The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1)
People! I just read the 750+ page first volume of a multi-volume biography of LBJ, and I’m having bliss-out fits over it.
You’re fleeing from the blog, and I kinda understand.
But I can explain.
This book is so ding-dang good I nearly got weepy at several points. And once my heart almost burst in joy.
That, my friends, is a sign of good writing. Robert A. Caro is a pure marvel.
We’ll begin with the sentence that darn-near caused a heart explosion. Here ’tis:
“And as Lyndon Johnson came up Capitol Hill in the morning, he would be running.” (p. 217)
So, the context. Caro spends the long first paragraph of that chapter describing the scenery—the columns and pillars of the Capitol—witnessed by the 23-year-old LBJ as he walked (ran!) to his office when he worked as an aide to a Congressman. That glorious sentence ends the paragraph, and it’s the perfect capstone.
The weepy thing happened when I read about how LBJ, as a young Congressman during the Great Depression, helped bring electricity to the Texas Hill Country from whence he came. After reading the description of the lives people led before electricity, it makes sense that it was during this time that people began naming their sons for Lyndon Johnson. Caro describes how farm women could see the workers coming toward her house with the line of electrical poles, and when the workers arrived, they’d find the finest meal the family could provide, served on their best dishes.
We get a good view of Lady Bird here, and one is given to believe that she truly was as sainted as Margaret Truman suggested in First Ladies. Despite her innate goodness, still (thankfully) she’s interesting. One of my favoritest quotes of all time is this, by Lady Bird to a friend: “Lyndon and I committed matrimony last night.” (p. 302) Doesn’t it just sound innocently naughty?
This book is detailed, in the best way. So you get a solid sense of who the supporting characters are. For years now, I’ve been saying the words “Rayburn House Office Building” in response to library patrons’ requests for the addresses of their representatives in Congress. And only in this book did I learn who Sam Rayburn was. And I confess now I adore him just a lot. He was honest. Need I say more? Yet I will. Here (we’ll let Caro say it): “Years later, when someone mentioned that Rayburn’s father had not left him much of an inheritance, Rayburn quickly corrected him—his father, he said, ‘gave me my untarnished name.’” (p. 301) He was as honest as LBJ was fluid with the truth.
This book covers Johnson’s early years—from birth to age 36. His ambition is striking. It’s exhausting even to read about.
The projected 3-volume Caro biography (with the 4th volume in the works) is known as the warts-and-all version of LBJ’s life story. I’m doing OK with it. I’ve known forever that the guy was earthy, and why sugarcoat the truth?
Also, gotta confess: major (major!) authorcrush on Mr. Caro. Not only is he a genius, but he’s also cute as a button.
Next up: Volume 2!