David Fox's Reviews > Means of Ascent

Means of Ascent by Robert A. Caro
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's review
Feb 04, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: presidents, reviewed, owned-books
Recommended for: Citizens

True Conspiracy: LBJ’s Mean Ascent to Power

Over the course of his 38 year career Robert Caro has only written five books. His first tome, “The Power Broker” chronicled the life of Robert Moses, a masterful manipulator of raw power. Along the way he created & constructed the modern road system of New York City & its suburban appendage, Long Island. That effort won him a Pulitzer Prize. His next four have also focused on a singular individual – Lyndon Baines Johnson. Caro published the 1st volume of what was to become a 5 volume series in 1982. It won the National Book Award. His 3rd volume, “Master of the Senate” also won the Pulitzer Prize. David McCullough is the only other author to win it twice & interestingly enough, both have been Presidential biographies. I only mention Caro’s awards to underscore the fact that he is no slouch. Rather, he has earned the reputation as one of the premiere biographers of the last 100 years. I say this to contextualize the next comment – the “Means of Ascent” is for the most part a trenchant, searing indictment of LBJ that gives all the appearance of a biased biography by someone who has an axe to grind. One might argue that he depicts Johnson in such a pejorative light, a totally amoral individual, completely obsessed with accumulating power & winning at whatever cost, that he could not possibly be an objective evaluator of our 36th President. Yet, others might suggest (and I would be one of them) that he has instead displayed his virtuoso investigative abilities to illuminate the insides & outsides of a man & his supporters who bullied, lied & cheated their way to victory. Because, at the end of the day (I almost hate using that cliché – but it fits) what Caro does exceptionally well is write about the acquisition & use of power. He elaborates in excruciatingly painful detail how LBJ, along with his cronies, steals the 1948 Senatorial election. This was not a case of fudging here or there, or straying ever so slightly from the path; not at all – this is about taking lying & cheating to a whole new level in American politics. What is even more amazing is that he got away with it & did so brilliantly with the help of the Supreme Court, an almost bitter irony in the light of George W. Bush’s ascendancy to the Presidency.

And, lest I forget to mention it, he weaves a spellbinding story in the process. One almost forgets that this is non-fiction & that the outcome is fixed – cannot be altered. He infuses his characters with such great definition that it is hard to believe that these are actual people (who really could seem so real). Yet they are who they are & they do what they do & in all too many cases it is reprehensible & not worthy of our forgiveness. So, Caro asks us, how do we forgive LBJ for what he did to get where he wanted to get. And then he reminds us (or do we remind ourselves) that this is the same man who introduced the most progressive civil rights legislation in this nation’s history & did more for the disenfranchised than any President, including Roosevelt. But, before he could accomplish any of those great things he had to cheat, lie & steal to get there. Welcome to American politics.


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