Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Book Review By Steve Labinski
Winner of the 2002 National Book Award - Non-Fiction
Who would think that a one thousand page book devoted to the obscure, pre-Presidential days of
Lyndon Johnson would be so captivating? Vivid in details, rich in history, Master of the Senate
offers a trove of information, memories and personal stories of LBJ's career as US Senator
from Texas, 1948-1960.
It is the third installment in historian Robert Caro's long-running project
to document the life of Lyndon Johnson. Caro is a pretty traditional liberal historian, in the
mold of Arthur Schlesenger or many other contemporaries. On one hand, Johnson is considered by
history as the architect of the Great Society welfare programs of the 1960s.
The reader might expect the writer to lavish an uncritical look at the man who created Medicare.
This is not the case at all. In fact, Caro delights is showing how the compassionate liberal
was first and foremost a product of conservative Texas and the then-segregated South. What was on
Johnson's mind most of the time? Caro makes the case that Johnson's mind was preoccupied
first and foremost with accumulating power.
Caro's written criticism of Johnson means that Lady Bird and the Johnson family have not
helped him in the creation of this book. Caro found plenty of other sources for assistance.
There are a hundred pages at the end of the book consisting of bibliography citations
and personal thank yous. Rather the the more tradional, softer treatment by historians Doris
Kearns Goodwin or Robert Dallek, Caro's critical perspective makes this book a delight.
Historians typically write in terms of American Presidents. For example, the 1930s and
1940s are described from the perspective of Franklin Roosevelt and his Presidency. 1961-1963
are usually related in terms of the Kennedy administration, not in how the bills lived or died
on Capital Hill. The public generally remembers history on these terms. Many more people
remember John Foster Dulles or Robert McNamara from their service as Secretary in the Cabinet,
but who really remembers Senator Richard Russell or Senator Bill Knowland? This book breaks
new ground by telling history from the perspective of the body that is the United States Senate.
For a young legislator
from a predominently rural, poor area, Johnson's
ambitions were high.
The Johnson White House Tapes
Edited by Michael Beschloss
Series of books containing the edited transcripts from LBJ's private, recorded conversations as President.
Original Texana reviews.
During this time, the Speaker of the House of Representatives was fellow Texan Sam Rayburn.
Rayburn presided of the House with a skill never before seen. Rayburn's abilities became a
key power for the Presidents of the time. Rayburn was key in FDR passing his legislation for the
Johnson saw Rayburn's power, and he used it to move further. On Rayburn's suggestion,
he was appointed to be the state director of the National Youth Administration.
utilized a skill that he used many times in life - he endeared himself to powerful, older men.
During his twelve years in the House, Johnson became Rayburn's apt pupil.
Lyndon Johnson was first elected to the US House of Representatives in 1938. His district included
the mostly rural area of central Texas, covering Austin and the nearby Hill Country.
However, Johnson was unhappy as a Congressman. He disliked being just one of 438 legislators. Seated in the House, it
was impossible to stand out, and it was difficult to gain real power. And Caro's thesis is that LBJ's goal first and foremost to
Therefore it was not long before Johnson set his sights on the US Senate. He was elected to the Senate in 1948, after
winning a controversial election against popular Texas Governor Coke Stevenson. (The 1948
election takes up most of the previous book, Means of Ascent)
Caro illustrates how Johnson was a master at identifying ways to gain power. He shows how he builds on
his power with impressible speed.
In a body that was proud for its
sleepiness and rigid seniority system (or senility system as some called it), he figured out new ways to make his mark. According to its formal customs, freshmen Senators were
discouraged from even speaking on the floor for their first 6-year term. Yet here, Johnson rose
to the position Minority Leader of his party within just two years.
By 1955, Democrats won a majority of seats so he was now Majority Leader. This is a prime illustration of how Johnson was a master at finding way to power.
As Majority Leader, he wielded powers never
before seen in the Senate.
How was Johnson able to rise to leadership in such a short time? How was Johnson able to
accomplish what no one else had been able to do in years? Caro explains how Johnson
turned the Senate's seniority system of operation to his advantage. Unlike Senators
from other sections, southern senators "had no chance of serious nomination for the Presidency."
Southern voters also routinely reelected their Senators, unlike in others states where there were
competitive political parties. So the result were politicians who were at the top of the political
pyramid. The Senators from the South took a strong interest in learning the Senate rules,
and there continued reelection lifted them to committee chairmanships through seniority.
In 1948 when Johnson entered, the committee chairs held most of the power in the Senate.
Senate rules allowed the chairmen to hold hearings and move legislation. At this time, the
three most powerful committees, Appropriations, Finance and Foreign Relations were chaired
by Southerners. How did Johnson use this to his advantage?
Being from Texas, Johnson's geography automatically placed him as a member of the Southern club.
He completely endeared himself to the twenty two senators from the eleven Southern states, placing
a special emphasis on Senator Richard Russell of Georgia.
Russell, died in 1971 as one of the Senate's most influential figures. In fact, Caro devotes
an entire chapter to Russell so that we can understand the man and why he plays the role that
he did during this time.
The book contains prominent roles for many of the other prominent Senators of the time: Hubert Humphrey, Paul Douglas and Frank Church. Caro gives scant attention to the Republicans. This makes sense because the book is about Lyndon Johnson, and how he works within the the Democrat caucus. The book starts with a one hundred page history of the Senate, which is very useful and interesting, but also betrays many of the author's liberal beliefs. For example, he describes the popular historical view that after World War I the mean isolationists in the Senate deprived Woodrow Wilson from approving the Treaty of Versailles. He later labels Senator Robert Taft's isolationism as "backwards." Caro also describes quickly that the implementation of the federal income tax was greatly needed to "equalize" taxation.
