Reading Robert Caro to learn about Lyndon Johnson is like going to an elaborate buffet in order to get the four basic food groups; they both give you what you need along with much, much more. In fact, we’re only at the appetizers, since Caro’s third and latest volume, Master of the Senate, comes in at over1,000 pages and still doesn’t take the story up through the 1960 election! Nonetheless, both are experiences to be savored. Caro is a gifted and passionate writer, and his all-encompassing approach to understanding LBJ provides readers with a panoramic history of twentieth-century American politics as well as a compelling discourse on the nature and uses of political power.
Moreover, in the midst of the plagiarism contretemps over Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, it is refreshing to read a popular history that is original and well written. There is clearly no “Caro Inc.” with an army of researchers cutting and pasting books together as fast as the printing presses can take them. Aided only by his wife, Ina, Caro’s project is now in its third decade. This slow pace results from a methodical and exhaustive research process. One might well disagree with Caro’s analysis and interpretations, but no one can accuse him of overlooking an important piece of evidence.
In reality, Master of the Senate is not one book but several. Caro sets the stage with a history of the United States Senate. The Senate is virtually unique among legislative bodies in any modern democracy. With its six-year terms, equal representation for each state regardless of population and its tradition of unlimited debate, the Senate is an institution designed for inaction. Individual senators have little or no incentive to yoke themselves together to advance the national interest. By the time Johnson entered the Senate in 1949, the body was increasingly seen as too inefficient to meet the demands of modern government. Since the turn of the century, the President had increasingly usurped its power in foreign policy, and many observers predicted that the Senate would eventually have to go the way of most legislative upper chambers and become, in effect, an American House of Lords.
That the Senate did not wither away and the reasons for this fact form the basis for another of Caro’s books within a book, Lyndon Johnson’s ascent to “Master of the Senate.” Possessed of ambition that can only be described as obsessive, Johnson campaigned to increase his own power and influence with a relentlessness and ruthlessness that would have made Machiavelli blush.
Before Johnson could amass power in the Senate, however, he first had to shore up his political base in Texas. Having only narrowly “won” (stolen is the more appropriate word, as Caro vividly and convincingly demonstrated in his previous volume) election to the Senate in 1948, Johnson now had to prove his fealty to the Lone Star State’s reactionary and powerful oil and gas titans. To do so, Johnson organized a behind-the-scenes campaign to block President Truman’s reappointment of Leland Olds as chairman of the Federal Power Commission. A staunch New Dealer and a committed public servant, Olds had used his position at the FPC to make sure that electric and natural gas companies did not gouge their customers. As a result, he was anathema to the Texas natural gas companies, who saw even the smallest and most reasonable limitation of their already vast profits as socialist tyranny.