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4.8 out of 5 stars
Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson III
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 31 October 2006
Even those addicted to the soap opera of politics would admit that not all political 'personalities' really deserve a biographic trilogy by a skilled writer. Lyndon Baines Johnson lived a life that would almost be better suited to Greek tragedy than political biography: raised in poverty, and after a dubious election found his way to Congress whereupon his ambition lead him to become a New Dealer and acolyte of Sam Rayburn, the then-speaker of the House.
After promotion to the Senate after another bruising election campaign, LBJ set about waking up this august house from its non-partisan slumber. Through bullying, intimidation, a certain dose of charm and any other tactic available to him, LBJ passed more legislation than anyone since Franklin Roosevelt.
Thanks to his presidency, Liberalism scaled new heights: its war on poverty formed LBJ's 'Great Society' and radically reduced the back-breaking poverty that many in the US still silently suffer from; his civil rights legislation put an end to the political apartheid that blighted many areas of the South; and his rhetoric created a climate in both Houses that embraced social change.
However, to misquote Mandeville, private vice can equal public virtue. Johnson was a bully to his wife, a tyrant to his staff on many occasions, and was obscenely crude and unstatesmanlike.
Perhaps this hubris, this taunting of the political gods, was the reason that he couldn't bring himself to play it smart rather than tough over Vietnam. His passion, and his talents, were directed at domestic reform, and it was a nationalist movement in a faraway Southeastern country that was to see the death of reform liberalism and the Democrats as the US's majority party. After being beaten by the unlikely victor of the New Hampshire primary, Eugene McCarthy, who had been running on an anti-war platform, Lyndon Baines Johnson withdrew from the race for the Democratic nomination for the President of the United States of America. His statement would serve as epitaph for the liberalism that he held so dear. His vice-president, championed in the Senate by LBJ from his first inauspiciously radical days in that conservative chamber, had the moral purity that LBJ lacked, but not the political skills to put the 1968 genie back in the moderate liberal bottle. The mainstream majority had seen enough. LBJ's life was a Greek tragedy, and Robert Caro has done us the service of making one of the great political careers into the biography that it so richly deserved. In so many ways this isn't just a biography of a man, but of an age, a politics and a political institution that exists no more but whose legacy lives on.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 5 November 2006
I took up "Master Of The Senate" on the recommendation of a state senate majority leader. I began the book with some skepticism because I did not like Johnson when he was president and I feel that his reputation has deteriorated since then. Long before completing this book I was very grateful for the recommendation. In it, author Robert A. Caro treats the reader to a work equally great as biography and history. He does an excellent job in revealing Johnson's character and accomplishments in the context of the history in which he lived.

"Master Of The Senate" is the third volume in Caro's biography of LBJ. It deals primarily with his years in the Senate from his election to elevation (if that is the proper term) to the vice-presidency. It portrays a man who was repulsive and clever, ill but indefatigable, obsequious and ruthless, loved and hated, respected and feared, but always successful.

Caro gives the reader an eye opening history of the Senate leading to the condition in which Lyndon Johnson found it in 1949. Although primarily covered in earlier volumes, Caro gives the reader an insight into the ups and downs LBJ endured on his way to the Senate. On a personal basis he portrays Johnson as an incredibly crude man, an open womanizer who demeaned Lady Bird while playing on the loneliness and vanity of The Powers of the Congress. After wondering how Johnson had any success in politics, the reader is summoned to awe inspiring admiration of his accomplishments.

Assimilating himself into the Southern caucus, LBJ ingratiated himself to Sam Rayburn and Sen. Richard Russell, two single, lonely men longing for a son figure to take make their lives whole. They were to be his powerful patrons who would advance his career to heights not open to them.

Just as the quest for the presidency was Johnson's sole goal during his Senate career, so the reporting of this quest is Caro's theme throughout the book. The pursuit of the presidency presented Johnson with his greatest challenge. A Son of the South, he had to build on his Southern base while distancing himself from it. While doing the bidding of the Southern caucus he had to destroy its power by changing Senate seniority rules and passing the first Civil Rights bill in over 80 years. Sections of the book detail how he put together a coalition which stripped the bill of its significance and then obtained its passage. His use and abuse of both Southern sponsors, like Russell, and Northern liberals, such as Hubert Humphrey, demonstrate a skilled and ruthless operator.

