As I have previously written, I am becoming a gigantic Robert A. Caro fan. His writing is phenomenal. I have a goal to read all of his biographies. I just finished Path to Power, the first book in his Years of Lyndon Johnson series. The four-volume series (the fifth book is still being written), comes in at over 3,000 pages and is an in-depth look into the life of Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president of the United States of America.
Caro has spent much of the last 40 years combing through documents in the Lyndon Johnson library and conducting interviews with thousands of people who interacted and knew the former president. His research has painted a highly detailed picture of the complicated man who served as President, Vice President, Senate Majority Leader, and as a member of the House.
Many political historians consider Lyndon Johnson to be the most effective Senate Majority leader of all time. He gained immense political power during his lifetime. Caro is obsessed with learning how someone gains political power. He wrote The Power Broker about how Robert Moses became one of the most politically powerful men in New York City history. With his Lyndon Johnson Series, he has set out to explain the political power Lyndon Johnson amassed.
The Path to Power chronicles the early life of Lyndon Johnson. I will give a summary of some of the key times and places of Johnson’s life.
Texas Hill Country
Lyndon Baines Johnson was born on August 27th, 1908, in Stonewall, Texas which is near Johnson City, Texas. His birthplace resides in what is known as the Texas Hill Country. To be honest, before reading Path to Power, I never knew this part of America existed. Because of Caro’s ability to describe a setting, I feel intimately acquainted with the Hill Country. As I read through these chapters I was fascinated by the Hill Country. I spent a lot of time searching the internet to learn more about the Texas Hill Country.
Robert Caro spends a few chapters to tell the history of the Texas Hill Country. He describes the Hill Country as “the trap”. When settlers in Texas began pushing farther west they began to settle in the Edwards Plateau, which is the geographic name for the Hill Country. The land was layered with grass, though they later realized it was only an illusion. The grass had found root after centuries of lying undisturbed. But, as Caro describes, it took only one bad year to destroy. These farmers and ranchers came to the Hill Country to prosper but were stuck with unproductive land. In reality, It was rocky land with poor topsoil.
Life for these farmers of early 20th century America was lonely and hard. There was no electricity. There was no American prosperity. Your neighbors were miles away. Caro says the thousands of farmers in the area were living a life almost as bleak as peasants living in the Middle Ages.
The average family in the Hill Country used 200 gallons of water a day. On average the well was located 250 feet from the house. Just to haul water it would take 63 8-hour days, and the women (it was almost always women who were tasked with this chore) would walk 1,750 miles.
It was in this forgotten part of America where Lyndon Johnson was formed. His father was a former popular politician who made some bad business deals. As a result, Johnson grew up poorer than most in the Hill Country. He had a burning desire to escape “the trap”.
Southwest Texas State Teachers College
The next major place of Lyndon Johnson’s life was in San Marcos, Texas. This was home to Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Texas State University). San Marcos is on the eastern fringe of the Texas Hill Country, and around 50 miles from Johnson’s boyhood home.
It was on the campus here where Lyndon Johnson began to build his ambitions. He had three major goals in his life at this time; become a Congressman, be master of the senate (i.e. Senate Majority Leader), and be elected President of the United States of America. He wasn’t as vocal about being president, but it seems very clear that that was his ultimate destination. He knew the top of the ladder he wanted to climb and was determined to do anything to progress upwards to his goal.
The interesting thing about Lyndon’s time here is that he was not particularly well-liked on campus. His arrogance and hubris rubbed others the wrong way. But he was able to build power despite this. He won the loyalty of the president of the college. He founded a secret political group called the White Stars, which he used to influence campus politics.
After college, Johnson had a brief stint as a high school teacher at Sam Houston High. He was popular at the high school, but he quickly began looking for his next job.
His opportunity came after Richard Kleberg made him his congressional secretary. Most of the day to day duties were delegated to Johnson. He became the speaker of the “little congress.” It was during this time when Johnson began to network. Caro mentions many times about Johnson’s knack to win the hearts of powerful men. Men such as fellow Texas congressman Sam Rayburn. Caro believes that Johnson fulfilled a paternal need in these congressmen (Rayburn never had any children).
One interesting tidbit from this period is that it was as a congressional secretary where Johnson began his habit of directing his assistants to dictate for him while he was sitting on the toilet. A practice he supposedly continued to use as President.
In 1937, congressman James Buchanan died, which left an opening in Texas’s 10th congressional district. Johnson decided to run for the opening in the special election that followed Buchanan’s death. He was considered a longshot (he was still in his twenties!). However, Texas’s 10th congressional district covered not only the city of Austin but also the Texas Hill Country. Johnson worked harder than any of the candidates. Day and night he was working through the rural areas of the district.
The distances between towns meant many hours in his car. His chauffeur commented that Johnson was always having conversations with himself. He would say things such as, “Boy, you really messed that one up.” He would review every conversation he had with those he met.
The books says “It wasn’t the people of the cities who elected him, but it was the people from the forks of the creeks… The polls had not shown his strength at the forks of the creeks. For no poll bothered with the people of the forks of the creeks, as no candidate visited them. But Lyndon Johnson had visited these people and they had sent him to congress.” Johnson ended up winning with over 60 percent more votes than the next highest opponent.
As a congressman, he immediately began to help the Texas Hill Country. He brought them libraries and electricity. Electric companies didn’t want to go to the Hill Country. Their forecasting models told them they wouldn’t recoup their investments if they built out to the Hill Country. But Johnson convinced them otherwise and brought the Hill Country into the modern era. What the electric companies didn’t realize was providing electricity to the Hill Country would make these poor farmers more efficient. For example, a dishwasher could save hours of manual labor a week. All this extra time could be spent working the land.
He was financially backed by Herman Brown. Johnson, in turn, helped Herman Brown’s company Brown and Root (now called KBR) win the rights to build the large Marshall Ford Dam (now called the Mansfield Dam). Herman Brown was pivotal to Johnson’s success, as Johnson was to Herman Brown.
Johnson began to build his power base at this time. After three years, he became a major source of campaign funding, by being chairman of the congressional campaign committee. This allowed him to direct dollars to fellow congressmen in their reelection campaigns. Before the 1940 election, no one had ever used the power of their party to support congressmen in their individual districts. The book says “there were some 30 or 40 people, after the 1940 election, that figured they owed their seat in the house to Lyndon Johnson.”
In 1941, Johnson ran for the senate. But lost to Texas governor W. Lee O’Daniel. At the time, Texas political races were highly corrupt. Votes could be bought. Johnson made a crucial mistake of revealing how many votes he had before all of O’Daniel’s were counted. When the votes were counted in O’Daniel’s counties it was just enough for him to beat Johnson. When it was all said and done, Johnson had spent more money (largely financed by Brown and Root) than had ever been spent on a Texas political race.
There is so much in this book. Caro leaves no stone unturned. He is a master of describing the history of this time. As much as this is a biography of Johnson, it is also a telling of the history of Texas during the first half of the 20th century. I will read this book again, and I count it as one of my all-time favorite books (I’m sure the entire Lyndon Johnson series will be).
Go and read this book. Even if you think that “LBJ” isn’t interesting. I promise you he is, and that Caro is such a great writer that you will love it.