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Books: Robert Caro's Master of the Senate

IT HAS BEEN twelve years since publication of"Means of Ascent," the second volume of Robert Caro's"The Years of Lyndon Johnson," but the long-anticipated third volume,"Master of the Senate," is worth the wait. Portraying Johnson's most productive and effective years as Senate majority leader, the book, which covers the years 1949-1960, reveals how an insecure southern politician suddenly emerged as one of American history's greatest legislative leaders--and thereby opened the door for himself to the White House. The Lyndon B. Johnson who emerges in Caro's multi-dimensional portrait is infinitely more powerful and vastly more interesting than the Senate leaders who preceded and followed him.

Caro seems finally to have come to terms with his subject. Many biographers fall in love with the people they scrutinize so closely, but Caro has tended to demonize them. Robert Moses seemed something close to pure evil in Caro's 1974 book"The Power Broker"--as the reader might guess from the subtitle:"Robert Moses and the Fall of New York." The first volume in his biography of Johnson,"The Path to Power" (1982), was so withering in its attack on the ambition-crazed young Texan that Johnson's old friends who had granted Caro interviews closed the door to him.

Caro certainly does not disguise Johnson's cruelty, duplicity, and mendacity in"Master of the Senate," and his subject, having reached his forties, remains a coarse bully and philanderer. Yet Caro now finds a public purpose in Johnson's obsession for power. In the introduction, Caro sees"hints of a compassion for the downtrodden, and of a passion to raise them up" in Johnson."Once he had acquired power in the Senate, the compassion, and the ability to make compassion meaningful, would shine forth at last." Johnson's device was the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which sounded the death knell of legal segregation in the South and opened the door to a different America. For it to pass without a southern filibuster that would put the majority leader in a politically impossible situation was considered miraculous then--and, indeed, it remains so now. This extraordinary accomplishment is the burden of Caro's third volume.

Not that he gets to the point quickly. Leisurely is an understatement to describe Caro's biographical style. He spends the first hundred pages on a political history of the Senate, its decline from magnificence prior to the Civil War to an institution of mediocrity and absenteeism when Johnson entered after his disputed election of 1948. The Senate's dominant figure, a giant among pygmies, was Richard Brevard Russell of Georgia, and Caro spends another forty pages on the life of the southern patriarch who was to play a critically important part in Johnson's story. This means that it is not until page 232 that Caro gets to Johnson's performance as a senator, when he portrays Johnson's brutal red-baiting in managing the Senate's rejection of liberal Leland Olds, nominated by President Harry Truman for another term on the Federal Power Commission. An incident brushed over by most biographers is given forty pages and three chapters by Caro--not because it allows him to depict Johnson at his worst, but because it demonstrates Johnson's need to show the Texas oil barons who backed him that they had put their money on the right man.

BUT JOHNSON had greater ambitions than being just another southern Democrat voting for oil and against civil rights. The austerely dignified Russell was not the kind of person usually attracted to Johnson, but Johnson courted the lonely Georgia bachelor and brought him around. Russell"saw that Johnson was capable of adapting the Senate to the new age," Caro writes. The Democratic party in the Senate was still dominated by the southerners, which allowed Russell to pick the party's leaders, and he made the ambitious freshman from Texas--at age forty-four, with only four years in the Senate--the chamber's youngest floor leader ever.

It seemed an empty honor. The last two Democratic floor leaders had been defeated in successive elections, the position was hamstrung by Senate rules, and power was really held by the South in an unwritten alliance with conservative Republicans. To succeed at making his position potent, Johnson had to accomplish the impossible: convince Russell and his fellow committee chairmen to breach the seniority rule. That gave the party leader the mighty weapon of dispensing committee assignments.

When Johnson's status changed from minority leader to majority leader in the 1954 election, he took full control. As Caro puts it:"The Senate chamber which had been so sleepy and slow, was now, suddenly, a room filled with energy and passion." In less than six months,"Lyndon Johnson had tamed the untamable Senate.""Had even one of the mighty chairmen realized the long-term effect of what Lyndon Johnson was doing," writes Caro, he"would not have been able to do it." Johnson convinced these barons of the Senate that he should be granted the power"as a means of muffling the liberal firebrands."

