Review: Means of Ascent, Robert A. Caro

Rating: 5.5 out of 5

This book… I have rarely been as involved in the story as I was in the gigantic combat between LBJ and Coke Stevenson. Yet, this is a battle the outcome of which we know from the very beginning. This gave the story an ethereal quality, the reader expecting the final event that would turn the battle for LBJ, always knowing that it would come—at some point. Yet, as Coke won one round after another, despite all the dishonourable motions Johnson’s side came up with, it was truly a surprise how far his old ways took him.

This is a duel; a duel between a Congressman, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and a former Governor of Texas, Coke Stevenson, and the prize is a seat in the Senate. Mr Caro makes Coke out to be old Texas; a rancher and a lawyer who had worked himself up from nothing with a deep and abiding love for justice. Johnson, his opposite, also worked himself up from nothing, but in the biggest contrast between the two men, had no scruples about doing anything: after all, if you do everything, everything you possibly can, to ensure victory, victory will come.

Johnson failed in this in 1941, allowing Pappy O’Daniel’s team to steal the election at the last moment. When the new chance came around in 1948, LBJ wasn’t going to allow anything to stop him. Mr Caro, the eloquent author who manages to portray in this title how the 1940’s Texas was a changing state, with the old rancher and cowboy values slowly passing, builds the story of this Senate campaign gracefully. The numerous interviews carried out as research into the election and those years offer so much insight into both men, it is difficult not to feel the campaign rage around the reader in all its glory.

I can understand Johnson’s motives and desires: the Presidency. It is, as the author starts out, the question of whether (potentially) good ends bear out the use of any means. This election campaign, also casting a great illustration of the use of money against someone’s reputation, allows the reader to ask deep-seated moral questions regarding power, how it should (and can) be gained, and what is important in a democracy. For me, the methods LBJ used are despicable, and yet, looking back now, the outcome as it happened was clearly good for both of the two participants.

Mr Caro also covers LBJ’s military career in this volume. The tone is slightly sardonic, but for good reason: namely, the real lack of anything warlike Johnson participated in, excepting one bomber flight in PNG, though the author also notes the great respect Johnson gained for this amongst the soldiers around there. However, no reader will be surprised by the fact Johnson made the most out of his very short tour into Australia, and that this was an issue that he liked to return to in the future. Also, Frank Hamer plays a very interesting part in the election, and the author described Hamer’s background and story to make the Ranger more understandable for the reader.

The scene that the author painted most memorably was Coke Stevenson’s participation in the cowboy fair where he was accorded so much honour Johnson refused to attend. The hundreds, or thousands, of cowboys who offered their silent respectful greeting to someone who had risen from their own background was a scene that again hearkened back to the old Texas, and one that I remember fondly.

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