Saturday, September 30, 2006

Hey ! Hey ! LBJ !

“The Years of Lyndon Johnson” by Robert A. Caro

Book One -- The Path to Power
Book Two -- Means of Ascent
Book Three -- Master of the Senate

The only reason I put “The Power Broker” above these three books about Lyndon Baines Johnson is that if you tell people you’ve read close to 3,000 pages about LBJ -- and you enjoyed it -- they’ll think you’re nuts. Okay, I’m nuts. They’re simply the best books I’ve ever read and I’m at a loss as to how I explain them.

The level of detail Robert Caro puts into his books is astounding. There’s a mini-biography of Richard B. Russell in there. If you don’t know who that is, walk around the Capitol one time and look for the Russell Senate Office building. Ditto with Sam Rayburn. There is an utterly fascinating section on the Commanche Indians in these books. Ever heard of Brown & Root ? Most people haven’t. But most have heard of Haliburton. KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root) is a subsidiary of Haliburton. Find out what happens when a smalltime Texas politician hooks up with a smalltime Texas contractor.

At times you find yourself wondering why Mr. Caro wonders off on such tangents and includes such excruciating details. After all, do we really care that Richard Russell pretended to be a Confederate solider as a child growing up in Georgia ? As it turns out, yes, we do. Without fail, Mr. Caro uses these little pieces of the puzzle to complete the picture of Lyndon Baines Johnson. While doing so, he is able to drag the slowest of his readers to an understanding of the times and the significance of his subject’s achievements. Robert Caro not only has the flick, he'll help you get it too.

LBJ was the first Southern President since the Civil War. For 98 years, the best and brightest politicians from the South knew the most powerful position they’d ever hold was leader of one of the Houses of the United States Congress. The fact that Lyndon Johnson overcame this barrier -- when the political giants of the era (Richard Russell and Sam Rayburn) couldn’t -- speaks volumes about the man. And yes, it does make you wonder.

I use this situation to pique the interest of my friends and tempt them into reading this series. If Mr. Caro is able to achieve the level of detail in his upcoming fourth book on LBJ -- his years as President -- he’ll settle the question of who really killed JFK. Okay, maybe not, but you know he'll have to address it.

In the meantime you’re left to ponder the irony of LBJ. Here was a man that was driven by a quest for power further than any of his generation. A man that fully understood power. He knew how to gain power and how to wield it. Sometimes unmercifully. And at the height of his power, after working years and years to gain it, what does he do ? Lyndon Baines Johnson, arguably as bigoted as any Southerner of his time, used his unparalleled understanding of power to ram the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress.

This vain, bigoted, profane, uneducated, power-hungry genius gave more power to the powerless than anyone since Abraham Lincoln. I can’t wait to read the rest of that story. Get busy reading these three books so you’ll be ready for the fourth when it comes out.

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