One test I apply in assessing a book is whether it leads me to want to read more. "Master Of The Senate" aces this test. I now want to read the rest of the series as well as other books about Johnson and other national political actors who shared his stage. Even more than before, I know, "In my heart", that Barry was right, but Robert A. Caro has made me want to know more about Lyndon B. Johnson.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on 18 May 2002
This enormous and wonderful book is the third volume of Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson.When I read thefirst volume,"Path to Power I was astonishedby the versatility and power of Caro's writing.I remember particularly his evocation of the harsh Texas Hill Country of Johnson's youth and his extraordinarily effective and moving depiction of the rigours of the life of the hill farmers' families before the coming of electricity. One read too of the young Johnson working on a Texas State Highway "road gang" in harness with apair of mules doing brutally hard work for pay of $2 a day.LBJ's determination to succeed ,to avoid the penury which befell his father stemmed from such experience,experience which nurtured in him an empathy with the poor,exemplified in his youth by his efforts to help his empoverished Mexican-American students during his time as a schoolteacher in Southern Texas.
"Master of the Senate" covers the years from his disputed election to the Senate in 1948 up to his election as Vice-President to John Kennedy in 1960.The book is so compelling,so gripping and,indeed,exciting,that one is never daunted by its great length.Even when Caro lengthily digresses on the history of the Senate or even more telling,the racial history of the 1950s it is time well spent.
Johnson was a powerful paradoxical figure.A marvellous intuitive politician he became leader of the Democrats in the Senate and Caro tells how Johnson bent that body to his will by intelligent manipulation and the sheer massive force of his personality and ambition.Ruthless,frightening,even cruel,early in his career he orchestrated the professional destruction of a dedicated public servant,Leland Olds,to satisfy his Texan oil baron backers and Caro cites many instances of of vindictiveness, of humiliation of opponents or those who failed to comply with his wishes;most unattractive too is his almost dismissive treatment of his devoted and adoring wife.
Caro discusses at several points just how genuine LBJ's compassion for the poor and unjustly deprived really was.In what became known as the Longoria Affair an emotional Johnson reacted to a Texan funeral home's refusal to extend facilities for thereinterment of a Mexican-
American private killed in the Pacific in 1945 by arranging a hero's burial in Arlington National Cemetery.This earned Johnson undying popularity in the Hispanic communitybut Caro points out that when some of the Texan power brokers expressed rumblings of displeasure,LBJ found it expedient to backtrack and distance himself from the matter-"my participation was limited to doing my duty as I saw it to this constituent."
There is so much that is unattractive about Johnson,extending of course to his famed physical crudity.In the earlier books we learned how Johnson would summon subordinates to take notes as he sat in their full view using the toilet;in this book we see a hilarious picture of the man sprawled in his Senate chair,legs splayed out,using a nasal inhaler with an obscene trumpeting snort that could be heard in the public gallery above.There is too a wonderful set of photographs entitled The Johnson Treatment showing how he used his immense physical presence to overpower and intimidate ,one arm round the shoulder of an interlocutor,the free hand grabbing his lapel to forestall an escape.
So much then that is unattractive,even repulsive in this man and yet there is much to admire:his intelligence and inventiveness,his perceptive analysis of others' strengths and weaknesses and gullibility.He was too,Iwas surprised to learn a remarkably gifted mimic and raconteur.
The climax of the book is the story of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.This is a wonderfully told suspenseful saga and one gasps at the audacity and intricacy of Johnson's balancing and manoueuvring and enjoys too the episodes and sub-plots involving other major protagonists like Paul Douglas of Illinois and Richard Russell of Georgia shouting at each other in temper across the Senate floor thus nearly wrecking LBJ's subtle calculations.Yet he triumphed.The measure itself was seen by most liberals as weak and watery but Johnson knew that the walls of the citadel of Southern intransigence had at last been breached.
This is a thrilling and engrossing book,great literature as well as great historical biography.Caro,s three books have expended about 2000 pagesupon his subject and one begrudges him none of them.I earnestly hope we do not have to wait too many years for the continuation of this fascinating story.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 10 June 2006
This is an imposing book. Huge, and at first sight dull. Caro starts off with a history of the Senate. But he does so brilliantly, gradually developing a layered and richly drawn portrait of the context of his subject. By looking at his time as a Senator and the way he uses the institution to get what he wants this book presents a fascinating picture of LBJ and his times. A quite brilliant book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This is one of those books that you will either become enthralled by and devour with awe or feel overloaded and bored and then drop right away. And only true political junkies will love it. I loved it: it is hands down the greatest political biography that I have ever read.

