In Master of the Senate, the third volume of his magisterial study of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro continues to probe the personal and political sides of a complex man who, during the 1950s, put on a show so riveting that Capitol Hill had never seen anything like it during the previous century and a half of the Republic's existence. Detailing his subject's fierce ambition to be somebody in particular the president of the United States Caro offers a fascinating look at this respected and feared leader.
As Senate majority leader, Johnson skillfully maneuvered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to enactment, the first civil rights legislation Congress had passed in 82 years. Johnson, who throughout his career had always opposed civil rights bills, seemed an unlikely politician to accomplish what many principled reformers had tried and failed to do for decades. But Caro demonstrates that he was the only person who could have achieved this legislative goal. Under Johnson's leadership, key decisions were made in negotiations away from the Senate floor. A principle that determined whether legislation would be passed or defeated during this period was whether or not it would further Johnson's personal career. Compassion was sometimes on a parallel track with ambition, but if there was a conflict, ambition won.
A man who abhorred debate and dissent, Johnson drove himself, his wife and his staff relentlessly. He demanded absolute loyalty from those he worked closely with, particularly other senators. But there was another side to Johnson, a leader who, according to Caro, was the greatest champion that black Americans and Mexican-Americans and indeed all Americans of color had in the White House, the greatest champion they had in the halls of government during the 20th century. Along with Johnson's personal story, Caro gives us a mini-history of the Senate that helps to put LBJ's remarkable career in context. Caro, who spends years researching and writing his books, has added another authoritative, insightful narrative to his admirable series. Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.