By Robert A. Caro. New York: Knopf, 2002. xxiv, 1167 pp.
Early on in the third volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, covering the years from 1948 to 1960 and aptly titled Master of the Senate, Robert Caro pithily observes, "power reveals." He was referring, of course, to Johnson, but Caro's comment also says something about this extraordinary book. This is, indeed, an enormously powerful book that continues to reveal Lyndon Johnson to a wide audience. But Caro reveals as well, to an extent heretofore unseen, the world in which he worked. In these pages is the best institutional biography yet available of the body that Johnson both served and mastered and the very best biography of Johnson's legislative mentor. Caro's is a complex, detailed, and ultimately masterful work.
As a biographer of Lyndon Johnson, Caro is hardly subtle. His third-volume Johnson is completely in synch with the unflattering picture he painted in the first two volumes. In fact, by 1949, when he enters the Senate, Caro's Johnson seems to have stooped to new lows. He is unprincipled, "deceitful and proud of it," capable of "acts of great cruelty," and his treatment of his wife is labeled "abusive." Caro offers example upon example of this behavior. Indeed, he is so adept at letting Johnson hang himself with his own words ("it's not the job of the politician to go out and say principled things") and allowing his contemporaries to weigh in with their reminiscences (such as the journalist who likened the leader to "the western movie barging into the room") that the portrait of the Texan as a boorish, unprincipled brute rings as true in this volume as it did in the previous two.
Yet, this volume makes it clear that in the orchestration of the U.S. Senate toward a vote, Johnson found his niche. Serving as the youngest majority leader in history, Johnson had no peer-then or today-in his understanding of parliamentary procedure. Even more important, in the active combat of a roll call he could put the brute force of his personality to its most effective use. The often needy Johnson, searching for approval, and the Senate--smaller and clubbier than the House, where Johnson frequently had felt immersed and ignored-were made for each other.
One could quibble by pointing out that the vast majority of Johnson's recent biographers have treated his personality in the same way and have praised his legislative leadership--although, to be sure, not with Caro's depth of research...