I just started in on the third volume, Master of the Senate, of Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. I read the other two over the last six months or so, between a number of other obligations. The problem is that once you really get going on them it’s hard to do anything else. I find myself missing subway stops and glancing at the clock expecting to see midnight and realizing that it is 4:00am (at least I know Abbas is still up).
That in itself is, I guess, something of a tribute to how amazingly good the volumes are. I’m not the first one to say this. They’ve been lauded to the skies; compared, rightly, with the works of such world historical notables as Gibbon and Tacitus. They’ve been recognized as an amazing fusion between high level scholarship, top notch writing and some less tangible quality. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s just a feel for what is important, for the way that the story of Johnson is both a story of one particular, strange, compelling, monstrous, brilliant, singular individual and also the story of a nation and a time period and all that kind of stuff too.
That is really why he is being compared to the Gibbonses and Taciti. Who knows what the exact formula is, but some history writers get kissed by their particular muse, I believe it’s Clio, and manage some kind of fantastic fusion of the particular and the universal. The more they tell us about this one thing, the more the thing they are talking about touches on everything else.
There are things that Caro keeps going back to and as he weaves them through each volume the impact of one man, one family, one little place in the Hill Country of Texas takes on global proportions as Johnson gains more and more power. That’s an old story, probably. There’s a version of it for Napolean, or Alexander the Great, or Suleiman, or etc., etc. But it’s another thing entirely to be able to suss out all the most relevant particulars and show them, to reveal them in such a way that they become obvious and clear in light of their greater implications. The very first page of the very first volume starts like this:
On the day he was born, he would say, his white-haired grandfather leaped onto his big black stallion and thundered across the Texas Hill Country, reining in at every farm to shout: “A United States Senator was born today!” Nobody in the Hill Country remembers that ride or that shout, but they do remember the baby’s relatives saying something else about him, something which to them was more significant. And old aunt, Kate Bunton Keale, said it first, bending over the cradle, and as soon as she said it, everyone saw it was true, and repeated it: “He has the Bunton strain.” And to understand Lyndon Johnson it is necessary to understand the Bunton strain, and to understand what happened to it when it was mixed with the Johnson strain—and, most important, to understand what the Hill Country did to those who possessed it.
In a way, the entirety of Caro’s book is spun out from those few lines. The fact that “Nobody in the Hill Country remembers that ride or that shout” isn’t a side note. It’s central. Because it’s a bold faced lie. Johnson was one of the most lying sons of bitches, seemingly, ever to live. He lied and he cheated and he stole his way out of the Hill Country. He made up the story about his grandfather because he was already creating the aura that he would use to make it true retrospectively. At the same time, in order to truly escape the Hill Country he had to make the Hill Country disappear. He had to make the Hill Country into something new so that it could be a platform for his own ambitions.
And in doing that he accomplished something remarkable, and whether it was as an ancillary to his quest for power or not becomes irrelevant. He worked with a mad, driven abandon as a nobody Congressman and he tried to gain every advantage for his county that he could from the New Deal. For the Hill Country, it meant electrification. Caro writes about it thusly:
As late as 1935, farmers had been denied electricity not only in the Hill Country but throughout the United States. In that year, more than 6 million of America’s 6.8 million farms did not have electricity. Decades after electric power had become part of urban life, the wood range, the washtub, the sad iron and the dim kerosene lamp were still the way of life for almost 90 percent of the 30 million Americans who lived in the countryside. All across the United States, wrote a public-power advocate “every city ‘white way’ ends abruptly at the city limits. Beyond lies darkness.” The lack of electric power, writes the historian William E. Leuchtenberg, had divided the United States into two nations: “the city dwellers and the country folk”; farmers, he wrote, “toiled in a nineteenth-century world; farm wives, who enviously eyed pictures in the Saturday Evening Post of city women with washing machines, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners, performed their back breaking chores like peasant women in a pre-industrial age.” . . .
But then one evening in November, 1939, the Smiths were returning from Johnson City, where they had been attending a declamation contest, and as they neared their farmhouse, something was different.
“Oh my God,” her mother said, “The house is on fire!”
But as they got closer, they saw the light wasn’t fire. “No, Mama,” Evelyn said. “The lights are on.”
They were on all over the Hill Country. “And all over the Hill Country,” Stella Gliddon says, “people began to name their kids for Lyndon Johnson.”
Real power grows from little episodes like that. And episodes like that were part and parcel of the real transformation of American life. And the transformation of American life happened in the specific way it did because, in part, particular mad, power hungry, odd and gangly political geniuses like Lyndon Johnson clawed their ways out of places like the Hill Country with insane dreams in their heads. He cheated his way to the Senate partly by being the first man to ride around in a helicopter from town to town and partly by buying every vote he could. What a strange sight it must have been to see LBJ descending, arms agoggle, stupid smile on his face, from a whirring mechanical bird onto your front lawn. He couldn’t pass anybody up. He was an asshole. But he understood people.
The beginning of the third volume, Master of the Senate, is an amazing short history of the powers of the Senate up until the mid-twentieth century when Johnson arrives. In a relatively brief dash, it gives one a greater sense of the institution than probably ninety percent of the specific studies of the Senate one could pick up. Which brings me to my last point on the subject. America is a pretty interesting place, really; grand and dumb, inspiring and depressing all at once. Given its immense power in this, our era, there is probably something like a vague global civic duty to understand it as best we can. And so it’s pretty frickin great that we have Caro.