The Cloister, by James Carroll

This 2017 work is the novel by a priest that I have been waiting for. Except, as in this case, it is by an ex-priest. That is, a novel that blends human life with spiritual life and extends their interaction across history. As well as a novel that explores both the conflict and the balance between the human and the spiritual, and presents man’s obligation toward each one.

Indeed, this is a novel that one thinks could have been written by only an ex-priest, by a man who had lived in both worlds, the spiritual world and the human world, the world of philosophy and the world of politics, the world of transgression and the world of love.

This is also a novel that, for the first time in a long time, I have read slowly. This was, in part, because of the richness of the writing, in part because of the philosophical depth being explored in the conversations among its intelligent characters, and in part because I simply wanted the novel to last for a long time.

There are three stories being told here simultaneously, and we move back and forth among each one. First is the story of Heloise and Abelard, the twelfth century lovers and Catholic intellectuals, who are introduced in a Prologue. Next is the story of Jewish philosopher Saul Vedette, who is fascinated by the story of Heloise and Abelard; and his daughter Rachel, who encourages him to continue his research into Abelard while they are living in France under German occupation in the 1940s. And finally, there is the story of Michael Kavanagh, a New York parish priest who casually encounters Rachel, a docent, in the Cloisters shortly after World War II. She is a woman who, because of her own experience, recognizes the intellectual and spiritual uncertainties she senses in him.

The story of Heloise and Abelard is basically a story of rebellion. A rebellion against their vows, yes, when they fall in love and marry, but more significantly a rebellion against Catholic teaching of their time, which Carroll suggests applies to our time as well. For Abelard, sworn to his earthly love for Heloise, believes that God is also driven by love, a love of all the creatures He has created. And this love includes the Jews, who were even then being slaughtered by Crusaders heading east to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslim control.

Professor Vedette of the Sorbonne is writing about these beliefs of the Christian Abelard because he and his daughter are Jews. And he wishes to show that, even now, centuries later, Jews are unjustly persecuted for their role in Christ’s life. His daughter not only agrees with him but also believes she can extend her elderly father’s life by supporting his effort to complete his treatise about Abelard’s defense of the Jews.

As readers, we are drawn into all three stories. We read about Heloise and Abelard, as much to have an insight into their lives as to learn about their destiny when the Church turns against them. We read about Professor Vedette and Rachel in order to learn about his fate as a Jew under the German occupation and what happens to his treatise about the persecution of Jews under a just and loving God. And we read, most of all, about Father Kavanagh, about his personal doubts and about what his final relationship will be with both Rachel and, in his vocation as a priest, with God.

The story of Abelard parallels in some ways the story of Father Kavanagh. Both become rebellious against Church teaching. Indeed, Father Kavanagh becomes convinced that Abelard was correct when he emphasized that God’s entire relationship with his creatures is based on love. And he sees how this particularly applies to the Jews. Indeed, author Carroll’s opposition to discrimination against Jews throughout history has appeared in other works of his, particularly the historical work Constantine’s Sword. So it is no coincidence that he has chosen Abelard to be the fulcrum of this fictional exploration of the Church’s relationship with Jews and with history.

The effectiveness of this novel lies in two factors. First, Carroll successfully transports us back to the twelfth century, from its physical environment and its culture to its clothing and its furnishings. And does so again with France under German occupation and mid-century New York. We see and feel each scene that he creates. And second, he captures the tension in each century between human and divine needs and between the conservative and liberal positions. Indeed, these discussions, taking place at a deep philosophical and theological level, are often not easy for a reader to follow.

Carroll explores most deeply the uncertainties in the priest’s mind. They arise particularly when Kavanagh encounters a former seminarian who has been drummed out of the priesthood, and the bishop seems to lay the blame on Kavanagh himself. It becomes even more complicated when the priest learns the true reason the seminarian was evicted. How far, we now wonder, will Kavanagh follow his doubts about his own role as a priest? How much will his reading of Abelard influence him? And how much will Rachel do the same? All three, Abelard, Rachel, and now Kavanagh, are confronted by the abuse of power. Both Rachel and Kavanagh, moreover, face their own uncertainties. In fact, as each decides where the future lies, it will not always be what the reader expects.

But back to the novel’s basic theme, which is God’s love. At the heart of this novel is a belief that God was not being a cruel God when his Son was tortured and killed to redeem mankind’s sinful lives. This is held by Abelard, by Father Kavanagh, and by James Carroll. They believe that a God who loves his creation, both this world and its humanity, does not have the capacity to treat that world with violence.

This contrasts to the twelfth century, when conservative philosophers said that God the Father proscribed a violent death of his Son on the cross in order to redeem mankind. Whereas, Abelard believed that any cruelty committed in the name of God, and justified by the cruel death of Christ on the cross, is illicit. (“Any theology that says so is wrong.”) For cruelty cannot have been willed by a loving God as the means to redeem mankind.

