Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

He’s vain, a bully, a suck-up. He two-times his wife and humiliates her publicly, forcing her to wait on him like a body servant. He phonies up a war record (in combat for 13 minutes, as an observer, he claims he fought for months). He butters up powerful old men one after another, not in the conventional ways of the ambitious but by persuading them that he, Lyndon Baines Johnson, hungers for a lost, desperately mourned father. Blatantly, shamelessly, he misrepresents the actions and positions of candidates who dare to oppose him. He cops a personal fortune of millions by exploiting political connections — and passes the wealth off as built on his wife’s inheritance. He accuses labor leaders of ”selling out the working people,” knowing it’s a lie. He buys votes by the thousands to beat a decent opponent whom he vilifies as a commie simp. And thereafter — perversely eager to be seen as Joe Ruthless — he edges close to boasting that he stole the election.

Character defects on the scale of LBJ’s, as Caro depicts them, usually kill biographies. Yet, astonishingly, you never once think of quitting on this book. In The Path to Power, the first volume of this massive work, those defects seemed less egregious. The biographer (who won a Pulitzer for an earlier work about Robert Moses) focused on landscape — Texas hill country — as well as youthful political ambition and ruthlessness. He dramatized Congressman Johnson’s deep concern for the bleakness of his rural constituents’ lives and, before that, his extraordinary devotion to the kids he taught in a ”Mexican school” in a ”desolate south Texas town.”

But in the second volume, Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson — Caro himself points this out — the bright and positive elements of character disappear. The book opens with Johnson in limbo. Defeated in 1941 in his first campaign for the Senate, he is powerless, bitter, increasingly desperate. And as the pressure mounts his faults loom larger. Yet, to repeat, they don’t kill the book. With every page you like this President-to-be less; with every chapter you read more voraciously.

Part of the reason, of course, is the fascination of money and power. The book is jammed with gritty details about wheeling and dealing at the FCC for lucrative broadcasting licenses, and with facts about who carried which cash-packed suitcases where when votes were needed. But the true secret of Means of Ascent as an entrancing read hasn’t finally to do with big bucks and high places. It’s that the book is a compendium of all the modes of narrative that still possess the capacity to rivet. There’s a hurtling horse race of an election. There’s a High Noon-style face-off between a noble Texas Ranger and the forces of darkness (the Ranger very nearly intimidates the bad guys — Johnson’s hired ballot-box stuffers — by the purity of his cool). There’s a whodunit, untangled at the end by the intrepid detective-biographer, who produces, in the bargain, a scoop on just how that election was stolen. There’s an American cowboy-saint (Governor Coke Stevenson, from whom Johnson stole a crucial election), and a touching January-May love story (Stevenson and his wholly charming second wife). Suspense accumulates on a half dozen fronts straight through to the final page.

And so, too, at length, do misgivings. Narrative drive is one thing, satisfying biographical and historical solidity is another. Furious in pace, ravishing as entertainment, Means of Ascent seems to have been conceived as a chronicle of perfect good at war with its opposite; gradually that conception eats away trust. The biographer can’t resist allegorizing. He produces scores of pages on Coke Stevenson as saint, but seems reluctant to write more than a sentence on Coke Stevenson the do-nothing governoo and racist. And although he reminds himself intermittently that LBJ has to be more than the mere sum of his sins, his effort to see the man fully feels halfhearted and perfunctory. In the introduction he evokes and praises the speech to Congress, post-Selma, with which LBJ launched the drive for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Elsewhere there’s an acknowledgment that the Texan’s desperation never to be seen as a chump has comprehensible origins. (His father’s fecklessness mortified the family when LBJ was a boy.)

But the note of balance is only pro forma. Having caught sight, early, of an enrapturing moral pattern — the kind of design that permits writer and reader alike to heroicize and villainize with absolute confidence — the biographer can’t allow himself to be derailed by complication, or delayed by problems or riddles. The result is a spellbinder — but a life story that will one day have to be done again, by a writer proof against parable. A-

Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
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