Review: The Path to Power, Robert A. Caro

Rating: 5 out of 5

Before I started this book, I didn’t have the first clue about Lyndon B. Johnson, and I hadn’t been planning on focussing on him any time soon. Yet, after I noticed Mr Caro’s biography, I knew I had to take it up. Quite possibly, this was the best reading decision I’d taken in a good few months; this biography, to put it plainly, is an excellent narrative history that describes not only the man but also his times!

The author describes, in this introduction into the career of the future president, how the cocksure first son of a former Texas legislator managed to pull himself up by doing absolutely everything that could be done to gain a seat in the House. By the end of this book, LBJ has gone to fulfil his promise of serving in the military if he were to be called, and we are given a taste of what’s to come in the future Senate race that he will win.

One of the most interesting aspects of the character are the interviews that the writer has conducted with so many of the people who lived and worked with the subject. These offer a lot of colour, and give incredible insight into the political campaigns that are described: primarily the 1937 House race in which LBJ first got a seat, the 1940 House race which was to a great degree directed by LBJ, and the 1941 Senate special election that LBJ managed to lose so spectacularly at the last minute.

In all through this time, and in the time that LBJ had to work in Washington to gain the clout to get nominated in the first place, the protagonist—possible antagonist—of the story is not weighed down by any scruples, morals, ideals, or principles. What LBJ wants is power, more power, and he knows the steps he needs to take to get there. Starting with campus politics, LBJ’s signature would have been his ability to speak to the most liberal and most conservative of his caucus, later on the Democratic party, and to come away with both left thinking LBJ was on their side: “Lyndon goes where the wind blows.”

Many other Democratic grandees come to life on these pages. FDR, the man whose support Lyndon B Johnson used to such great effect on two accounts, is one of these. FDR is a much more self-interested, narrow-minded man than I’d previously considered him, but these sharp judgements relate to Texas, how Texans saw the president, and what they made of a man who couldn’t stop at two presidencies, nor at three, but was only called away in the midst of the fourth one. Similarly, LBJ’s father, Sam Johnson, gets a thorough consideration, and Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House in 1940, is also a major influence.

I also appreciated the author’s in-depth considerations of Texas in 1920’s and 1930’s. Indeed, where many political biographers start their journeys with the youth and family of the person who is the subject, Mr Caro’s treatise starts with the great-grandparents who first moved into Texas Hill Country, and what this move meant for them. The differences between Texas and the other states, the first so large and rural compared to many of the others, are brought out perfectly for the reader to understand the voters that were to be Lyndon’s base. This background is invaluable to really understanding what is going on throughout.

In this book, the author is trying to answer how someone who is only interested in one thing—supreme power—could gain that. The answer, or the beginnings of the answer, come from this volume which are followed up with four others (the time of publication for this series has been more than four decades!) that shape the path to LBJ’s presidency and beyond. But, even these first decades of the man’s life tell the reader that Lyndon was very good, if not the best, at the game—and “winning is the name of the game” and the presidency is the prize.

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