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)

Echo House, by Ward Just

I have long been a fan of Ward Just. Not least because he often writes about Washington, about the government, politics, and the people who serve in that interesting world. In this novel, it is the Behls, a truly insider family, who lead the reader through a complex behind-the-scenes view of how Washington works.

We meet first Senator Adolph Behl, who anticipates being nominated as a vice-presidential candidate, and feels betrayed when he is not. Then we encounter his son, Alex, a military hero in World War II after he parachutes into occupied France to help the underground and is later co-opted by Patton’s army and severely injured. He recovers to become a power broker in Washington, but patriotism ignites a moral fervor that becomes corrupted by arrogance. With both these stories bringing one to the edge of history, one anticipates a powerful novel.

Then onto the scene arrives grandson Alec Behl, a lawyer who also works behind the scenes and who becomes the main character in the book. The game of politics also subverts him, as codes of duty and loyalty are sacrificed as the cost of doing business. Like his grandfather and father, Alec lives in the family home, Echo House, a mansion overlooking Rock Creek Park just outside downtown Washington. The novel’s many scenes in that house, including the first with Adolph and the last, a birthday party with Alex and Alec, serve also to support the work’s unity.

The main problem with this novel is that as it moves into Alec’s longer story, it tries to portray too much, presenting two dozen characters in the foreground. Initially, Alex’ generation acts to achieve either good or power, but then son Alec’s generation, in addition to their own political plotting, resorts to commenting on the activities of their predecessors. While in the background looms the context of most of 20th century history, such as the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, JFK, the Vietnam War, and then Nixon and Reagan. An accompanying problem is that as many of the two dozen characters age in the second half of the novel, and as they lose power, they become observers more than power brokers. As a result, they both comment on the action, rather than influence it, and are subjects, as I said, of comment by the younger generation—all of which inhibits the novel’s momentum, even as it enriches the Washington scene.

Just captures this lost power very well, and through these men and women offers interesting commentary about the ambitions and the foibles of the past. But the novel, as I said, loses the drive it once had. For the real action occurs offstage, and the reader is no longer a witness. Moreover, the personal lives of two of the Behls, their loves and their failed marriages, offer no substitute. Perhaps this is because of the women they meet, Sylvia and Leila, the wives of Alex and Alec. They seem as interesting to us on being introduced, as they do to father and son, but they do not become part of their husbands’ involvement in the Washington scene, or even, as their marriages collapse, let us see the emotional side of these Behls, father and son.

The novel’s other failure is its ending. It features a highly dramatic birthday celebration, with an unnamed President attending. But the event becomes merely a dramatic scene that substitutes for an ending. Instead, the novel needed to bring closure to a story line, for example an issue that Alec is facing. But Alex’ friends are out of power, and there is no major issue that his son Alec has inherited or is facing.

What the novel has going for it is that extended portrait of Washington life. We meet lawyers and bankers, senators and staff, journalists and adventuresses, diplomats and spies. They are young and old, male and female, honest and dishonest. And they all bring reality to this portrait. They all discuss what is happening behind the scenes in the political world the general public never sees. They comment on how power is used, how reputations are destroyed, how people are manipulated, how image is paramount. But, as David McCullough says in his New York Times review, their comments reflect a disconnect: “The new generation sees their predecessors—the Venerables, Mr. Just calls them—only as a tedious reproach, while the Venerables see the new people as self-absorbed money grubbers. The generations face each other, immobilized, across a great gulf.”

What does re-enforce the truth of these Washington conversations is the actual historic environment that these fictional characters are dealing with. There is no encounter between Just’s fictional characters and actual historic characters—except for the brief presence of Adlai Stevenson early on. But Just’s characters do convey the atmospherics of the FDR, McCarthy, Kennedy, and Nixon eras.

There are, fortunately, no fictional characters here who seem to stand in for actual historic figures. These characters have their own lives. If only, by the third generation, they had become more interesting. If only we had known more about not only their marriages but also their failures or accomplishments as power brokers. If only there had been less insider conversation and more action. We were there in the room when Adolph anticipated his nomination, and on the ground in France when Alex encountered the results of a massacre. But the manipulations and power moves in Washington are commented on rather than dramatized.

