American history, biographies, book reviews, LBJ, Lyndon Johnson, presidential biographies, Pulitzer Prize, Robert Caro, US Presidents
“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
Great review, I agree. This is the best of the lot IMO.
Though I haven’t read this series so far (it is sitting on my bookshelf), I am a little surprised that you haven’t given it a higher rating. However, I can understand your point when it comes to efficiency. I am reading Chernow’s Grant right now and I could imagine Caro doing a three-volume set on his life, including a 1,200 page tome just on his Civil War duties. Chernow completes his life in one volume and I haven’t felt cheated yet. I guess it’s just a matter of expectations. I am looking forward to Caro’s series, though. It might be verbose, but if I leave the series a little more enlightened, not just in LBJ’s life but in history as well, so much the better. Thanks for the review!
The only substantial aspect of Caro’s biographies I’m disappointed with is the length. I don’t mind hefty biographies; in fact, I’m increasingly skeptical that a biography under 400-500 pages can be truly insightful & comprehensive. But Caro’s writing and ability to penetrate a topic is so so phenomenal when he isn’t straying too far from his subject that when he does wander off-topic for a chapter or two it kills the momentum for me. That being said, this is still one of the best series I’ve ever read… 🙂
Perhaps the biggest reason why I like reading presidential biographies so much is the actual writing styles of the authors. Usually within a single volume I am engrossed in an individual’s life while immersed in U.S. history. Of all the writers I have read, Chernow is hands down the best. Every now and then while I’m reading Grant, I have to stop and savor some of his passages. Such mastery of language. But sometimes I seek to be challenged where the writer’s prose style is a bit verbose and demanding and I suspect that’s what Caro offers. On the flip side, I just completed reading Edward Jean Smith’s Bush, which is about 700 pages. His writing style is pretty economical and I finished the book in about a week, yet I didn’t feel cheated from anything. As long as I am engrossed in the subject that doesn’t drag me down, then it doesn’t matter how big the biography is.
You nailed it right here:
“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.”
This would equally apply to The Power Broker. Both are phenomenal studies on the accumulation and uses of political power.
“The Power Broker” is sitting on a shelf staring at me – so I’m glad to know what to expect! Sounds as though Caro’s style hasn’t wavered despite several decades having passed since he left journalism and became a biographer. Fingers still crossed he manages to finish Vol 5 with time to spare!
Reblogged this on Practically Historical.
Michael W Shaw said:
I’ve only read the first volume so far. Absolutely loved it. Trying to stretch them out, but your reviews are making me want to jump back in!
Several people told me in advance that this series would “change my life.” I have to admit…it’s quite an impressive effort on Caro’s part and I’m enjoying it immensely! The individual volumes would rank as the very best of everything I’ve read if he was a little more efficient with his writing style but there are sections of each volume that are not short of phenomenal. I’m almost done with volume 4 at this point and I can’t believe I’m going to have to wait to read his concluding volume!
Just finished this volume earlier this week. And it really is a masterpiece. A little editing probably would helped, but the set-up for how the Senate worked and all the little digressions into the various solons that ran the place is probably necessary to make the section on the Civil Rights Act of 1957 work the way it does. Because that really is a heck of a story and one that most people don’t know a damn thing about, overshadowed as it (rightfully) is by later, better legislative achievements like the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This also contains what has to be the fairest portrayal of Richard B. Russell, and still makes me want to march on Washington and rip his name off the RSOB (which I worked in at one time and had basically no understanding of who Richard Russell was).
I find Caro’s contempt for LBJ in this series frustrating at times (it was taken to almost absurd heights in Means of Ascent), and I wonder how much of it is rooted in Caro being a historian and never being a politician. Douglas is treated ever so kindly here, despite his inability to achieve his goals. Humphrey gets whacked for kowtowing to Johnson’s line; any sacrifice of principle to pragmatism almost always seems to find Caro’s ire…until the 1957 bill.
But it’s a great book in an excellent series.
I agree. Thinking back I really appreciate the deep insight into the Senate as well as the Russell mini-bio. With that editing it would have been almost a 5 for me. I’m definitely going to have to go back and re-read this one sometime.
I just finished Master of the Senate yesterday. Usually I can sit down in my recliner in the evening and read a hundred pages or so, but this one went more slowly.
