This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
The most perceptive review of The Path to Power appeared in The New York Review of Books, by a newspaperman who spent decades observing Lyndon Johnson—the late Murray Kempton. Kempton was untroubled by the book’s polemical zeal, since, in his view, Johnson “devoted his life to violating every civic ideal of our politics.” What bothered Kempton was not Caro’s lack of balance but his lack of subtlety and ambiguity: “Justice [Oliver Wendell] Holmes said once that Justice [John] Harlan had a mind like one of the larger vises; it was incapable of holding small objects. Caro seems to have a mind of the opposite variety: it is a vise acutely calculated for the particular and not quite large enough for the general.” Kempton’s prevailing sentiment—that Caro’s Lyndon Johnson was too one-dimensional—would be echoed by other reviewers.
Published in 1990, Means of Ascent triggered an acrimonious debate. At the heart of it was Caro’s portrait of LBJ’s opponent in the 1948 Senate race—former Governor Coke Stevenson. The architecture of Means of Ascent rests on the assumption that Stevenson was a “legend,” one of the “most beloved figures in the state’s history;” while Johnson was something close to a miscreant—a contrast starkly revealed in the book’s index, where, as Sidney Blumenthal pointed out in The New Republic, the entries for Stevenson’s “character” (“dignity,” “fairness,” “frugality,” “honesty and integrity”) stand in contrast to the entries for LBJ’s (“bragging and exaggeration,” “cruelty,” “cynicism,” “determination to win”). It’s pretty clear that Caro fell in love with Coke Stevenson. (In Path to Power, Caro presented an idealized portrait of House Majority Leader Sam Rayburn. “Obviously, I fell in love with Sam Rayburn” he told The Washington Post in 1982.) And in Master of the Senate, Caro falls in love, to a certain extent, with Richard Russell, the powerful segregationist Senator from Georgia.
In a review in The Washington Post, Broder affirmed that Caro made “a persuasive case” that LBJ “stole the victory in the 1948 Senate race.” “That would be enough,” Broder continued, “to satisfy most investigative reporters or exposeminded authors. But Caro wants to write a morality tale, an epic of democracy betrayed. Broder ridiculed Caro’s assertion that Coke Stevenson was “perhaps the most respected public official in the history of Texas.” “Really?” questioned Broder. “Texans to whom I have quoted that line are inclined to hoot.”
Blumenthal’s blistering cover story in The New Republic emphasized Stevenson’s racial views. In his book, Caro mostly ignores Stevenson’s views on race except to say, in passing, that “Stevenson accepted all the southern stereotypes about [the black] race.” But Blumenthal went back and reexamined the chilling details of a case in which a black man was accused of raping a white woman and dragged out of his hospital bed and lynched, and noted that US. Attorney General Francis Biddle urged Stevenson to bring the murderers to trial. Stevenson’s written reply? “Certain members of the Negro race from time to time furnish the setting for mob violence by the outrageous crimes which they commit.”
The avalanche of criticism continued. “Caro reserves information where it would partly exonerate,” Garry Wills wrote in The New York Review of Books, “and produces it only when it further incriminates.” And he lamented Caro’s “unremittingly humorless” pages. “To write of Lyndon Johnson without a sense of humor,” Wills averred, “is like setting a tone-deaf man to write about Mozart.’
Caro responded to this critical onslaught with a disjointed, rambling essay in The New York Times Book Review, which Knopf, in an unusual move for a publisher, modified and inserted in the notes to the paperback edition of Means of Ascent. Caro admitted that Stevenson was a segregationist, but insisted that “civil rights was not an important issue in the campaign.” “To have given significant emphasis to race in this book,” Caro declared, “would have been to wrench the campaign out of its historical context, to have looked at a 1948 event through a lens ground in 1990:’