Just as the President joins in honoring Alex Behl at his birthday party, but does not know what Behl has actually achieved on the Washington scene, so the reader feels he must honor this portrait of Washington even though he does not really experience it from within. He hears the talk, and it is convincing, but he does not see the action. This reads like a work by an author who has heard all the conversations, all the gossip, of his fellow observers, but has not been in the rooms when actual power was exercised. Which describes the limits that even an esteemed journalist must work under.

Yes, I shall read more Just. But I enjoy his novels more when he takes me inside his characters, inside journalists, for example, rather than uses his characters to explore and comment on a world in which he is more an observer than a participant. (March, 2018)

Jack Gance, by Ward Just

This 1989 work is an ambitious novel that doesn’t quite come off. It is too episodic as it portrays the world of politics. It is most effective when its hero Jack Gance is young and naïve, and discovering the mysterious, hidden compromises behind the conflicts in Chicago politics. He also discovers the road his own life will take, when the Chicago machine hires him as a political pollster and he becomes fascinated by the power and intrigue in a world he never knew existed.

Like many youth in politics, Jack starts out as an idealist. The idea of polling appeals to him because in the Kennedy era ”hope, not fear, animated America at that time; and a campaign needed a narrative as much as a movie did, and for the same reasons.” And, in an apt metaphor, the human political reactions that polling reveals creates the novel’s narrative—that is, Jack’s rise in the political ranks. Ward here introduces the moral richness that lies deep within that political life. Indeed, as Judith Martin summarizes in her New York Times review, this novel “is about the difficulty of weighing loyalties, strategies, and principles in the not-always-successful attempt to achieve an accommodation of conflicting demands in public and private life.”

Jack also has a personal life that makes us interested in these career decisions. His parents are not happy with those decisions, particularly his father, a worldly man who tries to teach him about political life but then mysteriously lets himself be a fall guy. The IRS sends to prison for a crime neither Jack nor the reader understands. The only explanation is that his father has stood for a certain uncompromising standard that Jack himself cannot relate to. And this will later be contrasted with the compromises that Jack himself makes with E.L. Mozart, a Chicago lawyer deep inside the Chicago political machine.

Jack’s personal life also includes two affairs, one a true love affair and one a merely physical affair with a married women, Carole Nierendorf, when she is ignored by an ambitious husband also in the political world. Her presence seems intended to underscore Jack’s commitment to politics rather than to any personal life. He also somewhat falls into this affair on a rebound from the serious affair, which is with a refugee student, Katrina Lauren, who carries to Chicago the scars she endured in Berlin during World War II.

Except for these two women and his mother, the daily lives and career decisions of all the characters early in Jack’s career revolve around the world of Chicago politics. And, indeed, it is a valid presentation of Chicago and that world. Martin, however, suggests in her review that Jack is portrayed at a deeper level: “One sees a man without malice or inflated ego trying to do his duty to people and institutions but finding it all immensely complicated.” But for me the result is too arbitrary a portrait, because of the novel’s short length.

What I mean is that after the learning experiences of Jack’s youth, the author jumps ahead from career step to career step, without detailing for the reader how one step led to the next. Jack has simply moved up—to the White House as an aide to the president, then back in Chicago running for the U.S. Senate. It is as if Just has wanted to describe two worlds, that of Chicago politics and that of national politics, and the compromises that are required to take each step. But until the final approach to Jack by lawyer Mozart on a Chicago golf course, Just offers no connection in terms of those steps. He simply leaps ahead to a new decade, letting the reader fill in the gaps. As if he did not want to double the length of this novel in order to spell out what often takes a lifetime in politics to achieve.

