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Customer reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars

on 21 September 2013
This is the second book in Robert Caro's Magnus Opus 4 volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ). Although not as long as his first weighty tome it focuses on LBJ's life from America's eventual entry into the Second World War leading up to and including his second run for a Texas Senate seat in 1948.

I believe that Caro added an introduction where he recounts LBJ's conversion to civil rights to remind the reader that he did do some good as this book provides no redeeming features to a corrupt distasteful character.

Despite his tub thumbing attitude regarding `serving with the boys' in the coming war, he tried to wrangle out active service and managed to serve on the front line in California, partying and continuing one of his affairs whilst his wife worried about where he was. His one day as an observer on a bombing raid amazingly led to an award of a medal by MacArthur, who no doubt was trying to curry favour with one of Roosevelt's favourite congressman (the pilot et. al. did not win anything!). In later life LBJ elaborated this one day into a distinguish war time career. Through his long-suffering wife he built a radio business through abusing his government contacts and influence, but the focus of the book was his senate race against Coke Stevenson.

Carro depicts Coke Stevenson as the ideal cowboy all American/Texas hero. Although you know the outcome you cannot help rooting for this fellow. LBJ eventually won through throwing the money at the campaign which was funded through the Texas business interests he had garnered massive public sector contracts during the New Deal. When this did not work he won through blatant outright corruption.

Coke did try to fight the outcome through the courts but failed. As Carro used the introduction to remind us of some good LBJ did, I was relieved that he did relate what eventually happened to Coke which was a sort of happy ending.

LBJ's story is Shakespearian in its depth and I don't know why Hollywood has not made a film about this? Possibly it does not show American democracy in particularly good light!
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on 5 July 2017
A must read series if you're interested in political biography. Hell, if you're interested in fantastic storytelling! A lifetime of work has gone into these books and it really shows. Spectacular.
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on 18 July 2017
Magesterial, comprehensive, and compelling. The biography packs a punch, and pulls none. a breadth of scholarship few would ever seek to surpass.
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on 26 October 2017
Excellent book about a great period in history
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on 5 November 2017
Simply magnificent. This volume as part of an extraordinary magnum opus on the enigma that was Lyndon Johnson, a political genius and a ruthlessly ambitious man. He was not without high principles but they were always overridden by his determination to get to the top. Read all these volumes and you well get up the the very start of his presidency and just hope the author, now in his 80s lives, to complete one of the great political biographies of all time. It is not a page too long.

Johnson was brought up in the most degrading conditions of poverty and shame and survived through sheer grit and the ability to manipulate, humiliate and ingratiate. Finally he attained the ultimate office. Great men do not have to be good men. This depiction of power is mesmerizing. It is the classic American dream and the classic American Tragedy. Poor boy through ruthless determination attains the height of power, and then one great political error, not personal fault, the Vietnam war tarnishes forever what should have been one of the most significant presidencies.

Caro's interest in Johnson is all about power and the use of power to get things done. He admires as much as deplores. Bad men can do great things, as well as bad ones.

The same theme can be seen in his earlier masterpiece The Power broker, about Robert Moses. Moses was a truly vile human being , cruel, arrogant, racist, selfish. Yet in his early years with all of those traits on display, after he had discarded his old idealism which had achieved nothing, he did what no other could, providing parks and parkways on Long Island, transformed Central Park on Manhattan and built the stupendous Triborough Bridge. He did so in record time when nothing had been done, or what little had been done had been done badly, for years. It took an autocrat to do all this. Yet he too over-reached himself, and like Johnson, had to be stopped.

Caro's subtle and compelling picture of how the pursuit of power tends to corrupt and how the attainment of absolute power corrupts absolutely, will never be bettered.
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on 8 March 2013
Caro's book opens with a look forward to Lyndon Johnson as President - the plus side on civil rights and the minus side on Vietnam - and certainly made me hope he'll live long enough to write the chronicle of those years of LBJ as president.

Readers of other volumes of this biography - I have read volumes 4 and 1 - will know what to expect. Painstaking research over many years; and flowing narrative; convincing judgements about Johnson, good and bad. And much to give the reader pause for thought.

If I feel just slightly less enthusiastic about this volume it is because ultimately not quite enough happens. The first part of the book documents Johnson's record in the war years and his becoming a millionaire. The second part his race for the Senate in 1948. Having lost in 1941 through corrupt practices, this time he exploits corrupt practices to make sure he wins - going the extra mile in corruption as necessary to achieve his goal.

