ROBERT A. CARO PLANS three volumes to wrap up
the life of Lyndon B. Johnson. This first volume, The Path to Power, which takes us up to 1941, will burnish Caro's reputation as a panoramic biographer. For The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974), in which he showed his ability to make one man's life seem as big and exciting as a whole era, he won the Pulitzer and other literary honors. For this book Caro will at the very least win further recognition as a great storyteller and -- if the Book-of-the-Month Club's hype is any indication of things to come -- a lot of dough as well, though probably not more than justly compensates him for the seven years of research and writing that went into it.
Two dozen Johnson biographies have appeared so far. Most of them have been pretty awful, but they range upward to Alfred Steinberg's Sam Johnson's Boy of 1968 (very good indeed considering it was put together before the bottomless Johnson archives opened in Austin) and to Ronnie Dugger's The Politician, which appeared earlier this year, the first of two volumes. Though less flamboyant, Dugger's is in Caro's league. Good or bad, two dozen washings of the same laundry is likely to leave the material a bit faded. An ordinary biographer coming along now might reasonably despair of catching the public's attention. Caro, anything but ordinary, partly compensates for having to deal with the same old story outline by turning up a cache of new details, but mostly he overcomes with his style. This isn't simply a biography; it's a production. He is a Cecil B. De Mille of the typewriter. Everything is technicolor and wide-screen. Johnson's mistress isn't just beautiful; no, she is "the most beautiful woman" a famous photographer had ever seen, a veritable "Viking princess." Alvin Wirtz, one of Johnson's key mentors, isn't just smart and devious; he "had a mind as quick as chain lightning" and was "a conniver like I never saw before or since." Ed Clark isn't just a political manipulator; he is a "homespun political genius." Lyndon Johnson wasn't just an energetic congressman; he was "the best Congressman for a district that ever was." Gerald Mann, one of the opposing candidates whom Johnson's money-machine ran over, was not just an admirable fellow; he possessed "practically the loftiest ideals of any public servant I ever knew." Caro has been very adept at finding people who could, with quotes like these, help him to populate The Path to Power with extreme personalities: giants and pygmies, blackhearted rogues and mistreated saints.
This is a passionate work. And the main passion is hatred. Or, if not hatred, then contempt. Caro loathes Johnson. He despises him. If The Path to Power is a success, it will be because Caro has conveyed that feeling so infectiously. And in that success there will be a historic irony. When Caro talks of Johnson's "hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will"; when he says that "it was a hunger so fierce and consuming that no consideration of morality or ethics, no cost to himself -- or to anyone else -- could stand before it"; when he sounds repelled by Johnson's "utter ruthlessness" in destroying enemies and his "seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit, deception and betrayal"; when he notes that a hallmark of Johnson's career was "a lack of any consistent ideology or principle, in fact of any moral foundation whatsover -- a willingness to march with any ally who would help his personal advancement," one gets an overwhelming feeling of d,ejMa vu. We are hearing exactly the same accusations that were made a generation ago by left-wing Democrats in Texas, bitter from being crushed throughout the 1950s and 1960s by Johnson's forces, the same accusations made by right-wing Texans such as J. Evetts Haly in 1964 (A Texan Looks at Lyndon), infuriated by Johnson's pious destruction of Barry Goldwater.
But the centrist Eastern establishment dismissed Texas liberals as sore losers, and Haley's crowd as crackpots. That's the irony; animus born of politcal combat received attention or respect; but Caro's animus, strangely so intense even though the combat is long passed, gets great respect and attention. Timing, obviously, has a lot to do with making history's slot machine pay off.
Let's take Johnson's defects from the top as portrayed by Caro.
Treachery and disloyalty. Johnson probably would not have got even to the U.S. House of Representatives, and certainly would have climbed no higher, without the help of his father, Sam Houston Johnson; the House's majority leader and later speaker, Sam Rayburn; and President Franklin Roosevelt. Johnson turned on each of them.
