Read The Path to Power Online

Authors: Robert A. Caro

The Path to Power

BOOK: The Path to Power
Acclaim for Caro’s

“What a marvelous book! A work of majesty, perhaps unequalled in American political biography. The scope of its research and the sheer effort invested in unearthing facts are awesome.”

Robert Massie

“Engrossing and revealing. … This fascinating, immensely long and highly readable book is the fullest account we have—and are ever likely to have—of the early years of Lyndon Baines Johnson.”

David Herbert Donald, front page

The Path to Power
will burnish Caro’s reputation as a panoramic biographer. A great story-teller!”

Robert Sherrill, front page

“A brilliant and necessary book. There are whole and fascinating areas in Johnson’s life that no one else discovered.”

Merle Miller, front page

“Caro’s narrative never stumbles, his prose never flattens. The lengthy sketches of supporting players, like Sam Rayburn, are masterly in themselves. And the secret love affairs, cash stuffed envelopes and other reportorial hand grenades seem to come remarkably often for so long a book on so familiar a subject.”

Donald Morrison

“Not only is the book an engrossing biographical introduction to our most devious of Presidents, but it is also a brilliant sociological study of Texas and of American politics.”

Francis Russell

“The blunt fact is that a masterpiece of biography is being added to American literature. For sheer scale, energy and artistry in capturing a man’s life, nothing approaches it.”

John Barkham Reviews

“Outsized and overwhelming. Splendid and moving. Caro presents him so close we can feel him. There are two more volumes to come, which means that at this rate Caro’s work will eventually acquire Gibbon-like dimensions, Gibbon-like thoroughness too, and Gibbon-like passion. … Caro is using Johnson as a focus and symbol for a historical turning point that goes beyond the individual. Caro is a phenomenon. He is an artful writer, with a remarkable power to evoke and characterize politicians, landscapes, relationships; with the ability to convey all manner of experiences. This massive book is almost continuously exciting. … It is a tour de force at the very least; eventually, it may come to be the base of a monument.”

Richard Eder

“The major biography of recent years. Brilliant. Magisterial. A stunning accomplishment of documentation and narrative. Robert Caro has given us an American life of compelling fascination. The book is a benchmark beside which other biographies will be measured for some time to come.”

Alden Whitman


Lynwood Abram

“An ineradicable likeness of an American giant. All previous accounts of our Presidents’ growing-up years seem scanty and uninformative by comparison. Caro has brought to life a young man so believable and unforgettable that we can hear his heartbeat and touch him. If an earlier famous Johnson had his Boswell, and Abraham Lincoln his Sandburg, LBJ has found a portraitist who similarly will owe his fame to his great subject and his certitude in taking control of it.”

Henry F. Graff, Professor of History, Columbia University, in

“Caro has become the nation’s preeminent biographer. He won both the Pulitzer and the Parkman prizes for his brilliant portrayal of Robert Moses in
The Power Broker
. Now his masterful portrayal of Lyndon Johnson has already won the National Book Critics Circle Award as the best work of nonfiction published in 1982.
The Path to Power
is a magnificent mix of narrative history and investigative reporting.”

Alan L. Miller

“No mere political biography. Caro is on the way to becoming our finest fine-tooth-comb historian, one who researches a subject so thoroughly there seems no possible rebuttal to the arguments he presents on the issues raised.”

Jack Goodman

Also by Robert A. Caro

The Power Broker:
Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

The Years of Lyndon Johnson:
Means of Ascent

“Caro’s research is relentless and his writing never shows a seam.”

Priscilla Johnson McMillan

“A masterful narrative on a grand scale, a fascinating portrait of LBJ’s activities set against a fully drawn canvas of life in the Texas hill country. Caro displays a historian’s regard for rules of fact and evidence. By far the most significant Johnson book to appear.”

Library Journal

“The book races at Johnson’s own whirlwind pace. A tour de force that blends relentless detective work, polemical vigor and artful storytelling into the most compelling narrative of American political life since
All the King’s Men

Henry Mayer

“Magnificent. For understanding our recent past and the men and policies that brought the country to its present condition and aimed us toward whatever our future is to be, it’s an immensely important work. If the second and third volumes live up to the promise, Caro will have carved a literary Mt. Rushmore, with only one face. The face won’t be pretty, but the work will stand for a long time.”

Bryan Woolley

“A landmark in American political biography. The definitive life of LBJ. Caro has written a Johnson biography that is richer and fuller and may well be one of the freshest and most revealing studies ever written about a major historical figure.”

Steve Neal

“A brief review cannot convey the depth, range and detail of this fascinating story. Caro is an inexhaustible researcher and a meticulous historian. Every page reflects his herculean efforts to break through the banalities and the falsehoods previously woven around the life of Lyndon Johnson. This epic book combines the social scientist’s interest in power with the historian’s concern with theme and context, the political scientist’s interest in system, and the novelist’s passion to reveal the inner workings of the personality and relate them to great human issues. Like the man it portrays, it will infuriate and inspire, arouse admiration and controversy—and perhaps no higher compliment can be paid such a monument of interpretive biography.”