As with other volumes, this book doesn't just tell us about Johnson. I found particularly rewarding the story of Coke Stevenson, Johnson's opponent in the 1948 race and the true victor of it, a genuinely heroic figure for whose 'happy ending' I felt very grateful. And at one point Robert Hamer, who comes out of retirement briefly to help Coke Stevenson try to prove electoral fraud. He has been wounded 17 times in his life as a Texas lawman, and twice left for dead. He has also killed 53 men. And in his later 60s still clearly much large than life - and much larger than John Wayne.

I look forward to reading volume 3.
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on 27 June 2014
Outstanding read - in final chapters more thriller than orthodox biography - and the most individual of the four volumes in the series so far published. I’m unaware why Means of Ascent is so much shorter than Caro’s other LBJ books, but initial disappointment at its brevity is rapidly replaced by fascination with its headline event, Johnson’s hairs-breadth victory over Coke Stevenson in Texas’ 1948 US Senate election.

The official margin was 87 votes, but few believe that was the real result, and the image of padlocked ballot boxes that Johnson’s side prevented ever being made again part of the recount will endure. Amid the bedlam of corruption there’s much sad humanity here; not just the Stevenson voters who apparently had their choice of Senator de facto annulled, but also very much in Johnson and his allies, who shovel in cash and whatever else they deem necessary to get the result they need.

The story is sharper for the reality that by 1948 Johnson was an already wounded, emotionally festering man. Helped by FDR but now snubbed by Truman, transfixed by a need to be president and yet only a House representative, already robbed of an earlier Senate election in 1941 by arguably his own error, and, now 40, convinced also that like many male relatives he’d be dead by 65 and thus had to complete his ambitions early.

All this drama - utterly self-serving for LBJ but grippingly portrayed by an accomplished writer - makes a tale of electoral hand to hand combat at least as mesmerising as Johnson’s conduct and careful traversing into power after JFK’s assassination 15 years later.
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on 3 August 2013
Lyndon Johnson was an extremely complex person and his life reads like fiction!
However Robert Caro writes so brilliantly that he brings out the human side of Johnson as well as the mind blowing dark side of the man.
I cannot wait to receive the next part.
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on 8 January 2013
This is superb. Skip the childhood stuff - Caro summarises Vol 1. Jump in with Lyndon in 1942, a 3rd term US representative, who had risen to influence on FDR's coat-tails, and through control of the Democrat's donations from Texan oil. Now with better audited accounts, and having just lost his first Senate race, he returns to Washington a frustrated man. He had promised voters he would rush to the front line when the US entered the war, but delays - getting in a bit of adultery on the way - until his apparent cowardice threatens his future electoral chances. He wrangles a congressional investigatory trip, joins one bombing raid as an observer, and for the rest of his life portrays this single action as a brave fighting campaign in the Pacific. After the war he makes a fortune peddling political influence into broadcasting licences held in his wife's name.

And then the meat of the book - "the 87 votes that made history". How he stole the 1948 senatorial primary from Coke Stevenson, the most honest politician in Texas. He did it by flying around in a helicopter, by portraying his opponent, a genuine friend of poor farmers, as in the pockets of business, the place where Johnson himself really lay, and finally by buying votes. Texan politicians had been doing the latter for years, but Johnson stole more, and more brazenly, than anyone before. Despite all this, and Johnson's shocking treatment of his wife and underlings, Caro somehow makes us care about the outcome, as he leads us through the dramatic post-election intrigues, all the way to the US Supreme court ruling, that installed Johnson as senator. How could such a man have gone so far? Caro credits energy, charisma and ruthlessness. Although Johnson hid his villainy from electors, behind closed doors he boasted openly of doing whatever it took. He had power, and he made sure people knew it.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 May 2011
Caro seems to hate LBJ, and in this volume he sees only the "dark side" of the man. It is a les full portriat than the first volume, which portrayed Johnson in his full moral complexity. This volume is at time so black and white - contrasting a bad LBJ to a "good" Coke Stevens - that I worry Caro is losing his touch. Caro is a brilliant writer, one of the best political historians we have. While I am critical here, there is certainly much he uncovered as the great reporter we trust, such as LBJ's do-nothing period during WWII, that others missed; as such, this is still first-rate and compprehensive, even if the interpretation is oddly skewed. I hope that the following volumes will make up for the gaping flaws in this one.

Recommended with caution.
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