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The Gentleman From Texas

MASTER OF THE SENATE By Robert A. Caro Alfred A. Knopf: 1,172 pp., $35

April 28, 2002|LEWIS GOULD | Lewis Gould is the author of numerous books, including "1968: The Election That Changed America," "Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady" and "The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt." He is currently working on a history of the Republican Party.

How many 20th century American presidents deserve to have four big volumes written about their lives and times? Robert A. Caro decided during the mid-1970s that Lyndon Johnson did, and "Master of the Senate" is the third installment in his massive exploration of the Texas president's quest for power.

When Caro started his project a generation ago, Johnson's central place in the nation's history seemed assured. Champion of civil rights, architect of the Great Society and the president who escalated the war in Vietnam, Johnson appeared to embody all that was good and bad about American politics in modern times.

A funny thing happened to LBJ on the way to transcendent historical importance. Time passed. The Cold War ended, the nation turned rightward and the tumult of the Vietnam War gave way to other conflicts, first with Iraq and now with international terrorism. The Johnson image, once so vibrant and controversial, became fuzzy and then indistinct.

For Americans born after the mid-1950s, Johnson is remembered, if at all, for a Stetson, a drawl, an unpopular war and a nation in turmoil in grainy black-and-white television images. Scholars might, as they did in the 1990s, reassess Johnson in a more positive way. But for the nation at large he became, as most presidents do, a relic of a vanishing era.

For Caro, however, Johnson has remained the pivot on which the nation's history turned in the century just passed. After winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his biography, "The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York," Caro embarked on a multivolume study of Johnson under the overall title "The Years of Lyndon Johnson." The first volume, "The Path to Power," appeared in 1982 and depicted Johnson's life to 1941 as a ruthless quest for political clout. The second, "Means of Ascent," came out in 1990, and its recounting of Johnson's 1948 race for the Senate against Gov. Coke Stevenson of Texas became controversial for both its laudatory picture of the racist, reactionary Stevenson and its corrosive portrait of the ambitious Johnson. Now Caro gets Johnson to the Senate and, in more than 1,000 pages looks at the years from 1949 to 1960, when Johnson first wielded national power as Democratic majority leader.

For much of "Master of the Senate," Caro follows the path of criticism and denunciation that characterized the first two volumes. When Senate Majority Leader Johnson takes up the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and sees it enacted into law, Caro recognizes that Johnson's ambition also was tempered with some compassion for African Americans. The enactment of the law is seen as a redemptive episode for the ruthless Johnson, who, almost in spite of himself, finally does the right thing for the first time in his life. This concession is grudging and limited, but it spurs Caro to some of the best writing in the three volumes.

Even Caro's marginally greater sympathy, however, for his subject does not raise Johnson's legislative career to the epic level implicit in this encyclopedic treatment. In the political context of the mid-1950s, with Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House and Democrats narrowly in control of Congress, the passage of major legislation could not occur. Much of what Johnson was doing was inside baseball, of interest now only to specialists who find the era of Joe McCarthy and the Bricker Amendment still fascinating.

To surmount this problem, Caro writes three books in one volume. All rest on the notion that the obstructive role of the United States Senate shaped the sweep of American history as a prelude to the emergence of Johnson as a senator in 1949. In Caro's view, presidents such as Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt become almost bit players as the Senate came to dominate the national stage.

In a series of potted narratives that occupy the first 105 pages of the book, Caro writes a condensed history of the upper house starting in the mid-1830s. The short treatments of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Spanish-American War and the League of Nations as episodes in Senate history take the story far from Johnson without adding anything new to these subjects.

The ensuing 600 pages of the book that cover Johnson from 1949 through 1956 reflect the negative view of Johnson that Caro has long espoused. Johnson was, Caro has said, "unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of philosophy, of principles, of beliefs." The same man appears in these pages as he betrays friends and causes for personal advancement and power.

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