Though I disliked the second volume as too one-sided, in this one Caro returns to the full moral complexity of LBJ in this volume. I now see the unity of the entire work, as LBJ positions himself to gain power and yet has some genuine progressive desires to improve the lot of the disadvantaged; the second volume were his "wilderness years" and I will re-read it with that in mind. While LBJ`s ideals were always in thrall to his ambition, when the former could serve the latter, he did great things and that is what is covered in the 3rd volume. You really get a sense of how complex men of power are - they can be good and bad at the same time - rather than a caricature or bloodless representative of "historical forces." It is amazing (and inspiring) that an independent work of such magnificent scholarship can be produced outside of academia.

The story in this volume is also extremely rich thematically: you get a history of the US Senate, a bird's eye view of the arcane power hidden in its "rules," and of course, the great de-blocking of the civil rights reform that had been stalled for nearly 80 years. There are also a number of fascinating sub-themes, such as LBJ's shameful pioneering of McCarthyite tactics to destroy the career of bureaucrat Leland Olds in the service of Texas oil interests or the depths of depression to which he could fall when his ambitions appeared thwarted or the career of Sen. Richard Russell (he was a racist and yet a man of principle and honor). But at the center of it all is his genius to take a position that no one wanted and turn it into a new source of power, which he did as Senate majority leader: it had been, for over a century, a position that brought ridicule on those who tried to exercise power on the unruly collection of individuals we call senators. In doing so, LBJ fundamentally changed the way that the modern senate functioned, reintroducing discipline through the creation of effective incentives and threats that no one was able to muster before him. That is genius and Caro explains how.

If there are some problems with the book, the majority of them come from Caro's own political biases: he takes as a given that anything liberal is "good." Moreover, as critics repeat endlessly, because Caro embarked on a vast enterprise with his multi-volume biography (and it will probably take him more than 45 years to complete it), his interest in LBJ verges on obsession and he appears at times as too superhuman to believe. The book at 1,000 pages is also too long: I lugged it around on vacation and occasionally tired of the endless stream of examples and detail as the binding began to rip in transit. Indeed, there are several full books in this volume.