And yet, this reviewer has long been taught that Christ’s suffering is what earned mankind’s redemption. Whereas, Abelard’s thesis is that a loving God could not have required this of His son. But Christ does say that “not my will but thy will be done.” So he does accept it. And my understanding has long been that physical suffering was needed to compensate for all the physical actions than mankind is responsible for, from the actions of our first ancestors until today. The only answer that comes to me is that Christ was God, and that therefore God was inflicting cruelty on Himself, not on any of His creatures on this earth. It was a demonstration of His love of them.

And so, I do believe that God, in his deepest recesses, represents love, and that, like the Vatican II declaration, Jews should not be denied that love because of their role in Christ’s death. Indeed, I have long held that Jews, as the Chosen People, were meant to represent all mankind when they betrayed Christ. It was not as Jews they did so, but as human beings. That is, we all are the guilty ones. And so we all needed to be, and were, redeemed. Moreover, Christians, those who accepted Christ, are not special, and cannot use that acceptance to believe that only they are relieved of mankind’s guilt. Or to believe that Christians are the only ones who deserve reaching heaven.

In an interview, Carroll has said that violence is built into our culture today, even though God does not in any way support violence. This began, he suggests, back in the time of Abelard, when civilization, as represented by the Church, faced a fork in the road, and it chose the fork of what he calls sacred violence, the violence that still exists today against both Moslems and Jews.

Carroll has often written of the unjust persecution of Jews, and he felt that the story of Abelard, in fact, illustrated the point in history where Christians became responsible for much of that persecution. And he turned to fiction, a novel, as the best way to show how that decision of the Church long ago has resulted in constant persecution, up to the Holocaust in Germany this last century—and extends today to the mistreatment of other religions. He created the story of Rachel Vedette and Father Kavanagh, he says, to give contemporary relevance to the Church’s handling of Abelard long ago.

While there is no clear correlation among the characters in the three stages of history covered by this novel, both Heloise and Rachel are women who inspire and challenge the men in their lives, with Rachel also persuading the naïve and troubled Father Kavanagh that he has to determine his true calling. Carroll adds, however, that while Kavanagh “is not myself,” his own experience did serve to introduce questions that Kavanagh faces as a priest.

If Carroll, now in his seventies, does not write another novel, this will be his crowning work of fiction. In a sense, it will justify that entire branch of his career. He has used his life experience, even if not his personal experience, to explore the spiritual world that all readers live in. A world most novelists ignore, both because it is unimportant to them or does not interest them and because it is a difficult world to explore in the earthly terms that a novel requires. (September, 2018)

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The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, by David Lagercrantz

This is another entertaining thriller from the author who took up the mantle of Stieg Larsson. It is again about Lisbeth Salander, the computer hacker, and Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist committed to social justice. In this case, it is about their tense confrontations with villains who claim they are legitimate scientists. These scientists have been conducting a study of twins, a study intended to prove how differently twins evolve when brought up in different environments. But Lisbeth and Michael learn it is also a study that cares little about the harmful effect of this study on the twins.

Since Lisbeth is a twin herself, and was brought up apart from her twin sister, this study interests her. Especially when she discovers the harm it has done to various twins, and the desperate efforts of the scientists to hide those harmful effects. However, when we encounter her, she is in prison for a fabricated crime that is not made clear. And the initial tension of the novel rises in that prison between a fellow prisoner, Faria Kazi, and another female prisoner, Benito. Faria belongs to an Islam family whose sons are zealously guarding the family “honor,” after their sister Faria falls in love with a boy outside their clan. And Faria, is in jail after her revenge against one brother who tried to preserve the family honor by ordering the death of her fiancé.

In other words, there are various stories going on here. One is about Lisbeth’s prison life and the evil Benito, a woman prisoner who runs the jail because of an ineffective, cowardly administration. Another is about Lisbeth’s former guardian, Holmer Palmgren who visits her with news of the twins study. And still another is about the Islam family and the conflict between their daughter and her brothers. Finally, considerable space is spent with two of the twins in the study, Leo Mannheimer and Dan Brody, both prodigies, one a financier and the other a musician. They live opposite lives, of wealth and poverty, and then discover each other and want to expose what has happened to them. Another is about a dying woman scientist, Rakel Greitz, who does not hesitate at murder in order to conceal the cruelty and illegality of the twins study. While still another story follows police inspector Jan Bublanski, whom Lisbeth and Mikael rely on to help them expose and arrest the villains.

Because she is in prison for much of the novel, Lisbeth does not dominate the action here, not as she has done so in past novels. Her partner in the series, Mikael plays a more significant role. A famous journalist, he is a defender of social justice, and he seeks to expose the study of twins for his magazine, Millennium. It is he and Bublanski who control the final action, but considerable time is spent, in the meantime, with the twins Leo and Dan as they seek to adjust to an incompatible world, then discover one another and maneuver desperately to survive the evil scientist, Grietz, who does not wish the study to be exposed. And who, moreover, enlists Faria’s family to help protect the secret. Which also results in Lisbeth being kidnapped. Thus is built the reader’s concern that Mikael and Bublanski thwart the villains, that Lisbeth be rescued, and that Faria and Dan be saved.

