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Review of “The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Vol 1)” by Robert Caro

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The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson” is the first volume in Robert Caro’s epic series covering the life of Lyndon B. Johnson.  Caro is a former investigative reporter and the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies: “Master of the Senate” (the third volume in this series) and “The Power Broker” about the life of Robert Moses.  Caro is currently working on the fifth (and final) volume in his LBJ series.

Published in 1982, “The Path to Power” is the inaugural volume in a series that has consumed more than four decades of Caro’s life. Originally intended to be the first of just three volumes, its 768 pages follow Johnson from birth through his unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat in 1941. This biography is the result of seven years of research by Caro and his wife – a remarkable effort in which he conducted approximately 1,000 interviews.

For good reason, “The Path to Power” is widely considered one of the most extraordinary presidential biographies ever published. It is a profoundly penetrating and extraordinarily insightful narrative of the early life of one of our most complex and colorful presidents. And it seems all but certain to remain the most comprehensive account of Johnson’s early life ever published.

Caro’s writing style is undeniably unique among the 140 different biographers I have encountered. Although his style is articulate and descriptive, it is not smooth or elegant in a traditional sense. Caro can be both verbose and repetitive and it is not uncommon for his sentences to exceed 60 or 70 words involving a half-dozen commas…or more. But they are often linguistic works of art which embed penetrating insights, keen observations and clever syntax.

The first one-third of this volume is brilliant – and very nearly perfect. Describing LBJ’s ancestry, his hardscrabble youth, his college years and early congressional career, these fifteen chapters may be as good as a biography can possibly be. Caro does an incomparable job setting scenes, providing context and putting the reader “in the moment” – whether in the Texas Hill Country, in a dorm room or on the campaign trail.

His review of the westward migration of settlers into central Texas is spellbinding and he does a masterful job tracing the dramatic rise and fall of LBJ’s grandparents. Two chapters on rural electrification (and life without electric power) are among the most interesting in the book. But the most valuable chapters may be those devoted to LBJ’s college years in San Marcos – replete with anecdotes, eyewitness testimony and other observations so revealing they seem to be the most important pages in the book.

The remaining twenty-two chapters are solid-to-excellent though not as consistently engaging or efficiently impactful as earlier chapters. Johnson’s successful campaign for the House and his unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat in 1941 are extremely well-told and the narrative is littered with so many marvelous mini-biographies of LBJ’s friends, enemies and colleagues it is difficult to keep count.

Nearly every one of these multi-page introductions is a literary jewel and in many cases they describe individuals not widely known: Alvin Wirtz, Herman Brown, Tommy Corcoran and Charles Marsh. The thirty-five-page chapter devoted to Sam Rayburn, in particular, is so well written it begs the question of whether there exists a full-scale biography of Rayburn as good as Caro’s summary.

But while Caro’s inaugural volume on Lyndon Johnson is excellent in most respects it is not without distinct flaws. Few (if any) biographers can understand a subject and his or her surroundings, or place the reader in the thick of events, like Caro. But the cost is not trivial: this biography demands a higher than average level of patience and perseverance from its audience.

You don’t read this volume to become casually acquainted with the young LBJ; you read it to become fully immersed in his early life. Caro seems compelled to include in the text each new, interesting morsel he unearthed in his research and appears to leave no stone unturned in his quest to decipher this complicated man.

And while Caro is prone to detail, he is equally inclined to digression. This biography frequently wanders from its primary arc in favor of some tangent Caro is interested in exploring. These deviations are often fascinating…but occasionally tedious. A skillful editor could probably excise up to a quarter of the book without harming the narrative.

In addition, some readers will find Caro too critical of his subject. While evaluating LBJ’s character, Caro finds much to abhor and he pulls no punches. Anyone seeking a more “balanced” view of the young LBJ can turn to the first volume of Robert Dallek’s series. Finally, while the depth of his research often seems unmatched, Caro eschews traditional footnotes in favor of abbreviated citations which often prove oddly enigmatic or incomplete.

Overall, “The Path to Power” proves an extraordinary opening act for one of the most significant biographical achievements ever. This volume requires time, patience and perseverance…but rewards its readers handsomely with unparalleled insight and appreciation for Johnson and his times. Robert Caro’s “The Path to Power” is a literary gem, a biographical treasure and a promising start to Robert Caro’s ongoing five-volume journey through Lyndon Johnson’s life.

Overall rating: 4½ stars

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