This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
In considerable detail, Master of the Senate chronicles LBJ’s relationship with Senator Richard Russell, which laid the groundwork for his own rise in the Senate; his brazen affair with the glamorous liberal Helen Gahagan Douglas; his deteriorating health and 1955 heart attack; and his dismal performance at the 1956 Democratic convention in Chicago, where his presidential hopes were temporarily dashed. In the new book, race is a paramount concern of Caro’s, and Master of the Senate concludes with a protracted 180-page account of the political maneuvering that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first legislation of its kind since Reconstruction.
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.”