Biafra's Reviews > The Path to Power

The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro
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's review
Aug 22, 2014

it was amazing
bookshelves: finished_2014, written_review

I'll just get this out of the way for those who want the punchline: read this book, it's in a class of its own.

There are few biographies with such a heady introduction:

Knowing Lyndon Baines Johnson—understanding the character of the thirty-sixth President of the United States—is essential to understanding the history of the United States in the twentieth century.

And so begins a roaring tale, a sweeping epic that begins in the Hill Country of Texas and ends with Lyndon going off to war. In between, we are given an enormously detailed account of the college years where Lyndon first learned to hustle, his first experience of life in D.C., the tireless work he put in to win his first congressional seat, his grasping for power as a junior congressman and finally winning it through the use of Texas oil money in the 1940 congressional race to help fellow Democrats, his growing relationship with FDR, and more.

This book could have been narrow in scope, it could have followed LBJ like a cameraman through his rise to power. Instead, Caro devotes long passages of the book on background for each adventure---from the history of the Hill Country to the backgrounds on Sam Rayburn, Herman Brown, Alvin J. Wirtz, Charles Marsh, and others essential in helping Johnson along his meteoric rise---in a way that never detracts from the underlying theme and purpose of the work: that to understand why Johnson is the way he is, did what he did and how it affected those around him, you must understand the history of a place and its people.

Caro does a fantastic job capturing the ambience, rhythm and flow of life in Texas and America at different stages of Johnson's career. And it makes the importance of what he did stand out. For example, we could have been told that Johnson helped Brown and Wirtz obtain increased federal funding for a dam out in the middle of nowhere Texas. Or that he cajoled utility companies to finally extend power into the Hill Country.

But the impact of those contributions, and why they mattered so much, would have been greatly diminished without knowing the story of the wives of the Hill Country and their daily toil. Their blistered hands from ironing, broken backs courtesy hauling heavy loads of water, lonely nights due to the lack of radio or other entertainment, and the unbearable heat that was amplified by the lack of even fans to cool them off. Many of these ills were already solved and in use by city dwellers, but the Hill Country lacked electricity and a means to generate it. The dam would have been a side note without knowing how close Brown was the losing everything and why there was such urgency to get someone in congress who could push things through. And thus, we find out why Johnson obtains Wirtz's support early on, when he otherwise would not have had a chance.

Others might find the added details unnecessary, but they aren't. More biographers should do this because it outlines the historical forces, the constraints, and the impact of the person being written about. Not only that, the transitions into and out of these side-stories normally so smooth that is rarely feels like a sharp right turn---rather like you took an off-ramp and saw some nice scenery then dropped back onto the highway. And then there is the small details, such as when Johnson had one of his classmates start hitting on another classmate's girlfriend just to ruin the relationship of someone he didn't like. Or the blackmail he used on another classmate when she made an off-hand remark about going to another Texas university. These details help illustrate what LBJ was like, e.g. how detail orientated he was and able to keep troves of useful information in mind in case it became useful later on.

Themes start to emerge, Johnson's willingness to bend the rules to gain power, his constant brown-nosing, the lies and secrecy, the desperate air that surrounded everything he did, and more. Even though we know the rough outline of events, the denouement to the story, Johnson's first failed bid for the senate and the details about why he failed, would be a case study in constructing a hero's journey. That Caro continually foreshadows why some events will have consequences later and that he tends to take the skeptical view of Johnson's and other people's claims, works to the books benefit.

The only real detriment to the book is that while it does focus on Johnson and does a good job of introducing people as they are brought into the fold, the sheer size of the cast of characters, and the fact that they appear off-n-on in Johnson's life, sometimes leads one to lose track of who's-who. However, this is as much about the specific people as it is about the pivotal events in Johnson's life and how they shaped him.

At the end of the day, this is a character study of a man consumed by power. Consumed by the desire to obtain it. To wield it and use it to bend others to his will. And in that sense, this book is a triumph, for it shows how power was often obtained pre-1940s (e.g. seniority) and why Johnson's deft use of Texas oil money was so revolutionary. Beyond that, it gives a good overview of the different relationships and strategies employed in Congress during that era.

I'm already going back to read passages because Caro is so good at setting the tone, nailing down the details, and bringing it all together with clear, engaging language. Read this book.
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