Robert A. Caro is the George R.R. Martin of political biography. Like A Song of Ice and Fire, his already extensively conceived biography of Lyndon B. Johnson grew from an initially planned three volumes to (currently) five, each volume of monumental length in itself (Means of Ascent being the shortest of the four so far published, with a measly 600 pages) and like Martin’s readers Caro’s need a lot of patience, as there are several years between the publication of each volume (and with eight to twelve years between each volume, Caro makes Martin look like a hack in comparison). One might even draw some thematic parallels between the two works, as both are full of intrigue, ruthless actions and the uses and abuses of power. One might argue that Caro’s books are the better written ones – in any case they present as exciting a read as Martin’s Fantasy novels, which is not exactly common for a political biography.
I generally tend to be somewhat sceptic towards biographies because just by virtue of their genre alone they tend to propagate a “great men” theory of history, literature, or indeed whatever field their subject was active in. Occasionally however, there are biographies whose ambition reaches beyond their immediate subject, taking the individual they write about as representative for a wider question, and that is where things start to get interesting. That Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson belongs to that category was already striking in its first volume, The Path to Power, which over the course of its almost 1,000 pages paints a vivid and detailed portrait of the United States during the Depression era, a portrait which, while centred around the early career of an aspiring politician from Texas, provided a sharp-eyed analysis of the society and the political system Johnson lived and worked in.
Means of Ascent continues in that vein, although the emphasis is somewhat different here: Not only does this second volume concern itself with only seven years in Johnson’s life from 1941 to 1948 but he also sets out to make and prove a very specific point; where the first volume was a grand, panoramic painting, this one more resembles a narrative.
To narrow the focus even more, Caro really only treats of two major events during the period of Johnson’s life under scrutiny here. One of them are his wartime experiences – or rather, lack thereof. While Johnson used to make a lot of his having been at the front lines during World War II, closer inspection shows that what it factually boils down to is a single bombing flight he took part in as an observer. Admittedly, it was a dangerous flight which not all planes came back from, but it still seems hardly to justify the extravagant claims Johnson used to make about his wartime heroics in later years which at best appear to have been vast exaggerations and at worst blatant lies.
The main emphasis of this volume, however, is on the Senate elections of 1948 which mark a turning point in Johnson’s life and career. They were his last chance to enter the Senate and continue his political career, a career which according to Caro had the presidency of the United States as its aim from the very beginning. That career had been stalled due to Johnson losing the previous elections and to the war; another loss would have meant that he’d never go beyond congress. Johnson, then, was desperate to win the 1948 elections, and willing to use every means at his disposal to gain a seat in the Senate.
And this is where Caro’s point comes in and where this volume’s main narrative unfolds: the central thesis is that Johnson in his reckless bid for power created a new type of politician, a politician who did not view power as a means to achieve his political goals but instead used political goals as a means to claim power for himself. And in the wake of this, Lyndon Johnson also changed election campaigning, moving it away from actual political issues into the realm of entertainment, where it does not matter who has the better arguments but who has more money and better showmanship, and ultimately who is ruthless enough to outright steal the elections if everything else fails. Caro builds his narrative on this foundation, and it is a narrative with a villain (Johnson) and a hero (Johnson’s opponent, Coke Stevenson), and is this latter trait which garnered him some criticism among the otherwise unanimous praise for his work, namely that he has painted Johnson too negatively and Stevenson too positively. For my part, do not think the former sticks: While Caro does not leave any doubt that he does not like his subject much, my impression was that he treats him very fairly, never failing to point out all of the civil rights improvements he introduced as well as the astounding unflagging energy with which Johnson pursued his goals. Caro’s treatment of Coke Stevenson, on the other hand, does appear somewhat over-generous. It’s not all bathed in rosy light – Caro makes it clear that Stevenson was a staunch conservative and that his political ideas were often quite reactionary but the degree of personal integrity Caro ascribes to him does seem somewhat unlikely for a politician – any politician – in the 20th century and one can’t help but suspect that the author is glossing over some of his faults in the interest of a more dramatic narrative.
Even so, I think that this is a comparatively minor point, as the central question of this book is not which candidate had how many ballot boxes stuffed – although the sheer disregard for anything but his own power grab with which Johnson faked the election is quite breathtaking. But I think Caro aims for a wider thesis, namely that Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1948 Senate campaign marks the birth of the contemporary type of politician and changed the political landscape of the USA forever and in my opinion this thesis holds true even if he somewhat arranges the facts for enhanced emphasis. The author’s intention may even have been to leave some ray of hope – because in the end, even with all the money he mustered and the show he pulled off (Johnson the first politician ever to use a helicopter in his campaign), in the end Johnson was unable to beat Stevenson with legal means and had to resort to outright stealing the election. All of this makes Means of Ascent a very current book – when everything is said and done, there might not have been a Donald Trump if not for Lyndon B. Johnson, and examining the way Johnson handled this election may give us some idea as what to expect from his spiritual successors today. Spoiler: It’s not likely to be anything good.