Sunday, November 21, 2004

Because, y'know, I felt like I wasn't getting enough political saturation coverage these last few months, I decided to dive into the first volume of Robert A. Caro's acclaimed biography series of Lyndon Johnson. I'm a big presidential history buff, but this is one biography I hadn't gotten around to reading. Just finished the hefty 750-page first volume, "The Path To Power", the other day, and found it fascinating stuff.

President Johnson is one of those character that most of us born post-1970 or so know by reputation only. His two biggest legacies are probably Vietnam and the Civil Rights Act. Yet he was a lifelong politician, a driven fella who worked himself into a fatal heart attack by age 64. Caro does an amazing job bringing LBJ to life in book one, and perhaps what's most interesting about "Path To Power," which spends hundreds of pages only covering the first 35 or so years of LBJ's life, is that his subject is clearly a borderline sociopath. You pretty much have to despise the LBJ you read about here, a gladhanding, sycophantic, plotting and utterly power-obsessed young man who is determined to become the first Southern president since the Civil War. Yet Caro's skill is that he makes his subject compelling reading anyway, and while LBJ's oily character turns you off, you can't stop reading about him. You grudgingly respect LBJ's incredible political skills, first evidenced in college and later as a driven congressional aide, and finally a congressman himself. He's the kind of guy everyone knows -- bragging, puffed-up and utterly insecure, coming from desperately poor background in Texas's impoverished "Hill Country" but rising to become the most powerful man in the world (and then a truly Shakespearean fall from grace as hubris and ego caught up to him). Caro digresses winningly a lot in this big ol' book to set his scene, bringing the Austin area of the 1920s and 1930s to life, detailed segments about political bargaining, Texas politics and the heart-wrenching strain of running for office in pre-wired days. It's an astounding work of research and craft. Sick of politics or not, "The Path To Power" is gripping reading about how the system works, and one of the best political biographies I've ever read. Looking forward to working my way through the two remaining volumes (a fourth and final one is still being written) in coming months.

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