The Robert Caro LBJ Books

February 15, 2014

Are you looking for a little something to read? Maybe a nice little biography suits you? Don’t pick up The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate, or The Passage of Power, all by Robert Caro! On the other hand, if you want to lose yourself in the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, really understand the inner workings of our government from the 1930s through the 1960s, and appreciate what it takes to obtain and exercise power on a grand scale, dive in!

The Path to Power was first published in 1982. It was a great read, and I knew there would be more volumes. I could not, however, appreciate the fact that Mr. Caro would spend the balance of his professional life on the project, or that the books would invade my life so completely.

The second, third, and fourth volumes were published in 1990, 2002 and 2012. When The Passage to Power arrived in its box from Amazon I realized I’d read the first volume thirty years earlier, and that the other two volumes were 22 and 10 years distant for me. Not being able to recall much from any of the books, I set myself on a 90-day, read ‘em all, schedule. About 3300 pages! Of dense biography! Got it done, days ahead of schedule, and wished I hadn’t read everything so quickly!

Most biographies I’ve read start with a 10 or 15 page chapter about the subject’s ancestors, ending with the birth of the star. In 350-500 pages, I learn about an interesting life, and move on to something else. Not so fast here! The Path to Power covers LBJ’s first 33 years in almost 1000 pages, the first 60 or so covering the history of Texas Hill country.

Means of Ascent, in almost 600 pages, starts with the aftermath of a 1941 special election for the U.S. Senate. LBJ lost. It ends with his ascent to the U.S. Senate in 1949, after what is clearly a stolen election in 1948.

Master of the Senate covers 10 years, from 1948 through 1958, in about 1200 pages. The most recent volume, The Passage to Power focuses on the 1960 nomination battle (LBJ was bested by the Kennedys), the Vice Presidency, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the first 90 days in the White House.

The last volume or two remain unfinished, although Mr. Caro asserts in interviews that his research is completed, and that he really will finish soon. (The passage of time—LBJ died 41 years ago—supports the likelihood that Mr. Caro may really only have to write, as many significant players in the 1960s have passed.) I hope so! Mr. Caro is 78, and he deserves a completed series. And I want to finish the series without feeling the need to start over again!!!

Mr. Caro has made the LBJ series about a man and his accumulation and use of power a life’s work. Nothing else I have ever read provides such a detailed and well-supported study of a man and his times. And what a fascinating man? When I reread the series in 2012, I found myself sympathetic and repelled, often at the same time. A head case? Absolutely. A man with the set of skills that may be required to lead a nation? Almost certainly.

Book reviews often include a vignette or two. None offered here! Two bits of advice, though. First, if you think you can find the time to read the series, do so. It’s an undertaking, but I look at it as a very pleasurable accomplishment. Second, if your time is limited read Master of the Senate. (1200 pages, so “limited” is really a relative term.) I think it’s the star of the series, for it is in the Senate, where Mr. Johnson creates out of not very much the modern-day almost Constitutional office of Majority Leader, that readers can really appreciate a grand man on a grand stage.

A final note:  I am an avid Kindle fan/user, but I also love books as possessions. When I bought The Passage of Power I liked having the book, but I wished I’d downloaded it. These are all heavy volumes, really, so consider e-reading them. The experience might be different, but your arms will thank you!

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