The Years of Lyndon B Johnson


At some point I was sucked into making profile on Goodreads but don’t really keep up with it–never got into making those notches on the bedpost.

And yet I feel like I must somehow commemorate the occasion of having just binge-read my way through all four currently published volumes of Robert Caro’s magisterial Years of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Not out of some humblebrag.  I don’t feel like it is an impressive achievement–the books are so entirely gripping, pleasurable, riveting, I can only compare how I felt reading them to how I felt watching The Wire.  It stands out as one of the outstanding reading experiences of my life.


Some find Caro repetitive over the long march of the series.  I didn’t–I found his leitmotifs musical, the events and interviews whose reiteration allows the reader absorb them, make them such familiar touchstones that she can begin to wrap her head around the extreme contradictions that existed and fought for expression within LBJ’s outsized personality, the yawning gaps between his cowardice and his heroism, his expediency and his risk-taking, his confidence and his paralyzing fear.  LBJ, the power-hungry grotesque, political savant, coward and risk-taking visionary, ass-licker to his superiors, sadistic brute to his subordinates, wretched husband and great statesman, a man whose moral code only came into play when it matched up with his desperate, bottomless ambitions–and yet when those did match up, was able to take risks, be bold and brave and strategic in ways that Kennedy never could have.

I’m sure this has been written a million times but the sweep is Shakespearean–LBJ is right up there with Lear, Falstaff–all the more so when you read with the knowledge that you are being set up for the tragedy of Vietnam blighting the enormous legacy of the Great Society.  Caro manages to make so much material whose outcome is known so entirely suspenseful–from LBJ’s 1948 Senate win to the transition into the presidency.


Then there are the juicy contextual nuggets, the berries and cream in studding the cake, the awesome rocks around which the river flows.  The books follow the years of LBJ–and those years include biographies-within-the-biography of Sam Rayburn, Richard Russell, Coke Stevens, JFK, RFK, Alice Glass, Lady Bird, Hubert Humphrey (who really felt like the love interest of Master of the Senate).  A 100-page institutional history of the Senate, a minutely detailed description of women’s life in the Hill Country before rural electrification, the corrupt years of Washington politics that birthed the necessity of the New Deal, the turn of the century Populism through the lens of Sam Johnson, LBJ’s father–all of it made me feel like I was learning American history for the first time.

Every one of the books ends with Debts, acknowledgements to his colleagues and collaborators–and a journey through the Sources that made the book possible.  Especially in Path to Power and Means of Ascent, the Sources chapters are must-reads for any student of journalism.

Books that have piled up over the past three months but am having a hard time starting because I’m just walking around, processing this material–I’m kind of at a loss with myself. Instead I read essays on the details Caro missed, interviews in which he promises the fifth and final volume (hopefully soon, Jesus Christ, the man is pushing 80), crappy toffee Kennedy tell-alls I’m buying off Amazon for one cent.

What do you do when something like this has happened to you?

Lyndon B. Johnson 3

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