Although in his later years Sam Johnson was a washout, he had once been a populist state legislator who did many good works and was admired by the people of his district. Starting out, Lyndon depended on his dad for some very canny political advice and drew heavily on the residue of his father's popularity. He repaid his father by describing him to just about everyone as an incompetent drunk.
When Johnson reached Congress, he quickly gained a reputation, says Caro, for having lots of mouth and little guts. Most other members of the Texas delegation shunned him. But always adept at playing "professional son" to powerful older men, Johnson exploited Rayburn's loneliness to become his prot,eg,e. Then he betrayed Rayburn to win favor with Roosevelt. Rayburn, out of long friendship for Vice President John Nance Garner, had agreed to handle Garner's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1940. Roosevelt, who of course wanted to undercut this competition, needed someone in the Texas delegation to act as a spy on the Garner operation. Lyndon volunteered. And before the Garner-Roosevelt confrontation was over, Johnson, though he did his work so slyly as not to appear to be taking sides, had "tarred beyond cleansing" Rayburn's reputation in the White House. This, says Caro, left Johnson in the position he wanted -- FDR's "man in Texas." (Though Rayburn continued to admire Johnson, now he saw him in a different way. He told friends, "I don't know anyone who is as vain or more selfish than Lyndon Johnson.)"
Johnson's open betrayal of Roosevelt will come in Caro's next volume. Here, the betrayal is covert. Both in Johnson's 1937 campaign for the House, which he won, and in his 1941 campaign for the U.S. Senate, which he lost, he had one main theme: he would be FDR's militant supporter. That's what he said on the campaign trail; but in Washington he was a mouse. He had asked his district to send him to Congress to support FDR's court-packing plan, says Caro, but once arrived in the capital he "offered not a single public word of support" for it. "He had shouted 'Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt' to get to Congress; in Congress, he shouted nothing, said nothing -- stood for nothing. Not only was he not in the van of any cause, he was not in the ranks, either." He didn't make a speech until he had been in the House four years. After that, he waited another 18 months before opening his mouth again, and then he fell silent for another three years. "He wouldn't fight in the well of the House -- and he wouldn't fight on the floor."
One other betrayal is perhaps even more typically Johnsonian than any of the above. Charles Marsh owned the Austin American-Statesman, the one paper that circulated throughout Johnson's congressional district. Marsh not only supported Johnson whole hog in his newspaper, he even offered to give Johnson an oil deal worth nearly a million dollars. Johnson repaid him with flattery -- and by seducing Marsh's common-law wife. He carried on a long, secret affair with her at the Marsh estate near Culpepper, Virginia (Caro says Johnson did it so smoothly that Marsh never suspected. In Dugger's life of Johnson, however, a close member of the Marsh circle is quoted as saying that the courtship went on rather openly and that one night when Marsh was drunk he complained that Johnson was "shacking up" with his wife and ordered Johnson out of his house. But the order didn't stick.)
Johnson, Bought and Sold. When the first excerpt of this book appeared in The Atlantic magazine, telling about Johnson's receiving envelopes full of cash from lobbyists for special interests who wanted a piece of his action, Caro was asked for documentation of the charges. (Receiving unrecorded cash gifts in a federal office is a crime.) The last I heard, Caro had withdrawn some of the accusations and said he would re-insert them in a later volume, with documentation then. That still leaves plenty of questionable money floating around here.
Johnson claimed that he paid for his first congressional race with money borrowed from his wife's father and from "his own small savings." Johnson officially reported spending $2,242.74. (All political financing was ridiculously underreported in those days.) Caro quotes one of LBJ's backers as saying Johnson probably spent between $75,000 and $100,000, "a figure that would make the campaign one of the most expensive congressional races in Texas history up to that time." It was more than ample to carry out the standard practice of that day -- buying weekly newspaper editors and buying votes. Caro says that during the final days of the campaign Johnson could afford to be "on the radio more than the other seven candidates combined." Where the money came from for that campaign is something of a mystery. But once Johnson got into office, he tapped a money source that was no secret at all: Brown & Root.
