Picks and Pans Review: Means of Ascent

updated 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Robert A. Caro

Fascinating, colorful, convincingly documented and profoundly depressing in its depiction of ruthlessness triumphant, this is the second volume of Caro's biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Like the first volume, 1982's The Path to Power, this book is relentless in its portrayal of Johnson as an unscrupulous, hateful man, admirable only in the clarity of his ambitions and his resourcefulness in achieving them.

Johnson supporters can indeed make a credible argument that Caro's tone is that of a writer who can barely restrain his personal hostility toward his subject. That hostility runs from referring to the large size of Johnson's nose twice on one page to writing, "Issues, to Johnson, had never been anything more than campaign fodder; caring about none himself, he had, in every campaign he had run, simply tested, and discarded, one issue after another until he found one which, in his word, 'touched'—influenced—voters."

So painstaking was Caro's research, however, that it's hard to question his conclusions. Covering the years from 1941 to 1948, this volume highlights a number of formative events. There was Johnson's surprising defeat in the 1941 Texas senatorial race, when his opponent outhornswoggled him. He learned a lesson he didn't forget.

There was his service as a Navy officer during World War II, when, after struggling to avoid combat, he finally flew as an observer on one bombing raid in the Pacific. There was his use of his influence as a congressman to obtain and then build up the Austin, Texas, radio station that made him a millionaire.

Running throughout is Johnson's emotionally brutal treatment of Lady Bird, whom he constantly browbeat and betrayed in a long-standing affair with Alice Glass, mistress of a political benefactor.

The bulk of the book, though, is devoted to Johnson's campaign for the 1948 Democratic nomination in the Texas senatorial primary. Johnson was desperate. He knew that if he lost this race, his hopes for higher office would be dim. But his opponent, former Gov. Coke Stevenson, seemed unbeatable. Caro dwells on Stevenson's virtues, six times using the words "legend" or "legendary" in referring to him. (The author's excessive adulation of Stevenson, in fact, raises doubt about his objectivity toward Johnson and is one of this book's two weaknesses; the other is that, at 506 pages, it is at times repetitive and less than carefully edited.)

There's no denying the drama of the race, though, with Stevenson waging a folksy campaign, sometimes on horseback, while Johnson spent massive sums, investing heavily in opinion polls and campaigning sometimes by helicopter.

Caro expands on overwhelming evidence that Johnson's victory margin included hundreds if not thousands of phony votes. In 1948 LBJ was sworn in as a senator, rebuilding the momentum that would eventually take him to the White House.

Caro has been working on this biography for 14 years. But as arduous as it must be for him to write, his is an ultimate achievement. This biography is as exciting to read as any novel; it is an invaluable contribution to understanding our history and ourselves in its insights into the ways in which a political system can be perverted and into the personalities of those who do the perverting. (Knopf, $24.95)

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