from Texas--at age forty-four, with only four years in the Senate--the chamber's youngest floor leader ever.

It seemed an empty honor. The last two Democratic floor leaders had been defeated in successive elections, the position was hamstrung by Senate rules, and power was really held by the South in an unwritten alliance with conservative Republicans. To succeed at making his position potent, Johnson had to accomplish the impossible: convince Russell and his fellow committee chairmen to breach the seniority rule. That gave the party leader the mighty weapon of dispensing committee assignments.