The following is a book review of Robert Caro’s first volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Since the publication, the legacy of LBJ has continued to improve. It has not hurt either, that Brian Cranston recently played him in the Tony- winning production of “All the Way.” We are eagerly awaiting the publication of the fifth volume which will cover the presidency of Johnson.
When a reporter William S. White spotted Lyndon Johnson in the halls of the U.S. Capitol in April 1945 on the news President Roosevelt was dead, he was struck to see the congressman from Texas weeping openly with a white cigarette holder in hand, somewhat similar to one often seen with FDR. Johnson reportedly said: ‘ He [Roosevelt] was just like a Daddy to me always; he always talked to me just that way. God! God! How he could take it for us all!’ The quote taken from the last chapter of Robert Caro’s extensive first volume of Lyndon Johnson – Path to Power showcases both the political ambition and psychological underpinnings that defied one of the greatest politicians of the 20th Century
The 768 page tome covers the early years of Johnson’s life and political career – From his somewhat turbulent and impoverished childhood in the Texas Hill Country to his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1941, even though Franklin Roosevelt all but endorsed the young man. Along the way, Caro covers his self-funded college career at San Marcos College, where Johnson was known for always sucking up to both teachers and administrators. Not very popular with his fellow students, nonetheless he was able to cultivate a secret society called the white stars that became influential within the student council, and the beginnings of a political career.
The author argues that ambition was always the name of the game for Lyndon Johnson; whether it be running a congressional office as a staff assistant or using his wife’s father’s money (among other avenues) for his successful 1937 campaign to become a member or Congress from the 10th district of Texas. Lyndon Johnson had one goal even in his early congressional career – the presidency.
Caro ‘s biography remains the strongest when it places Johnson on the pyschoanalyst’s couch, by focusing on Lyndon’s ambivalent relationship with his father and how that developed into a strong need for validation from older, powerful father-like figures, whether it be Sam Rayburn, Franklin Roosevelt, or the mover and shaker in Texas politics, lawyer, Alivn Wirtz. To understand the son you must first understand the father. The elder Johnson – Sam, like his son, was also involved in politics. Serving for a time in the state legislature. Unfortunately, for Sam his political career was cut short due to his strong reluctance to be influenced by special interests that controlled state politics in Austin. Unable to support his family on his meager salary, he attempted to farm the land in the Hill Country of Texas at a time when farm prices were hitting rock bottom. The son learned that one must cultivate relationships with powerful men to gain and retain power. Idealism leads to poverty and oblivion. Ironically, the elder Johnson helped coin the slogan that allowed his son become a member of Congress: “Will you help me? Will you give me your helping hand?”
Path to Power remains a must read for anyone interested in the trajectory of a small town Texas boy who played all his cards right. Caro has written four volumes on Lyndon Johnson, with the most recent published in 2012 – Passage of Power.