Review: Master of the Senate, Robert A. Caro

Rating: 6 out of 5

Every now and then, a book comes by that strikes the reader on every level. Once again, the next of Mr Caro’s books in his quest to detail the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson achieves that level. Not only is this an impeccable history of the Senate, LBJ’s time in it, as well as of legislating racism in the United States, but all of these aspects are covered in amazing detail. The number of people who are detailed on these pages is also not restricted—the author’s objective of describing everything fully means that most of the people who turn up for one event or another get as full a description of their motives as could be hoped for.

Of course, all of this does not come without a cost. I suspect that for many, this cost would be overwhelming. I am here talking about the level of detail. If one’s objective is to merely know a little bit more about LBJ, then this would be unnecessary unless, of course, one took the same approach as the author has which is that one cannot understand the subject without being put into his shoes as much as possible. This is why the first third (approximately) of the book covers the history of the Senate and how this body rarely “worked” though it did fulfil the objective given to it by the Constitution. This description, while strictly unnecessary for a treatise on LBJ, puts into perspective what the man achieved when he was Minority and Majority Leader in the upper house. Yet, all of this means that the 1,200 pages of this tome in paperback are reached without much effort—in truth, I felt that some aspects could have been described in a lot more detail. Falling into the latter category is the achievement of statehood for Alaska and Hawai’i which was mentioned in a few sentences, but not really described as other events are.

It is another hallmark of a great, not merely good, writer that Mr Caro, in different times, manages to describe LBJ both as the hero and as the villain. In reality, reading this my feelings about LBJ changed as during the previous books: it is clear that his achievements, at every stage of his career, were great, but they were also sometimes brought about at an enormous cost to others. In this work, the chief objective is the Civil Rights Act of 1957. This could not have been passed without LBJ as the author makes clear. Yet, on his way there it is also brought home how the author destroys great men in the liberal cause such as Leland Olds. During the chapters that discussed the hearings on Mr Olds, LBJ’s morality made him seem the devil; yet, when and where he fought for the right causes, he was the clear protagonist. Of course, taking a step back and not being that involved in the narrative—which to me is not nearly as good a way of immersing myself in the book—it is clear that the only rationale that the man worked for was his own advancement. For his advancement, the destruction of Mr Olds was a necessity. Similarly, there was no way except to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Therefore, Mr Olds was destroyed and the Act was passed.

Mr Caro’s excellent narrative style also covers some otherwise great moments, like the speech by Mr Hubert Humphrey to the Democratic Convention in 1948. In effect, this was such a well written part that I went through it twice; the range of emotions that Mr Humphrey, the future Senator and Vice President, was able to convey is incomparable: “People — human beings — this is the issue of the 20th century. People of all kinds — all sorts of people — and these people are looking to America for leadership, and they’re looking to America for precept and example.” The future relationship between Humphrey and LBJ is a different matter though it is interesting to see how it plays a role in the lives of both men.

The Presidents of this period, 1948 to 1958 feature briefly though not overly much: Johnson’s splendid idea of supporting Eisenhower against the Republican ‘opposition’ is brought out, as is the Senator’s committee work which tried to echo Truman. These are controversial decisions and issues, but explained in great depth with specific reference to how these would help Johnson politically. The main issue in this time on which LBJ doesn’t take a stand until far too late—Joe McCarthy—is also given the space it deserves, and this is linked very nicely overall to the Communist threat, including the prior hearings of Mr Olds as well as the war in Korea. MacArthur’s dismissal is obviously a large part of the story as it is a great example of how the Senate worked.

Overall, this is a splendid work! Not only do I feel after it that I have an idea of the people in the Senate—Knowland, Church, Russell, Humphrey, Douglas, etc—who were there with Johnson, but also the traits in Johnson’s character that were brought into light by him having power as Majority Leader were described in sufficient detail.

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