“Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson” is the second volume in Robert Caro’s 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, presumably, final) volume in his LBJ series.
Published in 1990, “Means of Ascent” covers seven difficult years of LBJ’s life – from shortly after his 1941 loss in a special election for the U.S. Senate (while a congressman) to his controversial 1948 Senate victory over former Texas governor Coke Stevenson. This 412-page volume is the shortest in Caro’s series but again demonstrates the author’s tenacious research habits and willingness to dive deeply into a subject.
Caro’s writing style in this volume is strikingly similar to his prose of the first volume: it is neither elegant nor flowery, but is packed with intensity and a clever, if slightly unwieldy, bent. Individual sentences often read as though they were authored by Charles Dickens…but with even more punch. The third sentence in this book, for instance, contains 124 words and more than a dozen commas, colons and semicolons.
Despite being an integral part of a much larger series, “Means of Ascent” is designed to be a standalone volume. Caro repeats enough of the first volume’s highlights in early chapters that a reader could begin the series here without missing important themes. And in this book’s final chapters Caro foreshadows where the next volumes will take LBJ and his insatiable thirst for power.
Volume 2 begins in earnest with Johnson’s brief service in World War II (the subject of significant embellishment by the future president). This is followed by LBJ’s purchase of a Texas radio station which eventually proved no less contentious. But the book’s primary focus is LBJ’s election to the U.S. Senate in a fascinating and well-told story of intrigue, corruption and rural Texas politics. The book could easily have been titled “The Stolen Senate Election of 1948.”
Readers familiar with Caro will recognize the meticulously thorough research which underpins this biography; he seems to have interviewed everyone who knew LBJ…as well as everyone who knew someone who knew LBJ. Also familiar: his use of captivating mini-biographies to introduce important supporting characters.
The most important of these introductions is aimed at Coke Stevenson (Johnson’s primary opponent in his 1948 Senate bid) who receives an entire chapter – much like Sam Rayburn in the previous volume. But there are others who also receive interesting, if less extensive, treatment such as George Parr and Frank Hamer.
Caro also continuously provides the reader with enough context, perspective and imagery that it is difficult to read this text and not imagine being at the scene of nearly every moment he describes.
But this biography also possesses its share of blemishes. It often resembles a skilled prosecutor’s most zealous and unrelenting case against LBJ’s (admittedly numerous and disturbing) personality defects. Where the first volume systematically develops a case against LBJ, this volume feels like a blistering, non-stop critique of nearly every aspect of his character.
Caro often (but not always) provides convincing evidence to support his portrayal of LBJ, but he frequently fails to include evidence that could soften the sharp edges of that portrait. Oral testimony solicited decades after an event is regularly used to condemn Johnson, but I cannot remember a single instance of testimony being used in his defense.
And in the process of highlighting the darkest threads of Johnson’s character during his 1948 Senate bid, Caro elevates Coke Stevenson to lofty heights which most Texas historians probably wouldn’t recognize. Every villain, it seems, requires a hero. And if Johnson is – in the eyes of some – this volume’s controversial antagonist, Stevenson is its strangely flawless luminary.
Overall, “Means of Ascent” is a commendable successor to “The Path to Power” though not quite its equal. Due to its relatively narrow scope it offers fewer piercing revelations about Johnson than the first volume, but does an admirable job bridging two extremely consequential periods in his life. Most importantly, however, “Means of Ascent” leaves the reader deeply embedded in Johnson’s life, fully engrossed in Caro’s series and eager to tackle the next volume.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars