Matt's Reviews > Means of Ascent

Means of Ascent by Robert A. Caro
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's review
Dec 29, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: american-presidents, biography

To say that Means of Ascent does not reach the towering heights of Caro's first volume of his Years of Lyndon Johnson is no slight. Path to Power is one of the greatest feats of biography I've ever read. The only reason Means falls short is because it happens to dwell on LBJ's wilderness years.

This was the time between his first failed senate run, during a special election, and his second, successful senate run, which culminated in the famed "87 votes that changed America." During these 7 years, LBJ, the ambitious, over-weaning, butt-kissing, glad-handing, lying, cajoling, cheating, adulterous power-seeker was backed into a corner. His flamboyant traits were diminished as he came up against an imposing barrier: the seniority rules of the House of Representatives.

LBJ, as one of 435 members of the US House, was neutered. His 11-year career was inauspicious and, to put it bluntly, a little depressing. He made no speeches, asked no questions, introduced only 7 bills, of which only 2 became law. He spent a little time grabbing for money, through a radio station he owned, but other than this secondary ambition - to be rich - he mostly stewed in the belief that he would die before gaining his ultimate goal - to be president.

Means lacks the first volume's great arc, from Hill County bumpkin to Roosevelt favorite. It also lacks the great side-story of Alice Glass and Charles Marsh, as LBJ sacrificed the great love of his life to his all-consuming drive for the White House. Means also drips with Caro's disgust for this version of LBJ. It is almost unconcealed, and seldom softened. LBJ is not only crass and unscrupled, but what is worse, he has no moral compass. No beliefs. Caro paints him as the ultimate chameleon. However, as Caro notes in his forward to volume 3, LBJ was shifting throughout his life in order to gain power. The great question, then, was what he would do with that power once gained. It is how LBJ finally used his capital that ultimately proves the measure of this man; it is this story that awaits the further volumes.

Means has much to offer. As in volume 1, when Caro raised Sam Rayburn to mythic status, a different hero is presented to stand athwart and in constrast to LBJ. This is Coke Stevenson, whom Caro, flirting with demagoguery, calls a "legend." Stevenson comes off as almost impossibly good. However, his story is incredibly touching, and Caro never fails to deliver the human elements. In all his books, he manages to delve into the personal details that drove the great men and women of our times. He wrote beautifully of Sam Rayburn's loneliness and shyness in volume 1; here, he gives us Coke, the self-made man, honorable and tough, who studied late into the night by light of candle. Coke, who lost his first wife and, late in life, found love once again. Coke, who "didn't know how to steal an election."

Caro has a way of shaping history to suit his narrative, which is both enjoyable to read, and capable of stretching reality. Coke is positioned as the exact opposite of the venal, sneaky LBJ.

In the '48 election, LBJ runs for the senate against Coke. LBJ pulls out all the stops. He gets in his bubble helicopter and flies around Texas. He makes speeches and shakes hands till his voice is gone and his hands are bleeding. He campaigns till exhaustion. Then, when that isn't enough, he cheats. It is this section of the book that is most enlightening. Caro proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that LBJ, with the help of border boss George Parr, out and out stole the senate election. It's a fascinating tail, filled with desperadoes and bandits and shady, squint-eyed men doing business in the shadows (the business being the buying and selling of Mexican-American votes). There is even a cameo by future Supreme Court jurist Abe Fortas, who stops a federal judge from opening contested ballot boxes.

The end result, of course, is that LBJ gets to the senate. The book ends, appropriately enough, with Coke Stevenson, retiring nobly to his ranch with his new love, to fade into history. We are left with an image of LBJ as - Caro frankly says - an "immoral" man, and Coke as an honorable Man of the West.

I thought this book was excellent, but I have to add an addendum: thank God LBJ stole that election. History may show that Coke never stole an election, but it also shows - and Caro FAILS to mention - that he didn't care one whit for blacks. It was LBJ, at the end of the day, who took a lifetime's worth of accumulated power and spent it on the Great Society, a package of program that did more for civil rights than any event in history short of Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

History is funny that way - it offers redemption at every turn.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
December 29, 2008 – Shelved
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: american-presidents
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: biography

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by David (new) - added it

David I'm glad you pointed that out about Coke Stevenson (not caring about blacks and civil rights). I had never heard before of Coke Stevenson, and Caro's portrait of him struck me as idealized. It was hard for me to believe anyone could be as upright, incorruptible, and principled -- especially if he had succeeded in Texas politics.

Matt David wrote: "I'm glad you pointed that out about Coke Stevenson (not caring about blacks and civil rights). I had never heard before of Coke Stevenson, and Caro's portrait of him struck me as idealized. It was ..."

I absolutely love Caro, but sometimes his affinity for clean storytelling (Rayburn vs. LBJ or Stevenson vs. LBJ) clouds his judgment of historical characters. Still, as a method for creating drama, it works pretty well!

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