What also increases the suspense of this novel is a narrative technique employed by author Lagercrantz. Through much of the novel he constantly switches the action from one confrontation to another, or from one moment in time to another. The result is that we continually leave a crisis faced by one character and go to one faced by another. Thus he moves back and forth from Lisbeth to Benito to Faria Kazi, or from Dan Brody to Leo to Greitz, or from Mikael to Bubanski to Lisbeth. For some critics, this switching of viewpoints is too much, but for me it does work to heighten the novel’s suspense.

One drawback to this novel that critics have cited is that there is too much going on. There are too many plots: the prison violence, the murders involving the twins study, one in the past and one in the present, the turmoil in the Moslem family, the kidnapping of Lisbeth, and the back story of Leo and Dan, also both in the past and in the present. And that as a result the novel has no textual depth. There is certainly a legitimacy to this complaint. But what these various plots do is keep the narrative moving and intensify the suspense up and .

But my major complaint is that the novel ends too neatly. There is a final dramatic confrontation or two, but the good guys win and the bad guys lose somewhat matter-of-factly. There are no dramatic revelations, no unexpected ironies, no changes in the reader’s understanding of the characters or their motivation. There is no punch at the end.

Another matter I did not grasp was the title. Not that any title in this series could not be exchanged with one of the others. All present Lisbeth as the main protagonist. But the revenge suggested by this title is not evident, and Lisbeth certainly does not play the prominent role that she does in the other novels.

I will be interested in more adventures of Lisbeth and Mikael as they appear in further novels by Lagercrantz. But, in retrospect, I do agree with the critics above, and I would hope this new author concentrates on a more simple line of action, rather then the complexity he offers here. So that he can probe more deeply into either his characters or into those matters of social and political justice that Mikael writes about. And that so fascinated Larsson in his original novels. (September, 2018)

The Path to Power, by Robert A. Caro

This is, indeed, a remarkable biography. Fully deserving of its reputation, even in this first volume, which establishes Lyndon Johnson’s character. The first element of the book that one notices is the scores, indeed hundreds, of people that author Caro has interviewed, even for a minor quote that helps him build his portrait. The second quality is that Caro does not hesitate to criticize his subject. As a result, we see a Johnson who puts ambition and ego first, who both kowtows to his superiors and demands obedience from his inferiors, and who lies and cheats to achieve his ends. And yet, when whose ends are often for the good of society, one faces the complex issue of measuring ends vs. means.

Still a third quality is the contextual detail that Caro offers that explains the environment and the motivations that prompt the actions of everyone from Johnson to the politicians, staff people, and money people that he deals with. It is this contextual detail that will extend this biography to more than the three planned volumes. The portrait drawn here of Lyndon Johnson is of a youthful, gangling, garrulous, and ambitious man who uses his followers, who takes advantage of them, although largely to achieve benefits for those forgotten by society. He cultivates a team and works them to the bone, but he has such a strong personality and creates such a spirit de corps that the team members willingly do every thing he asks of them. They believe in him. And many will follow him for the rest of his life.

But this work is more than a portrait of Lyndon Johnson. It is a portrait of Texas, of both local and national politics, of the lobbyists and money men he encounters, and of the art of power politics in college, in Texas, and in Washington, D.C. It explains the early political maneuvering behind building both a local dam and a wartime national naval base, as well as the inner workings of political campaigns and the complexities of meeting constituents’ needs. It also offers portraits of the powerful, from Vice-president John Nance Garner to speaker Sam Rayburn, from entrepreneur Herman Brown to newspaper magnate Charles Marsh, from wife Lady Bird to mistress Alice Glass. As well as mini-portraits of Johnson’s staff, whether in school, in Texas, or in Washington.

At this point, I apologize for what follows. For this work tells so much, and tells it so perfectly, that it leaves little for me to critique. That is, if one accepts the detail here, and the interpretation Caro offers of that detail. And I do so, but some critics do not. In any event, I will turn now to summarizing the significant events of Lyndon Johnson’s life, events that reveal the character of a supreme politician as he grows into one of this country’s major leaders of the 20th century. This book truly is about this future president’s early path to power.

The thoroughness of this portrait becomes evident, when Lyndon Johnson himself does not appear until page 66. For starters, we learn about the poverty-stricken area of Texas that he came from. This is The Hill Country, originally an area of lush grassland to which greedy owners led their cattle and sheep. These animals ate the grass down to the scrub, leaving it exposed to draught and floods which swept away the remaining soil, leaving limestone rock that supported no type of farming.

