Reading Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume II, I realized Machiavelli in The Prince would have cited the United States’ 36th president as an example of how a prince should treat “fortune”.
“I conclude therefore that, fortune being changeful and mankind steadfast in their ways, so long as the two are in agreement men are successful, but unsuccessful when they fall out. For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.”
Robert Caro continues in the second volume the painstaking, relentless destruction of any line between moral or amoral inclinations, or the light and dark, Lyndon Baines Johnson has straddled in his fans and political enemies alike. Caro’s second volume wades through what would appear to be the least insightful period in LBJ’s life, from his unsuccessful Senate bid in 1941 to his fraudulent Senate bid in 1948. In between Caro explores LBJ’s acquisition of a radio station and his brief period of military “service” in 1942, which basically consisted of a Congressional investigative junket in which Japanese Zero’s provided the testimony. LBJ’s treatment of his wife, Lady Bird, also figures prominently in both the management of the radio station and during the ’48 campaign. There’s also a contrasting portrait of LBJ’s major opponent, Coke R. Stevenson, a legend in Texas politics, leaving no doubt where Caro’s opinion of the winner lies.
Caro lists as LBJ’s “qualities”, fierceness and determination, a “willingness to take responsibility for his own fate”, decisiveness, and dominance. Other qualities Caro praises LBJ for are the ability to think quickly under pressure, a genius for choosing subordinates, and “toughness of mind”. Above all, Caro argues, LBJ wanted to be known as “calculating, shrewd, tough, hard, ruthless, and practical.” (The photograph of hos opponents taunting him is one the president showed to another biographer in the White House with a wink and a smirk.) LBJ framed his life against the embarrassing example of his own father, an honest and idealistic former politician and failed businessman who died disgraced and indebted. I realized while reading this volume, even more so than in the first volume, that LBJ’s ambition is the mirror of my own life’s work. This was a very depressing read.
Caro examines the main issue of the 1948 Senate campaign: the notorious Box 13. Testimony by Indio Salas, one of patron George Parr’s henchmen in the majority Hispanic counties in the southwest, leaves no doubt about the veracity of the charges, that LBJ bought an election using corporate and union cash. That, and LBJ’s own track record of rigging elections, from college president, to the “Little Congress”, and the 1941 Senate campaign, are the two most damning indictments of LBJ’s “dark” period. And, what LBJ learned from his defeat in 1941 was not humility, but how to be even more amoral for the next campaign.
Finally, Caro extols LBJ for his inventive fusion of fraud and media manipulation. In the 1948 bid, LBJ used private polling and a helicopter for campaigning. After he bought a radio station in 1942, he realized the value of using his campaign donations from corporate sponsors for air time. The rest of his receipts went to bribery of local officials. LBJ systematically hammered home in a blizzard of radio and print ads deliberate falsehoods about Stevenson remorselessly, until the former governor had to respond. It sounds quaint now, but Caro depicts it without anachronism or cynicism, to reveal how the first and maybe most talented of politicians innovated the tactics we now assume are in play, but which still fool voters.
I am ambivalent about this volume. On one hand, reading non-fiction like this is a joy. Nothing seems inconsequential or abstruse in Caro’s relentless juggernaut that builds to a crescendo chapters or volumes later with a satisfying finish. But then, LBJ is such a dark presence, and it’s doubtful at this point there is a legacy worth praise when it is purchased with such crimes.