“Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson” is the Pulitzer Prize-winning third volume in Robert Caro’s series covering the life of Lyndon B. Johnson. Caro is a former investigative reporter and the author of another Pulitzer Prize-winning biography: “The Power Broker” reviewing the life of Robert Moses. He is currently working on the fifth (and presumably final) volume in his LBJ series.
Published in 2002, “Master of the Senate” covers Johnson’s life from 1949 through 1960 – the dozen years he spent in the U.S. Senate. With 1,040 pages, this is the longest of the four volumes which have been published to date. And while books in this series are designed to stand on their own (for anyone interested in just one part of LBJ’s life) this volume is most compelling for readers tackling the entire series.
Fans of Caro’s series will quickly recognize his writing style: it is articulate but often long-winded. Sentences are frequently complex but incorporate profound observations. And like preceding volumes, “Master of the Senate” is supported by painstaking research and an ability to dive deeply and thoughtfully into a topic. But while the primary story line itself is inherently fascinating, protracted digressions and diversions are common.
This third volume begins with a lengthy but often engrossing history of the United States Senate. The first half of this introductory section is so stirring and descriptive that I read it twice to ensure I didn’t miss anything. But as informative as this 100+ page preamble proves, it eventually overstays its welcome and needlessly delays LBJ’s appearance in the narrative.
Once the biography turns to Johnson, it rarely lets go. The narrative focuses almost exclusively on LBJ’s political life and the public world in which he operated. This volume chronicles his crusade to accumulate and exert power – from his earliest days in the Senate up to his nomination as his party’s 1960 vice presidential nominee. Not covered here (reserved for the next volume) is LBJ’s attempt to obtain the 1960 presidential nomination which was ultimately secured by John F. Kennedy.
Caro is at its best while revealing LBJ’s shrewd efforts to quickly gain credibility, power and influence in the Senate. Nearly one-third of the book is devoted to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the political maneuvering which ensured its passage. And where the narrative in previous volumes is often hostile toward LBJ, Caro employs a noticeably softer touch here in light of Johnson’s extraordinary “pivot” on civil rights.
Like earlier volumes, Caro provides mini-biographies of important supporting characters of the era. Chapters on Richard Russell and Leland Olds are excellent…though Caro could have been far more efficient with his review of LBJ’s political evisceration of Olds. Surprisingly absorbing is the later chapter describing how Johnson spent the weeks following his 1955 heart attack.
But some of the very best chapters in this biography are those devoted to the difficulties faced by African-Americans in the early-to-mid 20th century South and LBJ’s public and private attitudes toward minority rights. “The Compassion of Lyndon Johnson” is undoubtedly one of the best chapters from any book I’ve read recently.
Almost as captivating is Caro’s examination of Johnson’s effort to gain the 1956 Democratic presidential nomination. This canny review includes a lengthy and detailed chapter on the Chicago convention which will appeal to almost any reader. Not surprisingly, however, the chapter would have been equally effective (and more accessible) at half its length.
Typical of Caro’s volumes is that much of LBJ’s personal life is sacrificed in order to focus more fully on his political life. Readers interested in understanding LBJ’s marriage to Lady Bird, his relationship with his children, or the disposition of his alleged dalliances will not come away significantly enlightened.
More irksome for many readers, however, is Caro’s penchant for literary loquacity. Nearly every topic he reviews – from those aimed squarely at LBJ’s life to the numerous tangents he incorporates to supply context and supporting detail – could have been covered with far more efficiency. As good as this book is, its unnecessary heft undoubtedly intimidates many potential readers.
Overall, Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate” proves to be far more than a biography focusing on LBJ’s years in the Senate: it is essentially a political history of the United States during the 1950s and a fascinating primer on the acquisition and use of political power. At its worst it is insightful but tediously turgid; at its best it is good – astoundingly good.
Overall rating: 4½ stars