Caro then introduces the Bunton and Johnson families, Lyndon Johnson’s forbears. Bunton males were tall with large ears and noses, and were practical and aggressive. One already sees Lyndon’s image in them, as did family members at the time. And while the Johnson family was more romantic and idealistic, Sam Johnson, Lyndon’s father, who also had the Bunton characteristics, added a fascination with politics and with it a commitment to the needs of farmers and common people, rather than those of the powerful special interests.

As a baby, Lyndon ran away constantly as a way to seek attention. And as a young boy he had to be in charge of whatever activity he was part of, whether in the family, in the school, or at play. And by twelve or so, he followed his father everywhere at the Texas state legislature, constantly engaging him in conversation and ignoring please for other kids to join them in play. As he was soaking in the political partisanship of his father, he was learning even better how politicians outmaneuver their rivals.

But Lyndon’s attitude at home changed completely when his father lost all his capital and all his properties in a cotton-farming gamble. In which the land failed him, as it had failed many others. Whereupon, Lyndon had no respect for a father who had lost everything, including his reputation, thus condemning the family to poverty. Caro only speculates about the change this brought to Lyndon’s attitude toward his father, whether it was based on embarrassment, resentfulness, self-pity, or insistence on standing on his own. Lyndon also refuses to go to college to improve himself and raise his station in life, as his parents want.

Instead, he runs away to California. And when he is forced to return, and then challenges a farmer at a dance hall and is beaten up, he realizes he is not in control of his own life. So he agrees to attend San Marcos Normal College, a minor school in the Texas system, where he is his old self, ingratiating himself with the faculty and turning off his fellow students with his exaggerations and lies. Still burdened by financial issues, Lyndon takes a year off to lead and teach at a school for Mexican students. He reorganizes it and establishes discipline, and earns the respect of both students and their parents. It is a clear example of meeting the needs of the poor underclass.

Then, returning to San Marcos, he is rebuffed by the student body but displays his political knowhow by taking over the class elections, student council, and student newspaper—using underhand maneuvers, lies, and blackmail. One can see the future politician in each of the two roles. And Caro sums it up himself in this early chapter—that the qualities he revealed at San Marcos were the same he will use as Majority Leader and President: the deception, the secrecy, the aggressiveness, the need to dominate, the overbearingness to underlings and the obsequiousness to superiors, the drive, the viciousness, the cruelty, the lying, the iron will and the ambition. But he would also feel, as he would later, the same loneliness and the same insecurity. Caro: “He came out [of school] formed, shaped—into a shape so hard it would never change….”

Lyndon then gets a job in Houston, teaching public speaking and debating. He is highly successful, as he was at the Mexican school, but he leaves it when he gets an offer to be on a Congressman’s staff in Washington.

Washington and politics—that is what he always wanted.

With his Congressman seldom in the office, Lyndon, as his secretary, takes charge. He ingratiates himself with fellow staff people to learn how to satisfy the tons of letters his office receives from constituents. He then becomes a cruel taskmaster, working alongside his staff eighteen hours a day. It is a major steppingstone in his political career, as he learns how Washington works. When Lyndon reached Washington, the Depression was in full effect, and Caro offers a brief and harrowing summary of its impact on the working class. Banks were closing, and Texas farmers were hurting. Once Roosevelt was in power in 1932, however, funds became available in the form of loans, and Lyndon’s district, because of him, was one of the most effective in getting them. Not least because he came up with a unique idea, that farmers, who were in debt and had no collateral, could use as collateral the proceeds from crops they were about to plant.

Lyndon also built his reputation by taking over the Little Congress, a social organization comprised of the staff people of the Congressmen, particularly its secretaries. He did this by the same method that he used in taking over the student council in San Marcos, by secrecy, subterfuge, and bending the rules. From meetings of 20 people, the group grew into meetings of 200, and with press coverage he found prominent politicians, including Huey Long, to address those meetings. This earned him the respect of people in every Congressional office, plus the likes of Postmaster General James Farley and Vice President John Nance Garner.

But Lyndon never reveals his own political thinking. He agrees with conservatives when talking with them, and with liberals when talking with them. For he wants to be in the good graces of everyone. So he would have friends/supporters when he announced his true goal, that of being a representative himself, not just an aide. Lyndon expands his influence, first by answering to the needs of important and wealthy people who live outside his district, and second by using his contacts to find scores of jobs, minor jobs, throughout Washington and much of Texas. He is building a loyal band of followers whom he knows one day would be willing to help him fulfill his ambitious plans.

By this time, he has met a shy, plain girl nicknamed Lady Bird, and one day, he casually asks her for a breakfast date. And on that date the next morning, he asks her to marry him. It surprises the reader as much as it did her that he would propose with so little courtship. And that she would consider his proposal. But a determined Lyndon is difficult to resist. And when she does succumb and marries him, what is equally surprising is that he orders her around, just as he does his assistants, and she accepts it. Indeed, as Caro says, she becomes a great hostess and enhances his presence in the nation’s capital.

One of the influential men Lyndon invites home is Speaker Sam Rayburn, and Caro draws a brief portrait of him. That he was honest, a straight shooter unlike Lyndon, and yet shy beneath his forbidding attitude. One reason he accepts their invitation is that he is lonely, another is their shared Texas background, but primarily it is that Lady Bird makes him welcome, even cooking the Texas food he misses. Meanwhile, Lyndon has lost control of the Little Congress, and so begins seeking a larger role for himself. So he wangles a job back in Texas, with Rayburn’s help, as the head of the state’s National Youth Administration, a new organization. He draws on his subservient “friends” from other organizations to staff the NYA, again ordering them around, and again producing a highly successful operation—one that offers extensive influential contacts throughout the state.

Lyndon’s big break comes when a Texas congressman dies. He himself wasn’t known in the congressman’s district, but he has the support of Alvin Wirtz a highly influential politician and lawyer. Wirtz wanted a Texas dam approved, and he saw Lyndon as being the aggressive congressman he needed to achieve that in Congress. And Lyndon, true to form, works long hours, and reassembles his dedicated team that will do anything he asks, 24 hours a day. Lyndon wins the election, finishing 3,000 votes ahead of his nearest competitor. Because his rallying cry was a vote for him was a vote for Roosevelt, FDR makes a point of meeting him on a visit to Texas. And is so impressed that he recommends Lyndon to his staff of New Dealers, which becomes the key to Lyndon getting off to a good start in Washington. But another key is Lyndon’s personality, by which he ingratiates himself with the New Dealers and their wives. They describe him as “the life of the party,” with his joking and his stories of life back home.

Caro then tells the fascinating inside story of how Lyndon worked with the New Dealers, such as Tommy Cochran, Abe Fortas, and Harold Ickes, to get both the Administration and Congress to overcome the obstacles and approve the building of that dam back in Texas. All within a month of the congressman’s arrival in Washington. Lyndon’s next move is to win over two older and powerful men, Herman Brown and Charles Marsh, who are behind the dam project. He does so by catering to them and pretending to seek their advice on his every move. Brown, as the leader of Brown and Root, the builder of the dam, pledges to help Lyndon financially if the dam is approved. He does not succumb to flattery, but believes in quid pro quo, and helps Lyndon’ career from then on because Lyndon helps him, by getting the legal clearances for the dam.

Marsh, on the other hand, a millionaire who controlled many Texas newspapers, was subject to flattery. He is also betrayed by Lyndon, who conducts a passionate, secret affair with Marsh’s mistress, Alice Glass, an intelligent, six-foot beauty. Caro leaves open whether or not Lady Bird knew of this affair, but suggests that she did, as she did many of her husband’s infidelities.

The dam becomes the key to providing electricity to the poor Hill Country of Texas, but also to farmers nationwide. And Caro offers a fruitful aside to explain the importance of electricity to the nation’s farmers. It eased the physical labor of the men, the women, and the children. Water buckets no longer had to be carried from the well. The stove no longer had to be burning throughout the day, even hot summer days, with wood that had to be cut and brought into the house. And the washing of clothes by machine didn’t need water to be carried, wood to be cut, and garments to be scrubbed by hand. Plus, evenings could now be filled with entertainment, both in the home, such as listening to the radio or reading, or even studying, and in the small towns at the movies.

And so when Lyndon took the lead in the entire Congress to get single lines of electricity to sparse farm country, he changed everyone’s life style, and had no trouble, in fact no opposition, in his next election. However, his greater ambition, to be elected senator, was stalled. By the seniority he lacked to make a name for himself as a Congressman. By his reluctance, as usual, to propose or favor legislation that might one day backfire on him. And by his dominant personality that turned off his fellow legislators, as well as influential members of Roosevelt’s administration. But the congressman soon recovers. As the 1940 presidential campaign approaches, Vice President Garner opposes a third term for Roosevelt on principle, but also because he is a fiscal conservative and Roosevelt’ New Deal programs are not.

Meanwhile, Lyndon has jumped in on the president’s side, and volunteers to lead an effort to win control of the Texas delegation. Garner’s campaign falters, however, when the Germans invade Denmark and Norway, and, as the country realizes that as war is near, it decides it wants Roosevelt to lead it, not Garner. Garner, however, still wants to lead the Texas delegation at the Democratic convention, and his friend Sam Rayburn supports him. However, Lyndon fabricates statements that lead Roosevelt to believe that Rayburn is a leading the Stop Roosevelt movement. As a result, Rayburn, who will shortly become House Speaker, his life’s dream, loses all influence with FDR. And Lyndon, as a result, becomes FDR’s new friend in Texas and is able to regain his influence at the White House, and will be the contact to bring new defense contracts back home, particularly for Brown and Root.

Lyndon uses this new influence to maneuver himself into a key position in the 1940 election. Because of his contacts with wealthy men like Brown and various oil men, he persuades Roosevelt to name him the liaison for supporting Congressional candidates across the country. This is with only three weeks to go before the election. And he is so fast and efficient in providing support—lending not only financial help but also speakers and urgent information—that the Democrats pick up seats in the House, after expecting a loss. And so he earns not only considerable respect but also power. It is a major steppingstone in his career, as he becomes the man to see if you need money for your next race.