Actually, the way he used those new powers was scarcely for conservative ends. Caro puts in fascinating detail Johnson's legislative legerdemain in dominating what was still a conservative body to defeat the Bricker Amendment limiting presidential treaty-making and to adopt public-housing and minimum-wage bills opposed by the Republican administration.

Nothing less than the presidency was the reason this was permitted. Russell had impressed on his fellow southerners that for Johnson someday to enter the White House, they would have to give him the leeway to pass"legislation they would never have permitted another leader to pass." Russell felt the final reconciliation of the old Confederacy never could be achieved without a southerner in the White House, and the only real prospect was Johnson. To make that possible, Russell came to admit, Johnson would have to be recognized as the guiding force behind the first civil rights bill passed since Reconstruction.

Scarcely anybody in 1957 could conceive of Johnson pushing a civil rights bill. For twenty years on Capitol Hill, he had an unblemished record of opposition to civil rights. In 1956, as majority leader, he prevented a House-passed bill from even reaching the Senate. Always, his" compassion" was trumped by"ambition," the need to placate his southern base.

Thus, Caro devotes a full chapter to an incident in 1949 when Johnson arranged an Arlington cemetery burial for a Mexican-American war hero rejected by a funeral home in Three Rivers, Texas, then"backtracked" under pressure from his political backers.

CARO NEEDS MORE than two hundred pages to tell the engrossing story of how in 1957 Johnson solved his multiple problems in passing the bill. He needed a bill that would not provoke a southern filibuster (these were the days when filibusters were actually waged, not just threatened), which would kill his presidential chances while it likely killed the bill as well. That meant watering down the bill, requiring him to collect moderate Democrats and break into Republican support for a strong bill that had suddenly solidified after African-American voters seemed to be supporting the Republicans.

I arrived on Capitol Hill as a twenty-six-year-old reporter for the Associated Press as the great Senate debate began, and I never have seen anything to approach its dramatic intensity in the forty-five years since. With prospects looking poor almost until the end, the battle had everything: vote swapping, parliamentary tricks, impassioned oratory, a secret (and successful) visit by the Senate majority leader to the president. Caro does it all justice with an incomparably thorough job of legislative reporting. Johnson previously"had displayed a mastery of small-scale, intricate legislative maneuver," but now he was exhibiting"legislative" leadership of the government.

The key was Russell's agreement not to filibuster if Johnson could limit the bill to voting rights and weaken their enforcement. A filibuster enlisting Johnson's support would doom him for president, and Caro notes that"the assumption" here was"that a Johnson presidency would be a desirable thing for the South." That Johnson in the White House proved a bitter disappointment to the segregationists is no consolation to surviving liberals of the 1957 battle, who still insist Johnson could have passed more. Caro, surely no apologist for Johnson, suggests this judgment is incorrect. While Hubert Humphrey said the watered-down bill was more a" crumb" than"half a loaf," Caro calls it"more than half a loaf, a lot more. It was hope." It opened the door to federal intervention against a segregated South.

By the time the civil rights bill passed, Caro has reached page 1,035 and literally has run out of space. He also may be as exhausted as his readers, for, after detailing almost every aspect of Johnson's first three years as majority leader, he races over the last three years, 1958 to 1960, in less than nineteen pages. Caro gives short shrift to Johnson's mastery in defeating 1958 efforts to undermine the Supreme Court's authority and his role in the dreary 1960 civil rights legislative fight. He barely mentions Johnson's political manipulations in passing the Landrum-Griffin Labor Reform Act and rejecting Lewis Strauss as secretary of commerce, and completely ignores Johnson's dismal final performance in the post-convention session of 1960.

Nevertheless,"Master of the Senate" is a spectacular piece of historical biography, delicious reading for both political junkies and serious students of the political process. The long-term impact is another matter. Johnson's mastery left no positive permanent imprint on the Senate, as the past four decades demonstrate. Nor was it good preparation for the presidency, as Caro's fourth volume will surely show. The miracle of 1957, however, remains a sufficient legacy for Lyndon Johnson.

This article was first published by the Weekly Standard and is reprinted with permission.

Illustration by Curtiss Calleo.