Jason Recommends: “The Years of Lyndon Johnson”

The Years of Lyndon Johnson

This is just a brief note to tell you that I’ve been making my way through Robert Caro‘s epic multi-volume biography of our 36th President, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you’re at all interested in the history of the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries, you need to pick up these books.

(Or do what I did, which is to get the unabridged audiobook versions of them, read by the excellent Grover Gardner, from Audible.com.)

I make this recommendation regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of LBJ, or even particularly interested in him. The books use Johnson’s life as the scaffolding around which they hang their narrative, but they’re not really so much about Johnson as they are about the times he lived in, the America he moved through. As Johnson moves up the political ladder, Caro keeps introducing us to more fascinating characters, each time pulling away from Johnson’s story for a while to tell the story of this new person so that by the time their life collides with LBJ’s we understand what makes them tick — what they want, why they want it, and whether those desires will make them an ally of Johnson or an opponent. Some of these figures are well known to students of general American history, but many are not: “Pass the Biscuits Pappy” O’Daniel, for instance, a flamboyant Texas politician with a personality straight out of a Coen brothers movie, or Leland Olds, a passionate, powerful advocate for regulation of electrical power interests who Johnson’s oil-and-gas business paymasters ordered him to destroy.

None of which is to say that Caro gives short shrift to Johnson himself, though. The fundamental paradox of Lyndon Johnson has always been this: here was a man crassly devoted to accumulating personal power, frequently in the most blunt, corrupt way possible, who nonetheless did more to lift up the poor and disenfranchised — the very people who had no power for him to absorb — than any other American President, before or since. So which of these two strains, then, was the one that drove him? Was he a compassionate man forced to bend himself to the grubby realities of politics? Or was he a cynical political operator out for his own gain who happened, purely by accident, to help others? Which was the real Lyndon Johnson? I won’t spoil the books for you by telling you Caro’s answer to this question, but he has one, and it’s both unsparing and compelling.

There are currently four volumes in The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, which follows Johnson’s youth in Texas’s rugged, arid hill country; Means of Ascent, which follows the start of his political career through the incredibly corrupt 1948 election that sent him to the U.S. Senate; Master of the Senate, which details how Johnson rose to become the one man in American history ever to truly run that institution; and The Passage of Power, which recounts his years as John F. Kennedy’s Vice-President and his sudden elevation to the Presidency after Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza in 1963. (Robert Caro, who was been working on these books for decades now, is currently working on a fifth and final volume, to cover Johnson’s tumultuous Presidency and the years after.)

These books aren’t 100% perfect — Caro has a habit of circling back to remind the reader of things he told us in previous volumes, for instance, which can lead to certain events and stories coming up so many times they suffer from repetition — but they are so close to perfect, and have so many interesting stories to tell you, that if you’re interested in American history at all you really owe it to yourself to read them. Sweeping and magisterial, tough and thrilling, they will help you see both the nation you live in and the man whose life they recount with new eyes.