Then Texas senator Morris Sheppard suddenly dies, and Lyndon decides to run for this seat. Caro provides a detailed account of that race. Lyndon has by far the most extensive operation and the most money, and at the end of election day the most votes. But this is Texas, where new votes are “discovered” in the days after an election, and one of his opponents is the Texas governor, Lee O’Daniel, who has many friends and many opponents. And the opponents of the governor’s policies in Texas decided they want to send him off to Washington, where he will be comparatively harmless to them. So they “find” additional ballots that put O’Daniel over the top by 1,300 votes.

The IRS later investigates Bown and Root for illegal contributions to Lyndon’s campaign. And it appears their concern is legitimate. But Lyndon keeps appealing to his friends in Washington to quell the investigation, and Roosevelt himself finally orders it. Caro ends this volume with an explanation of Lyndon’s relationship with Sam Rayburn. That Rayburn recognized Lyndon’s ambition, and while they became the deepest of friends, Rayburn always recognized why Lyndon acted as he did. That, in fact, Lyndon was not the liberal he pretended to be, or the New Dealer he pretended to be. That posture was to serve his larger ambition, and his posture changed as the political situation changed. Thus are we prepared for the next volume in the series. (August, 2018)

The portrait drawn here of Lyndon Johnson is of a youthful, gangling, garrulous, and ambitious man who uses his followers, who takes advantage of them, although largely to achieve benefits for those forgotten by society. He cultivates a team and works them to the bone, but he has such a strong personality and creates such a spirit de corps that the team members willingly do every thing he asks of them. They believe in him. And many will follow him for the rest of his life.

But this work is more than a portrait of Lyndon Johnson. It is a portrait of Texas, of both local and national politics, of the lobbyists and money men he encounters, and of the art of power politics in college, in Texas, and in Washington, D.C. It explains the early political maneuvering behind building both a local dam and a wartime national naval base, as well as the inner workings of political campaigns and the complexities of meeting constituents’ needs. It also offers portraits of the powerful, from Vice-president John Nance Garner to speaker Sam Rayburn, from entrepreneur Herman Brown to newspaper magnate Charles Marsh, from wife Lady Bird to mistress Alice Glass. As well as mini-portraits of Johnson’s staff, whether in school, in Texas, or in Washington.

At this point, I apologize for what follows. For this work tells so much, and tells it so perfectly, that it leaves little for me to critique. That is, if one accepts the detail here, and the interpretation Caro offers of that detail. And I do so, but some critics do not. In any event, I will turn now to summarizing the significant events of Lyndon Johnson’s life, events that reveal the character of a supreme politician as he grows into one of this country’s major leaders of the 20th century. This book truly is about this future president’s early path to power.

The thoroughness of this portrait becomes evident, when Lyndon Johnson himself does not appear until page 66. For starters, we learn about the poverty-stricken area of Texas that he came from. This is The Hill Country, originally an area of lush grassland to which greedy owners led their cattle and sheep. These animals ate the grass down to the scrub, leaving it exposed to draught and floods which swept away the remaining soil, leaving limestone rock that supported no type of farming.

Caro then introduces the Bunton and Johnson families, Lyndon Johnson’s forbears. Bunton males were tall with large ears and noses, and were practical and aggressive. One already sees Lyndon’s image in them, as did family members at the time. And while the Johnson family was more romantic and idealistic, Sam Johnson, Lyndon’s father, who also had the Bunton characteristics, added a fascination with politics and with it a commitment to the needs of farmers and common people, rather than those of the powerful special interests.

As a baby, Lyndon ran away constantly as a way to seek attention. And as a young boy he had to be in charge of whatever activity he was part of, whether in the family, in the school, or at play. And by twelve or so, he followed his father everywhere at the Texas state legislature, constantly engaging him in conversation and ignoring please for other kids to join them in play. As he was soaking in the political partisanship of his father, he was learning even better how politicians outmaneuver their rivals.

But Lyndon’s attitude at home changed completely when his father lost all his capital and all his properties in a cotton-farming gamble. In which the land failed him, as it had failed many others. Whereupon, Lyndon had no respect for a father who had lost everything, including his reputation, thus condemning the family to poverty. Caro only speculates about the change this brought to Lyndon’s attitude toward his father, whether it was based on embarrassment, resentfulness, self-pity, or insistence on standing on his own.

Lyndon also refuses to go to college to improve himself and raise his station in life, as his parents want. Instead, he runs away to California. And when he is forced to return, and then challenges a farmer at a dance hall and is beaten up, he realizes he is not in control of his own life. So he agrees to attend San Marcos Normal College, a minor school in the Texas system, where he is his old self, ingratiating himself with the faculty and turning off his fellow students with his exaggerations and lies.

