Caro makes much of LBJ’s political wizardry in getting the 1957 legislation passed, arguing that it was an important first step on civil rights. But it is here, with the 1957 Act—which was so weak that some civil rights leaders opposed it that Caro may face critical ire. Two most outstanding books on the civil rights movement—David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross (1986) and Taylor Branch’s Parting The Waters (1988)—each contains less than four pages on the 1957 legislation, and critics are sure to question Caro’s relentless focus on it. Thirty-five years ago, Sherrill himself, in The Accidental President, anticipated the argument Caro would make in 2002: “The legend persists,” Sherrill wrote, “that Johnson worked a ‘miracle’ in 1957 in passing a civil rights act; it will doubtless persist for many years.’
Indeed, Master of the Senate offers a glimpse into how Caro will approach the subject of LBJ and civil rights in his next—and final—volume. Caro seems acutely sensitive to the charge that he is too zealously critical of LBJ, so Master of the Senate tries half-heartedly to emphasize Johnson’s “compassion.” But what really comes through, after twelve hundred pages, is Johnson’s deceit and cold-blooded pragmatism; we will have to wait until the next volume for a more complete portrait of LBJ’s transformation into a civil rights hero. What’s clear, in any case, is that Caro’s expertise in political machines, highway construction, and Texas politics does not automatically carry over to civil rights.
In Means of Ascent, Caro proclaimed that “it was Lyndon Johnson who led [black Americans] into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them … [and] … made them… a true part of American political life. ” That same sentiment that LBJ “led” blacks into the voting booth—suffuses Master of the Senate. Caro’s critics will certainly note that it was actually the other way around—that decades of civil rights agitation forced the political class to yield on black enfranchisement. Shrewd observers understood this at the time. In the mid-1960s, after LBJ delivered a major speech on civil rights, Murray Kempton recalled, in the New York Post, the heroic efforts of various civil rights activists, and noted, in a passage not cited by Caro: “We have had a few presidents who bent down to be kind to these people. But last night for the first time we had a president who looked up and saluted them. May God reward them for what they have done to make him what he was last night and us what we may be tomorrow.”
Robert Caro has now composed twenty-six-hundred pages on Lyndon Johnson, which makes it possible to draw certain conclusions about the colossal project to which he has dedicated twenty-five years of his life. In many respects the books are remarkable, and where they are best is on the concrete, material reality of Johnson’s life: the terrain he sprang from; the friends he betrayed; the furious political campaigns he ran; the dams and electricity lines he helped to get built; the elections he stole; the political machine he forged; the combat service he evaded; the fortune he accumulated in office; the powerful older men he cultivated; the Senate rules he mastered. These are not small achievements for a biographer, and they culminate in Caro’s damning account, in all three books, of LBJ’s close association with Texas-based oil, gas, and construction interests - which provided, from day one, the money on which his political career was built and sustained. “One of the concerns of my work,” Caro once wrote, “is the use of economic power to create political power.” Few have documented it better than Caro has.
Yet, in spite of all this, something is missing from Caro’s portrait of Lyndon Johnson. In a brilliant review of Means of Ascent in The New York Times Book Review, Ronald Steel, author of the prize-winning Walter Lippmann and the American Century (1980), noted that Caro’s emphasis on how power is used—to build dams, win elections—is “masterly,” not least because it “contributes to the moral energy of his books! But Steel described the limits of Caro’s brand of muckraking - it “washes away lines and shadows. There is not much complexity in this Johnson,” Steel determined, “no moments of self doubt or remorse, only scheming, lying, and a `cynicism that had no discernible limits.”