Michael R. Beschloss




The Bunton Strain

The People’s Party

The Johnson Strut

The Father and Mother

The Son

“The Best Man I Ever Knew”

“The Bottom of the Heap”


“Bull” Johnson

The Rich Man’s Daughter


White Stars and Black Stars

“A Very Unusual Ability”


On His Way

The New Deal

The Boss of the Little Congress

In Tune

Lady Bird


“Put Them to Work!”

The Dam


The First Campaign

From the Forks of the Creeks


Balancing the Books


The Tenth District

The Sad Irons

“I’ll Get It for You”


Mr. Johnson Goes to Washington

A Contract and Three Telegrams

Campaign Committee

The Munsey Building

Through the Back Door


“Pass the Biscuits, Pappy”

“I Want to See Lyndon”

“Mister Speaker”

The “Perfect Roosevelt Man”



The Tenth District


For Ina

“More is thy due than more than all can pay.”



lying on the blanket that day in 1940 were rich. The third was poor—so poor that he had only recently purchased the first suit he had ever owned that fit correctly—and desperately anxious not to be: thirty-two-year-old Congressman Lyndon Johnson had been pleading with one of the other two men, George Brown, to find him a business in which he could make a little money. So when Brown, relaxing in the still-warm Autumn sun at the luxurious Greenbrier Hotel in the mountains of West Virginia, heard the third man, Charles Marsh, make his offer to Lyndon Johnson, he felt sure he knew what the answer would be.

Brown wasn’t surprised by the offer. The fifty-three-year-old Marsh, a tall, imperious man whose profile and arrogance reminded friends of a Roman emperor, was addicted to the grandiose gesture, particularly toward young men in whom he took a paternal interest: only recently, pleased with a reporter’s work, he had told him he deserved a “tip”—and had thereupon given him a newspaper; some years earlier, his sympathies having been engaged by the story of a young oil wildcatter reduced by a series of dry wells to pawning his hunting rifle for room and board, he had agreed, in return for a share of the wildcatter’s future profits (profits he believed would never materialize), to guarantee bank loans to enable young Sid Richardson to continue drilling. And Marsh’s feelings toward Lyndon Johnson, whose control of his Texas congressional district was cemented by the support of Marsh’s influential Austin newspaper, were particularly warm; “Charles loved Lyndon like a son,” Brown says.

Brown wasn’t even surprised by the size of the offer. A rich man himself by most standards, he knew how far from rich he was by Marsh’s. The newspaper Marsh had so casually given away was only one of a dozen he owned; and he held—and collected interest on—the notes on a dozen more. In Austin alone, his possessions included not only the city’s largest newspaper, but much of the stock in its largest bank, all of the stock in its streetcar franchise, and vast tracts of its most valuable real estate. And these
were only minor items on Marsh’s balance sheet, for his partnership with Richardson was not his only venture in the fabulous oil fields of West Texas; forests of derricks pumped black gold out of the earth for his sole profit. So Brown listened with interest but not astonishment when Marsh explained that he no longer was getting along with Richardson, and that he had one inflexible rule: if he didn’t like a partner, he got out of the partnership. This partnership, he said, hadn’t cost him a dime anyway—he had obtained his share in Richardson’s wells just by guaranteeing those bank loans years before. He would sell his share to Johnson at a low price, he said, and, he said, using a characteristic phrase: “I’ll sell it to you in a way you can buy it.” There was only one such way for a young man without resources, and that was the way Marsh was proposing: he offered to let the young Congressman buy his share in the Richardson enterprises without a down payment. “He told Lyndon he could pay for it out of his profits each year,” Brown explains. The share was probably not worth a million dollars, says Brown, who had seen the partnership’s balance sheets—but it was worth “close to” a million, “certainly three-quarters of a million.” Marsh was offering to make Lyndon Johnson rich, without Johnson investing even a dollar of his own.

But though George Brown wasn’t surprised by Marsh’s offer, he was surprised by the response it received. Johnson thanked Marsh, polite, ingratiating and deferential as he always was with the older man. But he was also, Brown recalls, quite firm. He would like to think the offer over, he said, but he felt almost certain he was going to have to decline with thanks. I can’t be an oil man, he said; if the public knew I had oil interests, it would kill me politically.