Still burdened by financial issues, Lyndon takes a year off to lead and teach at a school for Mexican students. He reorganizes it and establishes discipline, and earns the respect of both students and their parents. It is a clear example of meeting the needs of the poor underclass. Then, returning to San Marcos, he is rebuffed by the student body but displays his political knowhow by taking over the class elections, student council, and student newspaper—using underhand maneuvers, lies, and blackmail. One can see the future politician in each of the two roles.

And Caro sums it up himself in this early chapter—that the qualities he revealed at San Marcos were the same he will use as Majority Leader and President: the deception, the secrecy, the aggressiveness, the need to dominate, the overbearingness to underlings and the obsequiousness to superiors, the drive, the viciousness, the cruelty, the lying, the iron will and the ambition. But he would also feel, as he would later, the same loneliness and the same insecurity. Caro: “He came out [of school] formed, shaped—into a shape so hard it would never change….”

Lyndon then gets a job in Houston, teaching public speaking and debating. He is highly successful, as he was at the Mexican school, but he leaves it when he gets an offer to be on a Congressman’s staff in Washington.

Washington and politics—that is what he always wanted.

With his Congressman seldom in the office, Lyndon, as his secretary, takes charge. He ingratiates himself with fellow staff people to learn how to satisfy the tons of letters his office receives from constituents. He then becomes a cruel taskmaster, working alongside his staff eighteen hours a day. It is a major steppingstone in his political career, as he learns how Washington works.

When Lyndon reached Washington, the Depression was in full effect, and Caro offers a brief and harrowing summary of its impact on the working class. Banks were closing, and Texas farmers were hurting. Once Roosevelt was in power in 1932, however, funds became available in the form of loans, and Lyndon’s district, because of him, was one of the most effective in getting them. Not least because he came up with a unique idea, that farmers, who were in debt and had no collateral, could use as collateral the proceeds from crops they were about to plant.

Lyndon also built his reputation by taking over the Little Congress, a social organization comprised of the staff people of the Congressmen, particularly its secretaries. He did this by the same method that he used in taking over the student council in San Marcos, by secrecy, subterfuge, and bending the rules. From meetings of 20 people, the group grew into meetings of 200, and with press coverage he found prominent politicians, including Huey Long, to address those meetings. This earned him the respect of people in every Congressional office, plus the likes of Postmaster General James Farley and Vice President John Nance Garner.

But Lyndon never reveals his own political thinking. He agrees with conservatives when talking with them, and with liberals when talking with them. For he wants to be in the good graces of everyone. So he would have friends/supporters when he announced his true goal, that of being a representative himself, not just an aide.

Lyndon expands his influence, first by answering to the needs of important and wealthy people who live outside his district, and second by using his contacts to find scores of jobs, minor jobs, throughout Washington and much of Texas. He is building a loyal band of followers whom he knows one day would be willing to help him fulfill his ambitious plans.

By this time, he has met a shy, plain girl nicknamed Lady Bird, and one day, he casually asks her for a breakfast date. And on that date the next morning, he asks her to marry him. It surprises the reader as much as it did her that he would propose with so little courtship. And that she would consider his proposal. But a determined Lyndon is difficult to resist. And when she does succumb and marries him, what is equally surprising is that he orders her around, just as he does his assistants, and she accepts it. Indeed, as Caro says, she becomes a great hostess and enhances his presence in the nation’s capital.

One of the influential men Lyndon invites home is Speaker Sam Rayburn, and Caro draws a brief portrait of him. That he was honest, a straight shooter unlike Lyndon, and yet shy beneath his forbidding attitude. One reason he accepts their invitation is that he is lonely, another is their shared Texas background, but primarily it is that Lady Bird makes him welcome, even cooking the Texas food he misses.

Meanwhile, Lyndon has lost control of the Little Congress, and so begins seeking a larger role for himself. So he wangles a job back in Texas, with Rayburn’s help, as the head of the state’s National Youth Administration, a new organization. He draws on his subservient “friends” from other organizations to staff the NYA, again ordering them around, and again producing a highly successful operation—one that offers extensive influential contacts throughout the state.

Lyndon’s big break comes when a Texas congressman dies. He himself wasn’t known in the congressman’s district, but he has the support of Alvin Wirtz a highly influential politician and lawyer. Wirtz wanted a Texas dam approved, and he saw Lyndon as being the aggressive congressman he needed to achieve that in Congress. And Lyndon, true to form, works long hours, and reassembles his dedicated team that will do anything he asks, 24 hours a day.

Lyndon wins the election, finishing 3,000 votes ahead of his nearest competitor. Because his rallying cry was a vote for him was a vote for Roosevelt, FDR makes a point of meeting him on a visit to Texas. And is so impressed that he recommends Lyndon to his staff of New Dealers, which becomes the key to Lyndon getting off to a good start in Washington. But another key is Lyndon’s personality, by which he ingratiates himself with the New Dealers and their wives. They describe him as “the life of the party,” with his joking and his stories of life back home.