I will not quibble with these kinds of presumptions, because these attitudes are common among modern historical academics today. But it is important to realize where Caro is coming from historically. We also see this liberal writer miss no opportunity to pick-apart the traditional notion of Lyndon Johnson, the progressive liberal.
Caro goes into great detail showing all of Johnson's votes with the Southern Senators. They not only blocked civil rights bills, they also saw the passage of favorable legislation for the oil and gas industries. One of Johnson's first committee assignments was to chair a very important nomination hearing. Well, it was important to the oil & gas industry. In 1949, Truman re-nominated liberal Leland Olds to chair the Federal Power Commission, an entity which natural gas producers had pegged as their public enemy number one. In the 1940's the FPC had brought inexpensive power to many states, but industry was not happy with its regulations and price controls. Johnson asked, and received the chairmanship of the subcommittee which was to hold Old's nomination hearing. Caro details over three chapters how Johnson masterminded the entire process. The hearing - years before Borking became a common word - was carefully orchestrated as a negative spectacle alleging that Olds was a Communist. In this era of the House Unamerican Affairs Committee and the Alger Hiss trial, it was easy to convince the Senate to not approve the appointment. The conclusion to this episode was the Olds nomination failed. Johnson not only delighted the Texas oil industry, but more importantly it demonstrated to Senator Richard Russell that he would be a loyal soldier for the Southern cause.
Caro delights in describing the man's eccentricities. He devotes many pages to Johnson's treatment of his staff, which was very tough, to say the least. Caro relishes in telling these colorful, not so nice sides of Johnson. After detailing numerous great tales, he describes that Johnson wanted loyalty in his staff - Johnson once boasted to someone about his expectations for his staff, "I want real loyalty. I want someone who will kiss my ass in Macy's window and stand up and say, "Boy wasn't that sweet!'"
This book is obviously the product of enormous research. Caro was able to interview many folks who have subsequently died, like John Connally. Connally was Johnson's chief of staff while a member of the US House. After Johnson was elected to the Senate, Connally opted to work for prominent law firms in Texas rather then endure additional years serving under Johnson. Because of his treatment of Johnson, Caro was refused help from members of the Johnson family and many of his loyalists, like Bobby Baker.
Johnson's power rose through the legislature, not as Governor, or just as a Vice President. Following the man's track through the Senate shows a totally new way of viewing him. For that reason, Master of the Senate is just just another thousand page Presidential biography. The book shows how Johnson used the power of the Senate to achieve his ambition - to become President.
Once elected Minority Leader, he began demonstrating his "legislative genius." Caro follows several pieces of legislation, not greatly remembered today, but which were at
the time important. Chapter after chapter details how LBJ's hand ably maneuvered them through a divided Senate.
Unfortunately for Johnson, the major hurdle to his true life aspiration was that the United States would never elect a Southerner as President.
Being a product of the South, Caro shows how Johnson was devoted, first and foremost, those Senators who brought him to power in the Senate. This craven portrayal
harsher then other historians
who might call Johnson a "Flawed Giant." LBJ's biography would more accurately be titled "Power-hungry first, compassionate second Sonofabitch."
Caro spends significant time laying out evidence of Johnson's Presidential aspirations. Fellow Southerner Richard Russell of Georgia also aspired to be President.
He made a strong bid
for nomination in 1952. However, Russell met a cold reality when, despite promises, he received virtually no Northern votes at the Democrat convention. Johnson met similar
problems when he was trying to become Leader in the Senate. Looking at Russell's seemingly hopeless effort, LBJ saw that path to power was in the Senate.
Caro details Johnson's remarkable abilities of persuasion. He also gives plenty of ink painting the man as relentless in his desire to get to the top.
The book details his success but also his setbacks. This includes a severe heart attack which spooked everybody,
and LBJs quixotic bid to win the nomination for President in 1956.
Caro uses civil rights as a barometer of Johnson's work throughout the book. After numerous civil rights battles in the Senate, Johnson somehow gets the Civil Rights Act of
1959 through the Senate. In a fascinating illustration of political acumen, Johnson co-opts the civil rights issue from the Republicans. He pushes a relatively insubstantial bill
through the Senate. Nevertheless
passing any kind of civil rights bill in the Senate was historic, and that is that people and history remember.
The book ends with the victory of the Civil Rights Act in the Senate. It stops before any of the 1960
Master of the Senate is a large, fascinating work on Johnson's years in the Senate. Above everything, Johnson was a Southerner who was given his power by his fellow
Southerners in the Senate, like Richard Russell. Johnson was able to do things with this power never before seen.
His desire to become President forced him to make the Senate confront civil rights and pass legislation in 1959. Whether you think of LBJ as a flawed giant or a pragmatic
power-hungry politician is up to the reader. The Master of the Senate does an outstanding job in painting a full portrait of a complex man.
Lyndon B. Johnson Political / Collectible Memoribilla:
Visit our political collectibles page for
Lyndon B. Johnson. Lots of interesting stuff!
Readers also found interesting:
Review: Living History by Hillary Clinton
If you have a comment or review of this book, feel free to send it to
© 2004 Texas Cooking Online, Inc. -- ALL RIGHTS RESERVED