All that week, Lyndon Johnson considered the offer—in a setting that emphasized what he would be giving up if he declined it. The Greenbrier—with its immense, colonnaded Main House rearing up, gleaming white, in the midst of 6,500 acres of lush lawns and serene gardens, its vast, marble-floored ballroom in which guests danced under huge cut-glass chandeliers, its cupolaed Spring House, around which, every afternoon, chilled champagne was served at canopied tables, its arcade lined with expensive shops, its indoor swimming pool as big as a lake, its battalions of green-liveried servants, its fleet of limousines which met guests arriving at a nearby station in their private railroad cars—was, as
magazine put it, “opulent America at its richest,” the distillation of all that was available in the United States to the wealthy, and not to others. As the three men lay every morning on their blanket, which had been spread on a slope in front of their accommodations—a row of white cottages, set away from the main building for privacy, which were the resort’s most expensive—Johnson discussed the offer with Brown, telling him details of his life he had often told him before: about the terrible poverty of his youth, about his struggle to go to college—and about the fact (which, Brown felt, preyed constantly
on his mind) that after three years in Congress, three years, moreover, in which he had accumulated, thanks to President Roosevelt’s friendship, far more than three years’ worth of power, he still had nothing—not a thousand dollars, he said—in the bank. Again and again he spoke to Brown of his fear (a fear which, Brown believed, tormented him) of ending up like his father, who had also been an elected official—six times elected to the Texas State Legislature—but had died penniless. He talked repeatedly about his realization that a seat in Congress was no hedge against that fate; so many times since he had come to Washington, he said, he had seen former Congressmen, men who had once sat in the great Chamber as he was sitting now, but who had lost their seats—as, he said, he himself would inevitably one day lose his—working in poorly paid or humiliating jobs. Again and again, he harked back to one particular incident he could not get out of his mind: while riding an elevator in the Capitol one day, he had struck up a conversation with the elevator operator—who had said that
had once been a Congressman, too. He didn’t want to end up an elevator operator, Johnson said. Accepting Marsh’s offer would free him from such fears forever—Brown could see that Johnson had not misunderstood the offer, that he was aware he had been offered great wealth. But again and again Johnson returned to the statement he had made when Marsh had first made the offer: “it would kill me politically.”

George Brown had been working closely with Johnson for three years; Johnson’s initial nomination to Congress, in 1937, had, in fact, been brought about to ensure an immensely complicated transaction with a very simple central point: the firm in which George and his brother Herman were the principals—Brown & Root, Inc.—was building a dam near Austin under an unauthorized arrangement with the federal government, and it needed a Congressman who could get the arrangement authorized. Johnson had succeeded in doing so—the Browns made millions of dollars from that federal contract—and ever since he had been trying to make them more, an effort that had recently been crowned with success by the award to Brown & Root of the contract for a gigantic United States Navy base at Corpus Christi. Having worked with Johnson so long, Brown felt he knew him—and knew how important money was to him, how anxious he was to obtain it. He sensed, moreover, that this anxiety was increasing, a belief nurtured not only by the growing intensity of Johnson’s pleas that the Browns find him a business of his own, but by a story circulating among Johnson’s intimates: several months before, at a party, Johnson had introduced two men, and one of them had later purchased a piece of Austin real estate from the other. The seller, a local businessman, had been astonished when the Congressman approached him one evening and asked for a “finder’s fee” for the “role” he had played in the transaction. Telling Johnson that he hadn’t played any role beyond the social introduction, he had refused to give him anything, and had considered the matter closed; the transaction, he recalls, was small, and
the finder’s fee would not have amounted to “more than a thousand dollars, if that.” When, therefore, he opened the front door of his home at seven the next morning to pick up his newspaper, he was astonished to see his Congressman sitting on the curb, waiting to ask him again for the money. And when he again explained to Johnson that he wasn’t entitled to a fee, “Lyndon started—well, really, to beg me for it—and when I refused, I thought he was going to cry.” Brown, knowing how desperate Johnson had recently been over a thousand dollars, was surprised to see him hesitating over three-quarters of a million.

He was surprised also by Johnson’s reason for hesitating.
It would kill me politically
—what “politically” was Johnson talking about? Until that week at the Greenbrier, Brown had thought he had measured Johnson’s political ambition—had measured it easily, he thought, for Johnson talked so incessantly about what he wanted out of politics. He was always saying that he wanted to stay in Congress until a Senate seat opened up, and then run for the Senate. Well, his congressional district was absolutely safe; being an oil man couldn’t hurt him there. And when he ran for the Senate, he would be running in Texas, and being an oil man wouldn’t hurt him in Texas. For what office, then, would Johnson be “killed” by being an “oil man”?

Only when he asked himself that question, George Brown recalls, did he finally realize, after three years of intimate association with Lyndon Johnson, what Johnson really wanted. And only when, at the end of that week, Johnson firmly refused Marsh’s offer did Brown realize how much Johnson wanted it.