Though I have studied politics for over 35 years, there were many, many things that I have learned from Caro's opus and I eagerly await the final volume in the series. Caro writes with such elegance, clarity, and drama that I am in awe of his literary talents, even if he sometimes goes too far. This is a masterpiece whose depth is similar to that of the great writers of the past, such as Gibbon or Thucydides. It is destined to become a classic.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Whether we like it or not, US politics are key to us Europeans. Whether we like or not - and no doubt there are times we like it rather less - the sheer power of the US, the ubiquity of US culture, our three centuries of shared history and wars, the blood shed by US soldiers on our land, the deep bonds that tie our nations - and no doubt there are times we havebvdeep reservations about these bonds - all make US politics key to us. And understanding them, and what makes them what they are, and how they came to be what they are, are fundamental for us Europeans to come to terms with a relationship that isn't always easy. And in order to achieve some measure of understanding, one has to delve into US political history, and into the history of US political institutions.
In this area, Mr. Caro's book should be compulsory reading.
If it were just a biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, it would deserve the highest praise. Meticulously researched, unswervingly evenhanded in the appraisal of the central character, both critical and admirative, here is a book that reads like a thriller. Obviously, the chapters detailing how the 1957 Civil Rights Act became law is the most spectacular example of how Mr. Caro turns history into a fascinating, palpitating piece of literature that one simply cannot put down. The way the plot unfolds, the way the dramatis personae are brought to the stage, the way events big and small are brought to play is simply masterful. But other examples abound, that the reader will enjoy just as much. On literary value, storytelling power,historical perspective on the man and politician L.B. Johnson alone, this book stands.
What really fascinates, though, is the insight Mr. Caro provides in the inner workings of a great institution, the Senate of the United States. It shows its grand sides, its moments of grandeur, its solemn and momentous times, and its petty, dark, cynical workings. The opening chapters contain a superb short history of the Senate, bringing into perspective the tensions between South and North, liberals and conservatives, and the way these tensions modeled and conditioned the way the US Senate would mold,and quite often would refuse to mold US policy. The narrative builds up an almost palpable image of the institution and its workings. Fascinating stuff.
I could go on and on... Suffice it to say: the moment I finished reading,I ordered the first two volumes of Mr. Caro's LBJ biography.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 5 November 2014
This is the third book in Robert Caro's Magnus Opus 4 volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson. I thought the first volume at 768 pages was a mighty tome but at 1,040 pages this book ‘Master of the Senate’ somewhat overwhelmed me. Having taken this book on holiday that included to and from trans-Atlantic flights and to and from flights across the US it still took me almost three months to complete.
This book covers the period of Johnson’s life in the Senate from 1948, becoming Senate Minority Leader in 1953 and then Majority leader in 1955. Continuing themes include cultivating influential men (Senator Richard Russell), milking positive PR through positioning himself in high profile roles, Korean War Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee and then using this committee again over the Soviet lead in the Space race.
The core of the book, however, is how Johnson developed the role of initially Minority Leader and then Majority Leader to dominate the Senate. In order to provide context, Caro elaborates on the Senates history and its context within the political system of the US. To some extent this makes the book more academic than the earlier books two but I think it is necessary in order to appreciate what Johnson achieved.
Carro covers the passing of the first civil rights act since the Civil War in some detail and as in the earlier books you are left with mix feelings as to Johnson’s underlying motivations of doing the right things but purely for his own interests. Again as the other two books I am amazed that Hollywood hasn’t done a film on this fellow.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Master of the Senate is the third of four books in the Johnson biography by Caro. It's the lesser of the three so far published but an amazing read nevertheless. The first two, Path to Power and Means of Ascent, are as good a pair of non-fiction books as I have ever read. Utterly enthralling as historical and psychological works, and written to the highest standard possible. The Senate book is as important as them but a little boring in parts because of the background detail on the Senate history.

I had no interest in this man before reading these works but I literally can hardly wait for the fourth and final book on Johnson's presidency.
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on 13 August 2012
This book by Robert Caro is a fascinating and necessary reading for anybody really interested in American politics. It is far more than a biography of the Senate years of Lyndon B Johonson: it is also a clear and detailed history of the Senate from its beginning to 1960, and of the American political scene, particularly with reference to Civil Rights in the 1950s. It may come as a surprise to see the complete domination by the southern senators, through the seniority and the filibuster rules, which stopped progressive legislation even reaching the floor, to be voted. Even Roosvelt, after 1936, did not manage to have any internal policy measure approved, and almost the same applied to Truman. The way LBJ managed, within a few years, to circumvent seniority and gradually become the powerful master of the Senate is the work of a real political genius and Caro's narrative is truly fascinating. However Caro does not let his admiration for LBJ to pass over the negative aspects of his personality: his vulgar side (down to forcing his assistants to conduct business with him while sitting on the WC!), his actions as a bully with his assistants and his wife are fully covered.Similarly, his unpleasant political actions, particularly the McCarthy-like undoing of the Federal Power Commissdion chairman Aldos, are fully detailed.
In the end, LBJ emerges as a bigger than life figure, a political genius, with genuine sense of Compassion and with immense Ambition. As Caro sums it up, if and when the two came into conflict Ambition won. This is truly one of the best books on USA politics.
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on 9 August 2013
This third volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon B Johnson is of the same extremely high standard as its predecessors and its successor. It's really impossible to overpraise the quality of the research and understanding, and its great readability.

At 1040 pages, the book is very long indeed. It covers the history of the Senate itself (its role to moderate both the President/Executive and the potential populism of the House of Representatives; its great moments - and its failures in the past) as well as the years from 1950 when Johnson was a senator. Much of the final section of the book also covers at some length the civil rights movement of the 1950s before launching into Johnson's extremely determine and creative handling of it in the Senate in 1957. There is also drama, with Johnson's heart attack and his response to it. And deep analysis of Johnson's character - sympathy for the underdog yes, but always subordinate to the quest for power. We get a very clear sense both of the great good Johnson could do in the world; and of the harm.

Having now read all four volumes of this biography to appear to date, I cannot wait for volume 5!
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