Texas liberals used to say, "If you want to understand Lyndon Johnson, you've got to get down to the Brown & Root of it." And that's true. In all politics, never has there been a more impressive symbiotic relationship than between Johnson and Herman Brown, a Texas contractor who hated blacks, hated labor unions, and most particularly hated Franklin Roosevelt. But he loved the contractual plums that fell from the New Deal and from Roosevelt's war program, and Johnson helped him gather such fat ones, graduating from highly inflated dam projects to grotesquely inflated defense projects, that Brown & Root became one of the world's largest construction firms. And all along the way, the grateful Herman (and his brother George) poured a nice helping of this gravy back into Lyndon's career.
During the last three weeks of the 1940 campaign, Johnson collected money from Brown and his friends (while Sam Rayburn was putting the touch on oil men) and spread it around among panicky congressmen. By today's standards, the handouts weren't much -- $300 here, $500 there, for a total of less than $50,000 spread over about 90 races -- but those were still Depression days, and even a few hundred bucks could make a difference. Whereas the Democrats had feared they might lose seats in the House, they gained a few. How much of the gain was due to the Johnson-Rayburn effort is impossible to pin down, of course -- Caro calls it a "small" but "definite" impact -- but for Johnson the results marked an important turning point in his congressional reputation. By showing he could lay his hands on fast money in sizeable mounts, Caro writes, he had transformed himself within three weeks from an unpopular nobody into a grudgingly respected almost-somebody.
Brown & Boot's most abundant generosity during Johnson's early career came when he ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 1941. In that era, $80,000 for a Senate race seemed a bountiful expenditure. Johnson collected, says Caro, perhaps half a million dollars, most of it from Brown & Root. At the same time, to get Roosevelt's endorsement, Johnson tricked the president -- who was always something of a nincompoop when it came to understanding Texas politics -- into thinking he was the only reliably pro-New Deal candidate in the race. But the money and duplicity weren't enough. Johnson was whipped by the incomparable Wilbert Lee "Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy" O'Daniel, the flour salesman-governor of Texas, and most particularly by the crafty liquor lobby. Caro is wise to dwell in somedetail on this campaign -- one of the best of the baroque tales of Texas politics -- because The Path to Power needs the humor.
Pappy O'Daniel knew absolutely nothing about governing a state, but -- thanks to his long-running radio show featuring gospel and country music, maudlin poems, and unctious advice -- he had an iron grip on the hearts of many Texans. Pappy, who was considered unbeatable, had promised he wouldn't enter the Senate race; when he broke his promise and announced, Johnson went to the hospital (some say with the flu, others say with nervous exhaustion). Recovering, he fought back by trying to out- Pappy Pappy. He had his own traveling show (complete with a 285-pound "Kate Smith of the South" etc.), a raffle, and a patriotic son et lumiMere, during which Johnson would bound onto the platform, and with a melodramatic waving of arms promise to help Roosevelt "stop the beast of Berlin before he reaches America." Caro says Johnson's awkward delivery and comical physical appearance ruined the impact of the patriotic pitch: "When he had to run up steps to reach the stage, his rear end jutted out so far that small boys in the audience audibly snickered."
Still, he almost won. Stolen votes from South Texas put Johnson ahead in the early election count. But O'Daniel surged ahead with stolen votes from East Texas. And the funny thing about it was that O'Daniel hadn't even been the thief; the votes were stolen for him by the liquor lobby because he was a prohibitionist and the lobby wanted to get him out of the state.
Funny, but not to Johnson and Brown. They were left with all those odd-looking campaign finance transactions to explain to the IRS. For a time it seemed that somebody might go to jail, but Johnson persuaded FDR to call off the tax men. (An interesting sidelight mentioned by Steinberg, but not by Caro, is that a few years later, when it seemed the investigation might be revived, the Brown & Root records relating to the case were removed form a fireproof building in Austin and transferred to a quonset hut, which promptly caught fire and burned to the ground.)
