By Chet Yarbrough
Means of Ascent
By: Robert A. Caro
Narrated by: Grover Gardener
Robert Caro is a great biographer but his history of the early years of Lyndon Johnson is diminished by his political idealism.
Politics is the pursuit of power. Some pursue that power by any means necessary. Others may be less constrained, but the goal is the same–To Be Elected to Rule.
Caro shows the young Johnson as a Machiavellian politician in the vein of Donald Trump but without a silver spoon. History shows Johnson and Trump are willing to lie their way to power. Both are willing to do whatever it takes. Caro shows Johnson, like Trump, are bullies who intimidate subordinates to get what they want. There is no moral or ethical line that these two ex-Presidents would not cross to stay in power. Trump lost his second term because of rejection by the voters, and Johnson resigned because of embarrassment by Americans who opposed the Vietnam war.
Caro reveals Johnson’s bullying treatment of his wife and people who report to him.
Caro shows Johnson is far superior at getting his way when compared to Trump. Caro notes Johnson stole his first election to the Senate from former governor of Texas, Coke R. Stevenson.
Coke R. Stevenson (1888-1975, Former governor of Texas, died at age 87.)
Without big money contributors like Brown (of Brown and Root) to pay monitors to stuff ballot boxes in San Antonio, Texas, Lyndon Johnson would have lost. With a legal maneuver by Johnson’s friend, Abe Fortas, and illegal help from election monitors, Johnson beats Stevenson for election to the Senate by 97 votes. (Fortas became an Associate Supreme Court Justice appointed by Johnson in 1965. He resigned in disgrace for unethical practice in 1969.)
In every election, the elected is beholding to someone. Caro notes Brown and Root received a great deal of federal and State financed work in Texas because of Johnson’s support.
Johnson is shown to be a consummate politician, a good storyteller with the ability to persuade superiors like the leader of the House of Representatives, Sam Rayburn, to support his ideas. This is no small thing because Rayburn is history’s longest serving Speaker of the House, with possibly more power and influence than any past or modern Speakers of the House.
Sam Rayburn (1882-1961, 43rd Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.)
President Johnson, as the Senate Leader kissing the head of Sam Rayburn.
Caro notes Johnson uses his 6-foot, 2.5-inch height, to dominate associates who are either reporting, beholding, or superior to him.
Johnson is shown to be extraordinarily energetic when pursuing power. Caro explains how Johnson uses helicopter visits to Texas communities when he runs for the Senate against Stevenson. Johnson works himself into a frenzy that makes him ill (recurring kidney stones) because of an indefatigable need to do everything he can to be elected.
In Johnson’s presence, many were awed by his stories, even when they knew the stories were lies or gross exaggerations. During the war years, Caro notes how Johnson appeals to Texas voters by claiming he will go to the front to fight Germany and Japan. To fulfill that pledge, he accompanies a “band of brothers” flying a bombing mission on a Japanese island off the coast of Australia.
Johnson’s (Observer Mission in Austrailia during WWII.)
Caro explains Johnson’s only direct combat experience is as an observer in Australia.
In Caro’s telling, the mission did occur. There is great danger. The plane is damaged by enemy gun fire. Caro’s research shows Johnson maintains a cool demeanor during the flight. Johnson plays no combatant role in the mission. But, he was an observer on the plane when it is strafed by the Japanese.
Caro notes the story of the flight is changed many times. In Johnson’s retelling he explains he is a hero who fought in many bombing raids, a lie. Caro dispels Johnson’s brave hero characterization by telling of Johnson’s childhood that shows him to be a physical coward. Caro interviews former childhood friends who recall Johnson’s cowardice. When confronted with violence, Johnson is reported to lay down and kick his feet out to ward off anyone who might attack him.
Caro notes Johnson’s will power is extraordinary when it comes to doing whatever it takes to be elected to public office.
Caro’s research suggests Johnson is a focused and relentless seeker and user of power. Johnson could use his position for either good or bad depending on whether it increased or diminished his power. One example Caro gives is Johnson’s rejection of an oil interest offered to him by a constituent. It could make him rich. Johnson’s concern is it would diminish his chances for election to higher office if he were recognized as an oil interest’ owner.
In contrast to the oil interest rejection, Caro shows how Johnson acquires a radio station to become a source of income for his family and a tool for his political ambition. Johnson had been appointed to the FCC as a junior congressman. He used his influence with the FCC to acquire and grow the radio station, with his wife as the holder of record. A competitor is shut out of buying that station through Johnson’s influence with the FCC. The FCC also expedites the gift of a popular frequency that widely expands the radio station’s area of coverage in Texas.
Lady Bird and her ownership of KTBC in Texas.
“Means of Ascent” is not Caro’s finest work. Johnson is painted too harshly in the context of American Democracy.
Like America’s experience with Trump, there is much to hate about Johnson’s rise to the Presidency.
The reality is–Democracy is a messy process that brings both good and bad leaders to the world.