Since I’ve started reviewing books, I’ve been trying to force myself to review a book based on what it’s meant to be rather than on what I wish it was. After all, that’s the only way to be fair to the author. So it was with this book. I was hoping for a narrative of the life of Andrew Jackson. Instead, I got an analysis of the man and the times he lived in. I was annoyed at first but I forced myself to evaluate it fairly. I think I’m glad that I did.
The title of this book was deliberately chosen. Jackson was an orphan who felt alone much of his life. In reaction to that (as the book makes clear), he valued family highly and would go to any length to protect and defend family. For Jackson, the nation was but an extension of his own family. He loved his country and would go to any length (including invading Florida, risking war with France, evicting the Indian tribes, and suppressing free speech) to protect and defend it. He was very much the “American Lion”, defending his pride.
Meacham’s intent with this book was not to exhaustively document Jackson’s life. Nor was it even to exhaustively document Jackson’s years as President. Instead, Meacham drew on newly available letters and papers to sketch a potrait of Jackson’s personal life and his relationships with his closest friends and family members.
While this approach has some advantages in humanizing “The General”, it also has some downfalls. Meacham does provide a thumbnail sketch of Jackson’s early years and his path to the White House. Regrettably, I feel that it’s cursory enough that it fails to fully setup the drama that was to follow.
For instance, I was really hoping for a look at the actual events of Jackson’s life. For instance, how did he campaign for the Presidency? How did Presidential campaigns work, day to day, during the early 1800’s? The book just glossed right over those details, mentioning only that Jackson won or lost a given election.
This became important when you consider that a central battle of the first two years of Jackson’s presidency involved Major Eaton, the Secretary of War. Jackson staked his entire Presidency on the question of whether or not people around him were loyal to Major Eaton. Eventually, the entire Cabinet was sacked over the question: the first time that had happened in American history.
I spent much of this portion of the book wondering why Jackson was being so incredibly loyal to Eaton. I later grew to realize that Eaton had been quite a central figure in Jackson’s earlier life and in winning the Presidency. Because Meacham passed over those years so quickly, I failed to understand (until much later) just how important Major Eaton was to General Jackson.
This flaw weakened the book, in my opinion.
I did learn quite a bit from this book (and may write more later on my impressions of Jackson and his age) but I felt that it would have benefited from more detail and more background information, both about Jackson and about the age Jackson lived in.
I never thought I'd think of a biography as a page turner. With this book, I did. It was absolutely enthralling. Robert Caro graphically describes lif...moreI never thought I'd think of a biography as a page turner. With this book, I did. It was absolutely enthralling. Robert Caro graphically describes life in the Hill Country of Texas, painting a vivid country of the land and the people that produced Lyndon Johnson. His descriptions of Johnson himself are equally vivid.
Lyndon Johnson is one of the most repellent people I've ever read about. He was a consummate politician—that is, liar—and his life reflects that. Robert Caro's book was so well written that I was able to thoroughly enjoy it, in spite of the Lyndon Johnson's own flaws.
Caro's research was meticulous, allowing him to paint a very detailed portrait of Johnson's early years: home life, college life, as a driven Congressional secretary, and as a Congressman himself. It's a fascinating, fascinating picture that's told as a story, not as a dry recitation of facts. I highly recommend it.(less)
I loved the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power. I’d ever read a better biography. I’ve still never read a better one but I’ve now read one that’s just as good.
This book really succeeds because it’s essentially four stories in one book.
Chapters 1–5 are the story of Johnson’s later years in Congress and what he did during World War II. (Johnson spent most of the war avoid danger and then flew into danger, literally, at the last minute in order to have some record to present to his increasingly restless constituents.) This first section of the book is crucial. It portrays the absolute desperation that Johnson felt both to get out of the House and to gain wealth.
I feel that this section of the book is the slowest and repeats the most information from The Path to Power. (Sometimes entire paragraphs are listed from the previous book.) Caro did this to remind the reader of crucial aspects of Johnson’s character but, when reading the books back to bad, it really feels repetitive and slows the pace.
Chapter 6 is a terrific look at crony capitalism. This is where the book really begins to pick up, in my opinion. It’s the story of how Lyndon Johnson acquired the KTBC radio station. He used the power of politics to turn a money-losing business into an insanely profitable business practically overnight. If you’ve ever wondered how crony capitalism works or how a politician can become wealthy just from “serving” in Congress, this is your chapter. After reading it, I don’t think I’ll ever look at the intersection of business and politics the same way again.
Chapter 8 is an utterly fascinating mini-biography of Coke Stevens, a forgotten figure in Texas politics. Prior to the 1948 Senate race, he was a living legend. During the race, Johnson and his partisans slimed him mercilessly. Today, he’s remembered only as another reactionary conservative in a long-line of reactionary conservatives.
Robert Caro corrects the historical record and shows a man who lived an incredible life as a self-taught lawyer, accountant, architect, and rancher. He ran a one-man “freight line” when he was just 17, transporting goods in and out of the most inhospitable regions of Texas. He drove the horses during the day and taught himself law at night, by firelight. He scrimped and saved to buy his own books, always saving a a tiny amount for the ranch that he wanted to one day buy.
When he did finally start to buy land for his ranch, he did all of his own branding and shearing. He taught himself architecture so that he could build single handedly build his ranch house. He dug his own post holes and set his own fence posts. He nearly singlehandedly built the entire ranch, from the ground up.