Caro then tells the fascinating inside story of how Lyndon worked with the New Dealers, such as Tommy Cochran, Abe Fortas, and Harold Ickes, to get both the Administration and Congress to overcome the obstacles and approve the building of that dam back in Texas. All within a month of the congressman’s arrival in Washington.

Lyndon’s next move is to win over two older and powerful men, Herman Brown and Charles Marsh, who are behind the dam project. He does so by catering to them and pretending to seek their advice on his every move. Brown, as the leader of Brown and Root, the builder of the dam, pledges to help Lyndon financially if the dam is approved. He does not succumb to flattery, but believes in quid pro quo, and helps Lyndon’ career from then on because Lyndon helps him, by getting the legal clearances for the dam.

Marsh, on the other hand, a millionaire who controlled many Texas newspapers, was subject to flattery. He is also betrayed by Lyndon, who conducts a passionate, secret affair with Marsh’s mistress, Alice Glass, an intelligent, six-foot beauty. Caro leaves open whether or not Lady Bird knew of this affair, but suggests that she did, as she did many of her husband’s infidelities.

The dam becomes the key to providing electricity to the poor Hill Country of Texas, but also to farmers nationwide. And Caro offers a fruitful aside to explain the importance of electricity to the nation’s farmers. It eased the physical labor of the men, the women, and the children. Water buckets no longer had to be carried from the well. The stove no longer had to be burning throughout the day, even hot summer days, with wood that had to be cut and brought into the house. And the washing of clothes by machine didn’t need water to be carried, wood to be cut, and garments to be scrubbed by hand. Plus, evenings could now be filled with entertainment, both in the home, such as listening to the radio or reading, or even studying, and in the small towns at the movies.

And so when Lyndon took the lead in the entire Congress to get single lines of electricity to sparse farm country, he changed everyone’s life style, and had no trouble, in fact no opposition, in his next election. However, his greater ambition, to be elected senator, was stalled. By the seniority he lacked to make a name for himself as a Congressman. By his reluctance, as usual, to propose or favor legislation that might one day backfire on him. And by his dominant personality that turned off his fellow legislators, as well as influential members of Roosevelt’s administration.

But the congressman soon recovers. As the 1940 presidential campaign approaches, Vice President Garner opposes a third term for Roosevelt on principle, but also because he is a fiscal conservative and Roosevelt’ New Deal programs are not. Meanwhile, Lyndon has jumped in on the president’s side, and volunteers to lead an effort to win control of the Texas delegation. Garner’s campaign falters, however, when the Germans invade Denmark and Norway, and, as the country realizes that as war is near, it decides it wants Roosevelt to lead it, not Garner.

Garner, however, still wants to lead the Texas delegation at the Democratic convention, and his friend Sam Rayburn supports him. However, Lyndon fabricates statements that lead Roosevelt to believe that Rayburn is a leading the Stop Roosevelt movement. As a result, Rayburn, who will shortly become House Speaker, his life’s dream, loses all influence with FDR. And Lyndon, as a result, becomes FDR’s new friend in Texas and is able to regain his influence at the White House, and will be the contact to bring new defense contracts back home, particularly for Brown and Root.

Lyndon uses this new influence to maneuver himself into a key position in the 1940 election. Because of his contacts with wealthy men like Brown and various oil men, he persuades Roosevelt to name him the liaison for supporting Congressional candidates across the country. This is with only three weeks to go before the election. And he is so fast and efficient in providing support—lending not only financial help but also speakers and urgent information—that the Democrats pick up seats in the House, after expecting a loss. And so he earns not only considerable respect but also power. It is a major steppingstone in his career, as he becomes the man to see if you need money for your next race.

Then Texas senator Morris Sheppard suddenly dies, and Lyndon decides to run for this seat. Caro provides a detailed account of that race. Lyndon has by far the most extensive operation and the most money, and at the end of election day the most votes. But this is Texas, where new votes are “discovered” in the days after an election, and one of his opponents is the Texas governor, Lee O’Daniel, who has many friends and many opponents. And the opponents of the governor’s policies in Texas decided they want to send him off to Washington, where he will be comparatively harmless to them. So they “find” additional ballots that put O’Daniel over the top by 1,300 votes.

The IRS later investigates Bown and Root for illegal contributions to Lyndon’s campaign. And it appears their concern is legitimate. But Lyndon keeps appealing to his friends in Washington to quell the investigation, and Roosevelt himself finally orders it.

Caro ends this volume with an explanation of Lyndon’s relationship with Sam Rayburn. That Rayburn recognized Lyndon’s ambition, and while they became the deepest of friends, Rayburn always recognized why Lyndon acted as he did. That, in fact, Lyndon was not the liberal he pretended to be, or the New Dealer he pretended to be. That posture was to serve his larger ambition, and his posture changed as the political situation changed.

Thus are we prepared for the next volume in the series. (August, 2018)