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Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Volume 3) Paperback – 5 Jun 2003
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"Quite breathtaking... one of the great political biographies" (Gordon Brown)
"This book stands out because it brings that pace and drama to life: it makes it almost as exciting to read the book as it would have been to be there... a magnificent history of twentieth century America" (William Hague)
"Regarded by many as the greatest political biography of the modern era. Essential reading for those who want to comprehend power and politics. Compellingly readable... the breathtaking detail makes it impossible to put down" (The Times)
"Dazzling... awesome... Rarely will you come across a more compelling account of the nature of great power and its entanglement with massive personality. Rarely will you find another biography which is such a fascinating study of how a bad man became a power for the good" (Observer)
"For Caro, writing a biography is writing a thriller - in Johnson's case, a western. You can't stop turning the pages... I can't recommend this book highly enough" (Michael Howard)
The third instalment in Robert Caro's multi-award-winning and bestselling biography of Lyndon Johnson, spanning a pivotal era in American historySee all Product description
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But two particular points may be worth highlighting for anyone else interested in politics who hasn't yet read it, and is perhaps even put off by the thought of finding the time for its 1,000 plus pages.
One is that this volume isn't simply a biography of a slice of Lyndon Johnson's career, it's also a scintillating history of the US Senate and the way in which power and formal political rules interact. Included in that is a warning of the fallibility of long-term political forecasts with its account of the years when it looked like the Republicans could become the political voice of the African American community propelled in no small part by Richard Nixon.
The second is that an audio version is available - suitable, for example, for listening to when out delivering contemporary political leaflets. Not just available but brilliantly narrated by Grover Gardner. Both author and narrator are lucky to have the other as such a skilled part-creator of the audio book.
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.
"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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