The first hundred pages with the history of the Senate are great. It’s frustrating to realize what hasn’t changed, how the Senate is still a gerontocracy run by arcane rules, how the South used seniority, something not even envisioned by the Founders, to gain control of committees and crush civil-rights legislation. I lost track of the number of times Caro mentioned a member of Congress being drunk in the middle of the day.
The way LBJ took control of this hidebound institution, how he accumulated power, is remarkable. Caro does a great job describing the process. LBJ took positions that no one wanted and looked for ways to make inroads, to make them substantial. He really was a genius.
He also had a gift for flattering powerful, lonely, elderly men, like Rayburn and Russell. In fact, that aspect of his character made me think of Elizabeth Holmes!
One thing that caught me off guard was the way Caro almost becomes an apologist for LBJ when it comes to race. After a couple thousand pages of reading how horrible he was, Caro lets him off too easy with the argument that sure, LBJ was a racist but not in the same way that the Southern segregationists were racists. His was a kinder, gentler racism.
Caro does make it clear that LBJ’s support for civil rights was just part of his plan to become president. Maybe those months he spent teaching Mexican-American kids in Cotulla planted something in his conscience and he really did vow to help them if he ever had the chance. Or maybe it was all just a cynical ploy to win a political campaign and his place in the history books. I don’t know, and that’s what makes LBJ such a fascinating figure.
And his treatment of Leland Olds was reprehensible. He ruined a man’s career, a man’s life, just to please natural-gas interests in Texas. I’m glad Caro spent so many pages documenting it. I had no idea.
I was also struck by something Caro wrote about Russell – how he broke off his engagement to a woman because she was Catholic and his Baptist constituents in Georgia would never have approved of the marriage. So he chooses political power over the woman he loves. He was victimized by the virulent racism that he helped perpetuate. Talk about being hoisted by your own petard.
I was a little disappointed that Caro didn’t write a mini biography of Hubert Humphrey. I had the honor of meeting him during my first trip to Washington, when I was in high school, just before he died. He was incredibly gracious, and I would have liked more on his background.
I also didn’t know anything about the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. It’s obviously been overshadowed by the 1964 and 1965 bills. But I understand why it’s considered a landmark even if it didn’t accomplish anything. A psychological barrier really was broken. And the way Johnson put together that bill was remarkable.
Finally, I continue to be frustrated by the lousy editing in these books. I can understand it. I can’t even imagine how long the unedited manuscript was. It’s an impossible job to go through something of that length and remember what you read five or 10 pages previously.
All you can do is put it through spellcheck and say a prayer. And even spellcheck isn’t foolproof. On Page 966 there’s a Boob that should clearly be a Bob.
I’m from Rhode Island and I had to laugh at how every reference to Sen. John Pastore made mention of his short stature: the little Rhode Islander, the Rhode Island bantam, fiery little Pastore. Enough already, we get the point!
Esther, I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed your comments on the LBJ series! I was told by a trusted source & friend from this site how much I would relish my moments with the Caro series…and wow, it did not disappoint!
There are countless high moments (several of which you noted) and a few disappointments – like the notable resistance to brevity when it would have been appropriate. But Caro’s careful eye and penetrating pen are able to expose LBJ’s core in a way that few writers (*if any*) can dissect a biographical character.
The remaining mysteries about Johnson – when was he being “real” and when was he merely “acting” for instance – will probably never be known. I suspect that in an explicit sense that was opaque to LBJ himself.
For me, Caro’s series is already a biographical treasure…even in its unfinished state. But I feel like he – and we readers alongside him – have made it to the 27,000′ mark on Mt. Everest. We’ve come a long way together, but what about those final 2,000′? I really want to take in the view from the top, and to see what Caro makes of all this in the end.
His effort has been masterful, magisterial and magnificent. It can be a bit of a grind compared to reading a Harry Potter book, but it’s never a chore in the same way as say, James Joyce’s “Ulysses” proves to be for most. I do get the sense, however, that he resists a heavy hand from his editors and they probably gave up decades ago 🙂
Fingers crossed for that last volume…at some point soon!
I would argue that at this point Caro is almost uneditable. Is anyone really going to have the authority or ability to tell him “we’re cutting this section” or try to strip down any of his meandering loquaciousness?
That said, Master of the Senate is my favorite of the series.