This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
That was a highly dubious assertion. In The Power Broker, Caro wrote at length about Moses’s racist views toward blacks—not because Moses’s racism was an issue in a political campaign (it wasn’t) but because those views were essential to Moses’s life and work. Caro was right to include Moses’s racist views, and wrong to exclude Stevenson’s. In the furious war of words that enveloped Means of Ascent, Cards detractors were correct on almost every point, which in no way diminishes the value of the book. Means of Ascent, flawed though it is, is a work every journalist should read, for it is a riveting, hour-by-hour account of how an election was stolen. The book has acquired new relevance since the Florida quagmire. Says Caro, dryly, “There’s a lot more interest in the second volume since the Bush/Gore election.”
Lyndon Johnson arrived in the Senate in 1949, became its majority leader in 1955, and left it in 1961. During that time, he took absolute control of the institution, and quickly showed himself to be a virtuoso parliamentarian and strategist. Caro, in the course of his research, became obsessed by the nature of senatorial power; by the concept of “legislative genius”; by the byzantine rules that prevail in the chamber; and by the way in which Johnson bent the institution to his will. None of this, Caro came to feel, had been properly analyzed by other writers and scholars, so he endeavored to nail down every aspect of LBJ’s presence in the Senate, to the smallest detail. Caro expended much effort, for instance, in attempting to ascertain what precisely LBJ did with a tiny passageway (four square feet in size) between his office and the Senate cafeteria; in the end, after much investigation, the true purpose of the passageway eluded Caro. To verify that LBJ “towered” over his associates, Caro asked Senator Bill Bradley, who is just over six feet four, to stand at the majority leader’s desk, so Caro could observe, with his own eyes, “precisely to what degree Johnson had in fact `towered’ as he stood there.”
But Caro’s obsession with the Senate, his endless quest for details and minutiae, may have led him into a biographical culde-sac. Perhaps, in the end, the institution defeated him, for Master of the Senate is Caro’s least successful effort. His three previous books were fired by a powerful narrative engine. But the new book moves slowly, very slowly. In attempting to write the definitive work on LBJ in the Senate, Caro has written a massive account on the Senate itself, a book that often loses sight, amid the thicket of legislative maneuvering, of Johnson himself (Caro begins with a hundred-page history of the Senate, and Johnson doesn’t make a full appearance until page 105.) To be sure, LBJ’s Senate years are difficult to render: much of what he did there took place in private offices and restricted cloakrooms, and behind-the-scenes legislative wrangling is difficult to recreate on the page—facts that suggest the need for a much shorter book.
Johnson’s tenure in the Senate, however, was not without drama. In 1949 he presided over the reconfirmation hearing for Leland Olds, head of the Federal Power Commission. Olds had been a red-hot radical in his youth in the 1920s, but had risen to become a respected, dutiful bureaucrat—a fact that didn’t stop Johnson from destroying him with red-baiting tactics. Caro takes seventy pages of Master of the Senate to tell the story of Leland Olds, and while his account is the most comprehensive and detailed one to date, his very thoroughness drains the story of its suspense. Robert Sherrill’s short book on Johnson, The Accidental President (1967), covers the Leland Olds episode in a crisp eleven pages, and with more drama and verve than Caro manages.