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5.0 out of 5 stars simply the best - for political junkies, that is, 17 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson III (Paperback)
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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Location: Balmette Talloires, France

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