He was a politician only reluctantly but was the most successful politician in Texas history. In his second gubernatorial election, he received 85 percent of the vote (the highest ever total in a contested Texas primary) and won all 254 Texas counties. “He was also the only man in the state’s history who had held all three of the top political posts in state government: Speaker, Lieutenant Governor, Governor.” And he served an unprecedented two consecutive terms as Speaker: the only man in Texas to ever succeed himself as Speaker.
This mini-biography alone is nearly worth the entire purchase of the entire book.
Chapters 9–16 chronicle the 1948 Senate election. Caro definitely investigates allegations that Johnson stole the election—and finds them to be true beyond a reasonable doubt. The fraud was breathtaking in both its sheer audacity and scope.
More than that though, he chronicles the entire election. Johnson, a mediocre vote getter, was running against Coke Stevenson, the most successful vote getter in Texas history. Johnson had very little hope of beating Stevenson in a fair fight. So, he did the only thing he could: he relentlessly slimed his opponent. He used an unlimited fund of money, coming from crony capitalists dependent on him, to blanket the radio airwaves, to cover newspapers, and to stuff voter mailboxes with dishonest rhetoric and accusations. It was the most rotten and contemptible form of campaigning imaginable and Caro reports on every aspect of it.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It was a fascinating and enlightening look at modern American politics and a pivotal player in them.
I’ve been looking forward to this book, ever since I read Master of the Senate two years ago. I knew it would involve the Johnson presidency but not the entire thing. So, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I finally picked it up.
The book covers Johnson’s flawed and failed candidacy for the 1960 Democrat Presidential nomination and Johnson’s experience on the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. It covers his 3 years, as Kennedy’s Vice-President, and then his succession to the Presidency itself and what he did during his first 7 weeks in office—the time from Kennedy’s assassination to the 1964 State of the Union address.
Telling you that doesn’t really convey what the book is about though. Here, in Caro’s words, is the center of the book.
[T]he succession of Lyndon Johnson deserves a better fate in history. For had it not been for his accomplishments during the transition, history might have been different. Because the headlines in that first blizzard of news—PRISONER LINKED TO CASTRO GROUP; SUSPECT LIVED IN SOVIET UNION—have long been proven false or exaggerated, it has been easy to forget that for several days after the assassination America was reading those headlines, easy to forget the extent of the suspicions that existed during those days not only about a conspiracy but about a conspiracy hatched in Cuba or Russia, two nations with whom, barely a year before, America had been on the brink of nuclear war.
… Nor should other aspects of the transition be passed over as lightly as they have been. Because he moved so swiftly and successfully to create the image of continuity that reassured the nation, it has been easy to overlook how the Kennedy men might simply have resigned. It has been easy to overlook the obstacles—the shock and mystery of the assassination, the mushroom cloud fears, the deep divisions in the country over his predecessor’s policies—that stood in the way of unifying America behind his Administration; easy to overlook how difficult to unify even his own party: to rally into line behind his Administration’s banner labor leaders, black leaders, liberals, many of whom had, for years, been deeply suspicious of him and who would have needed little excuse to fall irrevocably into line behind another, more familiar banner, the brother’s banner, that could so readily have been raised within party ranks; to fall into line behind a leader they knew, and were quickly beginning to love.
This book is the story of that transition. Everything else in the book is designed to set the stage for the transition. Caro wants you to understand, the man, the times, the place, and the history leading up to that transition.
In true Caro style, we get a mini-biography of President John F. Kennedy. We’re treated to an up-close look at how Johnson lost his opportunity and 1960 and what he endured as Vice-President. But all of that is window dressing, to set the stage for the transition. Caro’s focus on the transition is truly illuminating of both President Johnson and of how power is wielded in America.
This book was a shorter read than Master of the Senate and was truly engaging. I had trouble putting it down, once I started it, and was once again drawn into Caro’s portrayal of this era of American history. Once again, I have to highly recommend Caro’s work on Johnson. You won’t regret reading it and you’ll definitely learn from it.
It felt really long. Obviously, it was long. But some long books feel short and some short books feel l...moreI have a few thoughts after reading this book.
It felt really long. Obviously, it was long. But some long books feel short and some short books feel long. This book felt really long.
How in the world did we manage to elect a neurotic, insecure, narcissistic man like Nixon to the Presidency? Especially one who would work in close partnership with another thin-skinned neurotic, in Kissinger? Sure, Johnson was also a power hungry manipulator. But he wasn't actually mentally unstable the way that Nixon appears to have been.
Why does Dallek always refer to Nixon as “Nixon” but mostly refer to Kissinger as “Henry”? It seems very odd.
It's a wonder that the U.S., and the rest of the world, survived the Nixon / Kissinger partnership as well as they did. Between Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pakistan War, it was pretty bad. But it could have been a whole lot worse.
The book was aptly titled. It was entirely about situations that involved both Nixon and Kissinger. Dallek focused exclusively on foreign policy. He entirely excluded domestic policy from the book. Aside from the inescapable inclusion of Watergate during the last 6 months of Nixon's Presidency, you could be forgiven for forgetting that anything outside of foreign policy even happened between 1968 and 1974.
Even Nixon himself disappeared from the pages of the book when he wasn't dealing with foreign policy. Dallek focused almost exclusively on Kissinger's actions during the last 6 months of Nixon's presidency.
If you want an overview of the Nixon presidency combined with his partnership with Kissinger, I can't recommend this book. If you're interested in the detailed day by day account of Nixon and Kissinger's foreign adventures together, this is the book you've been looking for.(less)