Book Review: Means of Ascent (Volume II)

LBJ ImageRobert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, 1990.

When Lyndon Johnson ran for the Texas Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in 1948, he knew that his political future depended on winning at all costs. To do so, he spent millions of dollars (and that was what was reported) and purchased a helicopter to campaign his way around the vast land that is Texas. A local Texas newspaper said, “Candidate Lyndon B. Johnson’s flying windmill is probably the greatest political innovation since the invention of the ballot.” When the election results were finally decided, candidate Johnson would be declared a winner by a mere 87 votes out of a million cast. For the remainder of his life, Lyndon Johnson would be referred to as “Landslide Lyndon,” a name that he was never able to successfully shake even at the height of his political career.

In Robert Caro’s second volume, Means of Ascent, the author argues that Lyndon Johnson, the boy who never wanted to be a nobody like his “daddy” stole the Texas Senate seat from the virtuous and John Waynesque, former governor of Texas, Coke Stevenson – a man who could split rails with his own hands and never owned a telephone.  Caro primarily focuses on the 202 disputed votes in the 13th precinct of the Jim Wells County of south Texas.  According to the author, the disputed votes were somehow found six days after the polls had closed. In fact, many of the disputed names listed as voters never actually made it to the polls, or were dead.  The legal wrangling that the Stevenson‘s campaign brought forth ended with the lack of sufficient evidence (e.g. missing polling lists) and the Supreme Court refusing to hear the case. Fortunately for Johnson, in a Democratic dominated state of Texas (at least in 1948) he was able to beat his Republican opponent in November easily.

The brilliance of Means of Ascent is that it details the “new” campaigning that Lyndon Johnson helped usher in.  Instead of traveling via car to various small towns and county seats, like his opponent Stevenson, he flew. Additionally, Johnson’s campaign team headed by John Connolly (later governor of Texas) used public relations firms and weekly polling data to decipher where they stood with the electorate. Ironically, Johnson once considered a New Dealer, ran to the right of Stevenson. Characterizing his opponent as a labor supporter, and a possible communist through a bombardment of radio spots, and pamphlets.

At the end of Means of Ascent, Johnson is sworn in as U.S. senator from the state of Texas. Six years later in 1955 he would be made senate majority leader – the most powerful leader, according to Caro, the August body had ever seen. The next chapter of Lyndon Johnson’s life is covered in Master of the Senate (2003).


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