Lyndon the Obnoxious Collegian. Other biographers have reported that Johnson's classmastes at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos detested him. Steinberg says some considered him "ruthless." Dugger writes that around the college faculty and administrators Johnson displayed "a bold will to suck up the power" and "practiced shameless flattery." Caro goes much further; he sees this period as the beginning of the long sickness -- "the vicicousness and cruelty, the joy in breaking backs and keeping them broken, the urged not just to defeat but to destroy . . . And present also was the fear -- the loneliness, the terrors, the insecurities -- that underlay, and made savage, the aggressiveness, the energy and the ambition . . . All the traits of personality which the nation would witness decades later -- all the traits which affected the course of history -- can be seen at San Marcos naked and glaring and raw."
Sounds pretty bad. But just what were Johnson's sins? Well, before he entered San Marcos and for the first couple of years thereafter, student government was dominated by the Black Stars, an organization largely made up of athletes. When Johnson tried to join the club, they blackballed him. He got sore and helped organized the White Stars (non-jocks) who used underhanded tactics to take over the student goverment. That was Johnson's major sin. But he had other character defects, says Caro; one could be seen at the boardinghouse table where he used long arms and a fork to get more than his share of the of a nfood, "gulped it down and grabbed for more."
Caro concedes that most of the college classmates interviewed for the LBJ library at the University of Texas had nice things to say about Johnson; but Caro insists that this is entirely misleading, that in fact he was "one of the most disliked students on campus," was "deeply and widely mistrusted," was sized up as a "mixture of bootlicker and bully" (he talked a foolish boy into putting cow manure on his face to cure acne), and that those few who did like him were young men who enjoyed being his lackeys.
Caro hunted up Johnson's college sweetheart, n,ee Carol Davis, to get her side of their romance. Johnson always claimed that he was the one who broke off their engagement. Carol's story is that she was the rejector. So it's her word against his. That's an easy choice for Caro. He wouldn't take Johnson's word for anything that happened at San Marcos, for "his fellow students . . . believed not only that he lied to them -- lied to them constantly, lied about big matters and small, lied so incesssantly that he was, in a widely used phrase, 'the biggest liar on campus' -- but also that some psychological element impelled him to lie, made him, in one classmate's words, 'a man who just could not tell the truth.' "
Great storytellers tend to exaggerate, and Caro, sometimes carried away by this theme of the poisoned life, is no exception. I enjoy his hyperbole, but there are also a few contradictions--or what seem to be contradictions -- that are moderately bothersome.
For example, the rags-to-booty motif is confusing, to say the least. To me, the rags don't seem quite that raggedy. Caro writes that by 1941 Johnson, "a young man -- desperately poor, possessed of an education mediocre at best, from one of the most isolated and backward areas of the United States -- has attained the national power he craved." He writes, "All his adult life, because of the agonies of his youth, the insecurity and shame of growing up in the Hill Country as the son of Sam and Rebekah Johnson, he had grasped frantically at every chance . . . to escape that past."
Johnson's 10th Congressional District isolated and backward? It might seem so to a Princetonian like Caro, but I doubt that most Texans would consider it especially isolated or backward. The district did, after all, contain Austin (about 90,000 population in the 1930s), a charming little city. Johnson's hometown is just 50 miles--a mere spit, by Texas standards -- from Austin and just 30 miles from San Marcos, a pretty town; 40 miles farther down the highway is San Antonio. Most of the inhabitants of the 10th District were rural people and -- like most rural people all over America -- they had few comforts. Until Johnson helped the Hill Country tie into the Rural Electrification Administration (one of the brighter stories in the book, beautifully researched by Caro's wife), most of the folks read by kerosene lamps and they washed clothes by hand and they didn't have many radios. But that's the way it was all over rural America. Only 10 percent of all U.S. farms were electrified in the mid-1930s.