Instead, his primary connection is more thematic. Thus, he introduces a conversation much earlier in the book in which Jack’s mentor, Professor Karcher, a Jewish refugee, tries to awaken Jack from what he calls the innocent hypocrisy of their university. He wants Jack to get out and discover the realities of real-world politics, and recommends a first step, which Jack takes. “City Hall is your graduate school,” he says. “That’s where the fieldwork is.” Which we are intended to recall, as we review the final practical decisions Jack needs to make to advance his career.

Finally, Just ends with a chapter whose idealism offers an ironic contrast to the corruption and deal-making that Jack bought into in order to achieve his final success. That Washington and national politics does work, he says, because of compromise and the art of dealing. But it too obvious an irony, underlining too strongly for me the author’s message that real politics does not preclude the ambition, selfishness, and aggression of political human beings.

Christopher Lehman-Haupt disputes that irony is suggested by this ending, saying that Jack’s words “seem more wise than ironic….He has accepted his figurative castration. He reflects the truth of recent American history.” But this final scene does not work for me because of the obviousness of the message, which is given to a visiting group of receptive, naïve high school students. While their bored teachers, who represent the standard disbelief in politics, respond with yawns.

Most of the individual scenes of this novel do work however. They cover Jack’s visit to a summer lake with his family, the dissolution of his casual affair, deal-making in Chicago restaurants, trading news with a Washington columnist, a phone conversation while looking into the Rose Garden, or making a career decision on a golf course. Author Just captures the atmosphere in each case, and, more significantly, what is not being said directly but which is nevertheless being communicated.

I am ready to read more Just novels, despite my disappointment here. He is one of the few novelist willing and able to portray the world of politics, with all its conflicts, its ironies, its moral issues, and its human ramifications. (October, 2016)

Watergate, by Thomas Mallon

This 2012 work is another example of history as a novel. Mallon put extensive research into this work, surely taking advantage of the many works written by the participants. The result is “we are there”—in terms of the individual actions and the conversations of a multitude of characters. And these actions and conversations are entirely believable, even as they verge on the scandalous. Indeed, on many pages, with its lying and its cheating in both its politics and its love affairs, this novel often reads like the inside scoop of a gossip columnist.

The novel is highly readable, of course, and entertaining, but it is also quite confusing. First, because there are so many characters. Even the author seems to realize this, as he lists 112 “players” over four pages before the story begins. And such a multitude makes it next-to-impossible for the reader to separate the main characters clearly, to grasp their relationship to one another and to the events, whenever they reappear on the scene.

Second, because even as we follow this story from the inside, we must be a student of Watergate history to grasp how these events reflect what is going on in the outside world, in that world of Woodward, Bernstein, Deep Throat, Jaworski, Cox, Sirica, and the American public.

And third, because, early on, the characters are reacting to events that are not put fully into context, and over which they themselves have no control. Moreover, they are reacting rather than causing others to react to them.

Mallon calls this first half, “Hide,” as the participants seek to conceal both their own involvement and the president’s. But the reader keeps asking, what is really going on here? Why are these people doing what they are doing? What is the connection among their various actions?

The second half Mallon calls, “Seek.” This is not only the government seeking to learn its responsibility under the law, it is also the participants seeking to learn what the government knows about their actions. These participants are now more active than reactive, and do become more interesting as characters.

What distinguishes this book is that Mallon has put himself into the minds of all his major characters, beginning with President Nixon and his wife Pat. But they also include Howard Hunt, Rose Mary Woods, and Elliot Richardson. And especially they include Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the elderly daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, whose presence adds considerable color and even humor, but whose function beyond that was never clear to me.

Even more significant a character is Fred LaRue, deputy director of the Committee to Re-elect the President. His presence is justified for two reasons. First, he was in regular contact with the Watergate break-in team: Liddy, Magruder, Colson, McCord, and Bernard Barker. He is also the one who delivers the hush money to the burglars. And second, Mallon uses LaRue’s personal story, separate from the Watergate break-in, a story about his responsibility for the death of his father—as a through-story to tie the novel together.

