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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Power -- how it is won, used, and abused -- fascinates Robert Caro. It fascinated Lyndon B. Johnson, a born-poor son of backcountry Texas. His statement "I do understand power.... I know where to look for it, and how to use it," reflects a focused intelligence that Machiavelli would have admired.
In this third volume of his magisterial biography of the protean LBJ, Caro brilliantly analyzes his marshaling and manipulation of power. During LBJ's Senate years, as civil rights became a more urgent issue, the power of individuals to block legislation became a major issue. Opposition to civil rights, Caro notes, was the southern senators' ongoing revenge for Gettysburg, a defense of the mythologized southern way of life: gentility in the big house, obedient blacks in field and factory, and respect for God, woman, and tradition.
Caro provides an unforgettable account of LBJ's self-serving late-hour conversion to the Constitution and decency and demonstrates how -- by promise, threat, and trade-off -- he used his power as majority leader to steer the 1957 Civil Rights Bill into law. Caro's explorations of hearts and minds, particularly senators', are unrivaled. Courteous, unyielding Richard Russell; anti-Semitic James Eastland; honorable Paul Douglas; visionary Hubert Humphrey; brilliant Bobby Baker; underrated John Connally -- they and a myriad of others people a Darwinian world. Caro pitches his readers into their gut-felt emotions, into the nation's diverse hopes, fears, and needs. He demonstrates that politics is the art of getting bills passed. When simple, legislation is seldom fair, and vice versa; hence the endless add-ins and strikeouts that accompany congressional enactment of a law.
There are a dozen histories here: the Senate, the committee system, parliamentary procedure, states' rights, voter registration, the Johnson clan, political skullduggery, and more, all intensively researched and wonderfully told. Driving the narrative, energizing every issue, manipulating every situation, is the dynamic, ego-fueled LBJ, the flawed giant and divided personality who could within an hour lovingly cradle a Hispanic child and coarsely abuse his wife, who sought back-at-the-ranch simplicity while ruthlessly manipulating policy and process.
LBJ won the battle for civil rights legislation -- laws that reshaped the nation. He deserves a biographer of the prizewinning Caro's energy and brilliance. (Peter Skinner)
Peter Skinner lives in New York City.