Backward? Why, Caro tells us that one reason Johnson finally decided to go off to college, three years after he graduated from high school, was that he was lonely in Johnson City, for "all his classmates were away at college. . . . Even Louise Casparis, who had been his mother's maid, was going to college now." All his classmates, in an era when a college education was the exception? Why, Johnson City, far from being backward, sounds like a veritable Athens of the boonies. And what's this business about Johnson being "desperately poor" and suffering "agonies of . . . insecurity and shame"? Caro's own findings contradict that. To be sure, the Johnsons had plenty of downs in their financial life. But they had plenty of ups, too. And sometimes it seems--for Caro presents a split image -- they experienced both at the same time. We are told that in 1916, when Lyndon was 8, his father was wealthy enough to af a nfford maids for his wife and a chauffeur to drive the family's new Hudson, "the biggest and most expensive car in the whole Hill Country." His father wore boots handtooled in San Antonio and the most expensive Stetsons that could be bought in Austin. At one time or another, the Johnsons owned the local weekly newspaper, the Johnson City hotel, and some rental property.
Then old man Johnson bought land and equipment he couldn't afford, and wound up in 1922 owing -- depending on whose version you believe -- between $20,000 and $40,000. And yet in that very same year of bankruptcy, Lyndon could afford to attend a private school in San Marcos for the summer. The next year, though Caro says sometimes the family had no food in the house and no money to buy any, Mr. Johnson treated Lyndon to a $25 Palm Beach suit. (To put that outlay in perspective: blacksmiths earned 15 cents for a three-hour horseshoeing job in those days.) If the Johnsons were so "desperately poor," how come by the time Lyndon was a senior in high school he had acquired "not only the Palm Beach suit but the only straw boater in Johnson City" and at least one shirt of "silk crepe de Chine, the neck of which he kept open to display a turtleneck dickey or an ascot"? Most boys his age were wearing overalls. Insecurity? He sounds awfully pampered to me. After Lyndon had wrecked the family car for the second time, in 1936, says Caro, Mr. Johnson just traded it in on a new one and forgave his son.
Caro says that after the collapse of Sam Johnson's fortune in 1922, the Hill Country folks were not grateful "for the pensions he had arranged, for the loans he had given, for the highway he had gotten built" when he was in the state legislature. "Instead, there was relish and glee in the Hill Country's reaction to Sam Johnson's fall." After the sudden plunge in wealth, he says, the Johnsons were "ridiculed" and became "the laughingstock of the town." I find that kind of hard to reconcile with Caro's account of the turnout for Sam Johnson's funeral in 1937: "The bank of the Pedernales (the river near the family graveyard) was covered with people as far as the eye could see," and the crowd was filled with old pensioners, some wearing their Civil War and Spanish American War uniforms, whom Sam had helped. Some of the mourners, he says, had come from as far away as Dallas, driving all night to get there.
There is also room for doubting the memory of some of those Caro interviewed about Johnson's college career. One of them claimed that Johnson was "an absolute physical coward" who "wouldn't fight." Somehow, this doesn't seem to jibe with what Caro tells us happened the year before Johnson went off to college, when he fought a bigger fellow in a dance-hall brawl and, though beaten badly, kept getting up and trying again.
And we might as well slightly moderate that collegiate judgment of Johnson as "a man who just could not tell the truth." Caro mentions that later in life Johnson sometimes boasted that in college he had "taken 40 courses and gotten 35 A's," when he actually got only four A's and had an overall average of B-. Typical tacky self-inflation. But in his biography Dugger says that one day when he was interviewing Johnson -- an advantage Caro did not have -- and confronted him on the grades record, Johnson acknowledged that "he was a B- average student." Though Johnson never got over telling whoppers, apparently if caught he was sometimes willing to correct himself.
Never mind. If there is considerable hyperbole and some seeming contradictions here, those things are, as we all learned long ago, an inescapable part of the Lyndon Johnson saga. If he was an easy guy for millions to distrust, he was also -- when teaching school in Cotulla and in Houston, or entertaining peers on the cocktail circuit in Washington -- capable of arousing other emotions, in a few. Believe it or not, a couple of acquaintances told Caro that Lyndon Johnson, under the right circumstances, could be "fun," could even be, well n, "adorable."