LaRue has an affair with a Clarine Lander, an attractive seductress and a Democrat, who is apparently one of the three fictional characters in the book. It is she who obtains for him the official file concerning his father’s death, and it is her nickname (given to her by Mallon) that seems to set off the actual break-in of chairman Larry O’Brien’s office at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. This revelation is a bit of irony that leads the reader to smile, but it is an irony manufactured by the author. It cannot for me tie together his entire novel. Yet Mallon seems to have intended this personal story to do so, for he says in his Acknowledgements that of all the historic characters, “LaRue’s life has undergone the greatest degree of fictionalization.”           

One other fictional character (because his name in the list of “players” is also written in quotation marks) is Tom Garahan, supposedly a retired lawyer. He is introduced as a boy friend of Pat Nixon. I just do not understand why Mallon has created him. It is as if the author thinks that Pat Nixon must have needed an emotional relief from a cold, detached Nixon. Yes, he is careful to not to put them into bed, not to make them lovers, but it does not help me to understand Pat better, to make her a more real or more sympathetic person, or even to explain why she sticks with her husband.

On the other hand, Mallon does impugn the integrity of Elliott Richardson, as an ambitious snob, and Martha Mitchell, as a shrew—with her husband, the former attorney general, subservient to her. On Richardson, however, little is made of the “Saturday night massacre,” of which he was a dramatic victim.

Mallon also speculates on two Watergate questions for which there have been no clear answers. First, he suggests that it was Rose Mary Woods who did erase the 19 minutes of tape, not because it revealed anything significant about the cover-up but because she did not want to reveal to the public a few irrelevant personal comments her boss was making about others. And, second, he repeats as a reason for the break-in that the Republicans wanted to find evidence that Castro’s Cuba was contributing to the Democratic campaign.

Overall, this work did not convey what I expected. It is not a story of the break-in, how it was detected, the specific efforts to cover it up, the impact on the public of Woodward and Bernstein’s series, the development of the government’s case, the efforts by the defense lawyers, the various trials, the tightening noose around the White House, and Nixon’s final decision to resign. There are elements of these present, but not in a cause and effect sequence that helps one to understand the Watergate story as seen from the inside. Indeed, some of the major developments that would interest me occur offstage, and then our characters react to them.

What Mallon does here is suggest the atmosphere that followed the discovery of the break-in. How did these individuals react, and what does it reveal of their character? How organized were they, and how did their actions relate to each other? What does the entire operation reveal about how Washington works? How cynical, how selfish, how pragmatic, how venal, how defensive, how clever, how loyal, how self-pitying were these elected and appointed individuals?

But I question whether this is the purpose of a novel. Is it not to explore character? Rather than a society—although many critics will defend this, and cite precedents. Nixon and LaRue are the candidates here for a deeper portrait, and Mallon is sympathetic to both. Nixon, especially, is a character rather than the usual caricature. There is even a moment when he worries that the phrase “expletive deleted” will suggest far vulgar language than what he actually used. But he never becomes a tragic victim, which a new Shakespeare of the 22nd century might one day create from this situation.

LaRue is a richer character, a shy man from Mississippi who is yearning to return. And he is uncomfortable with his Watergate role. But that role remains separate from the personal family issue that confronts him. And as the reader learns the truth of that issue (or is it merely Mallon’s speculation?) but he himself apparently does not, this does not quite produce a reader’s identification with him that the author seems to have intended.

To sum up, this novel gets too close to the players for me, which clouds any perspective on the overall situation and how these characters interfaced with it. This was a dramatic moment in 20th century American history, and yet there is no sense of that drama. These individuals are too wrapped up in their own fate to be sympathetic, and there are too many of them. There is no North Star among them whom the reader can latch on to. LaRue is merely a spinning planet, and we jump around too much among the others.

I suspect that Mallon would reply: I did not want or intend to write your kind of Watergate novel; I intended to write this one. Because all of these disperate characters were fascinating to me. And because I wanted to show both the humanity and the failings of this particular group of people who were operating inside the Nixon administration at this key moment in history.

Certainly, Mallon takes on interesting subjects; but, as with Henry and Clara, I have ended up disappointed. (June, 2014)