astonishing biography of Lyndon Johnson. Four volumes of this have been published so far, a total of 3388 pages, with a fifth volume planned. It is absolutely the best-researched book of any sort I have ever read. One example: during the 1948 senate race in Texas, Johnson had the support of the corrupt border bosses who ran the Mexican-majority counties in the Rio Grande Valley and sold their constituents' votes to the highest bidder. A reform group sent observers to those counties to monitor the vote, and in one county they were kept from seeing the ballots by the bosses' goons in a dramatic confrontation. Caro has tracked down and interviewed, not just the observer who tried to see the ballots, but also the enforcer who kept him out, a sinister pistolero known as el Indio.
Johnson comes across as one of the worst people in history, a bully, a sadist, a compulsive liar, unbelievably abusive to his underlings and unbelievably fawning to anyone with power over him, motivated solely by his own lifelong quest to be president. He was, one of his presidential aides said, incapable of calling out the best in men, but he knew how to find every man's weakness and exploit it. Except that, he had a raging anger against injustice and poverty, and for a Texan of his time he was remarkably blind to color. Plus, he was one of history's greatest geniuses in the art of politics. A few random observations about Johnson:
When he was a student at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, he got himself elected president of the student body, by stuffing the ballot box. People were shocked, not so much by the corruption as because nobody had ever cared enough about the office before even to campaign for it. But once he had the job he convinced the college president to give him a say in which students got on-campus jobs, giving him power that he abused by forcing anyone who wanted a job to beg him for it and then become one of his group, following him around and laughing at his jokes.
Johnson's first job out of college was teaching at a tiny high school where all the students were poor Mexicans. Johnson was determined both to educate them and to convince them that they could better their lives, and some of them were so impressed by his passion and his belief in them that they became his lifelong followers.
When he was a Congressional page in Washington, Johnson got himself elected president of the Congressional pages' club, by stuffing the ballot box. This was another position nobody had ever wanted enough to campaign very hard for. But once Johnson had the job he organized a speaker's series and got Congressmen and senior bureaucrats to come talk to the pages. This was such a hit that soon important Congressmen were approaching Johnson to ask him about speaking to the club, giving him an in with powerful people that he parlayed into a job running a New Deal youth agency back in Texas.
Johnson was first elected to Congress in 1937, after an election in which he stumped every day for at least 16 hours, personally speaking to just about everyone who ended up voting for him; "I didn't know it was possible for anyone to work that hard," said one acquaintance.
In 1941 Johnson ran for the Senate in a special election. He tried to steal it, but his opponent, Pappy O'Daniel -- a former governor who always campaigned with a country band that was the model for the one in O Brother Where Art Thou -- stole even more votes and ended up winning.
In 1948, Johnson stole the senate election, buying tens of thousands of votes from corrupt border bosses, using money from construction firms that he had been able to help get lucrative government contracts.
Around that time Johnson acquired the property that would be the basis of his private fortune, an Austin radio station that the FCC had limited to part-time broadcasting at low power on a bad frequency. The owners had been trying to get a more favorable license for years but finally gave up and sold the station for a song. Johnson immediately used his influence in Washington to get much more favorable terms, making the station instantly worth several times what he had paid for it. Johnson then let it be known that any businessman who wanted favors from him had better buy advertising on the station; this worked so well that the station ended up the most profitable in Texas and became the base of an expanding media empire. The station was in Lady Bird's name and Johnson insisted throughout his career that he had nothing to do with running it, but actually he spoke on the phone with the manager almost every day, issuing detailed orders. He kept running the media empire even while he was president, installing a special phone in the White House that he could use to call the people running his "blind trust" without the calls showing up on the White House phone logs.
Shortly after he became President, Johnson discovered that the publisher of the Houston Chronicle, the largest newspaper in Texas, was also chairman of a bank that wanted to merge with another Texas bank. The Justice Department and the Federal Reserve disagreed about whether to allow the merger, which effectively left the decision to the president. Johnson called the publisher and told him that he would disallow the merger unless the Chronicle changed its editorial policy, stopped attacking him and began to support his administration, "for as long as I am here." "You don't know me," he said (the call was taped), "so why don't you call some of your friends who do. They'll tell you that when I say I want something, I mean it." The publisher accepted, the merger was approved, and the Chronicle supported Johnson for the rest of his time in office.
At the same time, right after Kennedy was killed, Johnson went to work to pass the 1964 Civil Rights bill, which had been stuck in a Congressional committee for months. To this day Kennedy's people insist that he would have gotten the bill passed if only he had had a little more time, but I don't believe it. Passing the bill required outmaneuvering the southern Senators who ran all the key Senate committees, and over the whole period from Reconstruction to the post-Watergate reforms only one man was able to do that, and that was Lyndon Johnson. So it was Johnson, much more than any other single person, who was responsible for the full legal equality of black people in America.
During his early conversations on Vietnam (I've only made it through early 1964) Johnson speaks only in terms of domestic politics; he keeps saying that if he loses Vietnam they'll do to him what they did to the men who "lost China," and he'll never get the Democratic nomination. He never once mentions casualties or the national interest or the fate of Vietnam.