, who had thought he knew Lyndon Johnson so well, realized during that week at the Greenbrier that he didn’t know him at all. Their lives would be entwined for thirty more years: as Brown & Root became, thanks to Johnson, an industrial colossus, one of the largest construction companies—and shipbuilding companies and oil-pipeline companies—in the world, holder of Johnson-arranged government contracts and receiver of Johnson-arranged government favors amounting to billions of dollars, suave George Brown and his fierce brother Herman became, in return, the principal financiers of Johnson’s rise to national power. But at the end of those thirty years—on the day Lyndon Johnson died—George Brown still felt that to some extent he didn’t really know him.

—understanding the character of the thirty-sixth President of the United States—is essential to understanding the history of the United States in the twentieth century. During his Presidency, his Great Society, with its education acts and civil-rights acts and anti-poverty acts, brought to crest tides of social change that had begun flowing during
the New Deal a quarter of a century before; after his Presidency, the currents of social change were to flow—abruptly—in a very different course. When he became President, 16,000 American advisors were serving in Vietnam—in a war that was essentially a Vietnamese war. When he left the Presidency, 536,000 American combat troops were fighting in Vietnam’s jungles, 30,000 Americans had died there, and the war had been “Americanized”—transformed into a war that would, before it was ended, exhaust America financially and soak up the blood of thousands upon thousands of its young men; into a war abroad that at home caused civil disobedience that verged on civil insurrection; into a war that transformed America’s image of itself as well as its image in the eyes of the world. Lyndon Johnson’s full term as President began in triumph: the 1964 landslide that Theodore H. White calls “the greatest electoral victory that any man ever won in an election of free peoples.” It ended—to the chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” from a generation to whom he was the hated war maker—with his announcement that he would not again ask the nation to elect him its leader. The Great Society; Vietnam—the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson, only five years in span, was nonetheless a watershed in America’s history, one of the great divides in the evolution of its foreign and domestic policies. And in this evolution, Johnson’s personality bore, in relation to other factors, an unusually heavy weight, both because of its overpowering, elemental force—he seemed at times to brood, big-eared, big-nosed, huge, over the entire American political landscape—and because of the unusual degree to which the workings of that personality were (perhaps not on the surface, but in reality) unencumbered by philosophy or ideology. It was also during Johnson’s Presidency that there developed the widespread mistrust of the President that was symbolized by the phrase, coined during his administration, “credibility gap.” And if, during the long evolution from a “constitutional” to an “imperial” Presidency, there was a single administration in which the balance tipped decisively, it was the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Both these latter developments, which were to affect the nation’s history profoundly, were to a considerable extent a function of this one man’s personality.

Knowledge of the inner workings of Lyndon Johnson’s character illuminates a Presidency; knowledge of the broader outlines of his life illuminates far more. For the drama of his life—and of the lives, so inextricably linked with his, of his father and grandfather—was played out against a panorama vast in scope: the panorama of the westward movement in America, and particularly in America’s Southwest. The story of Lyndon Johnson is the story of the slow settlement of endless, empty, fearsomely hostile plains and hills with the “dog-run” log cabins of families who would for generations that added up to a century remain not only poor—bereft of modern machinery, of electricity, of a thousand amenities urban America took for granted—but isolated: cut off from the rest of America. Lyndon Johnson grew up
in the Hill Country of Texas during the 1920s, the Age of Radio, the Age of the Movies. But there were few movies, and almost no radios—and no paved roads and no electricity and so little money that the economy was basically an agricultural barter economy—in the Hill Country during the 1920s, or, indeed, during the 1930s. And the story of Lyndon Johnson is, in microcosm, the story of how, at last, government, deaf for generations, finally, during the New Deal, during the Age of Roosevelt, answered the pleas of impoverished farmers for help in fighting forces too big for them to fight alone. The story of Lyndon Johnson is the story of the great dams that tamed the rivers of the West, and turned their waters into electric power—for it was because of Lyndon Johnson that great dams were built in the Hill Country. And the story of Lyndon Johnson is the story of the electric wires, gleaming silver across dun-brown plains and hills, which linked the life of the West, as railroads had linked its commerce, to the rest of America—for it was Lyndon Johnson who brought those wires to the Hill Country. When, in 1937, at the age of twenty-eight, Johnson became their Congressman, Hill Country farmers were still plowing their fields with mules because they could not afford tractors. Because they had no electricity, they were still doing every chore by hand, while trying to scratch a living from soil from which the fertility had been drained decades before. They were still watching their wives made stooped and old before their time by a life of terrible drudgery, a life that seemed, as one Hill Country woman put it, “out of the Middle Ages.” Four years later, the people of the Hill Country were living in the twentieth century. Lyndon Johnson had brought them there.

15.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Gossie Plays Hide and Seek by Olivier Dunrea
Texas Weddings 3 & 4 by Janice Thompson
La voz del violín by Andrea Camilleri
Insidious by Aleatha Romig
Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson
Flame and Slag by Ron Berry
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton