One of the more enjoyable aspects of reading widely in presidential history is the way these books make me rethink my preconceived notions. I assume I have a pretty solid sense of these men and their political careers. And yet I'm often surprised to discover how little I know and how mistaken I have been in my assumptions. For all his strengths, FDR turns out to be selfish and unfaithful. For all his flaws, George H.W. Bush emerges as a genuinely good and decent person. While my opinions on their policies might remain largely unchanged, my sense of these men as human beings shifts as I read more and more, diving deeper and deeper.
This has never been more challenging than reading Robert Caro's series on Lyndon Johnson. I have always thought of LBJ as a tragic figure--a man who could have been a truly great president had he made better choices regarding the war in Vietnam. I was captivated by his Great Society agenda and imagined what might have been had he been able to see it--and his presidency--through, unhindered by a costly, devastating war. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I imagined Johnson to be a great man. But I found much to admire in his abilities as an effective politician motivated by what I assumed to be good intentions.
This perspective has been fundamentally upended by Caro's depiction in The Path to Power. I've come to expect that our presidents are flawed, complicated men. But nothing in my experience compares with the revelations in Caro's book. His LBJ is willing to do anything to accumulate whatever power there is to be had at each stage of his life, regardless of how inconsequential this power appears to an outside observer. To an almost pathological degree, Johnson simply must be at the top, pulling all the strings.
When the power in question involves crucial deal making in the Senate, I can rationalize Johnson's frequent straying into less-than-ethical territory. Politicians need to bend arms and make promises if they're going to move their agenda forward. It's simply how the game is played. But when Johnson deploys the same problematic behavior within the significantly smaller stakes of his college's student government, it's hard to see his willingness to lie, cheat, and manipulate people as anything less than chilling.
And yet, rather than ruining Johnson for me, Caro's book is rapidly becoming one of my favorites. (And, yes, I know that admiring Robert Caro is a bold move. I'm not afraid to take unpopular stands, people.) Even at his harshest, Caro's treatment never comes across as a takedown or hatchet job. Instead, Caro reveals how the same qualities that lead LBJ to do something great--like bringing electricity to the impoverished residents of the Texas Hill Country--were present when he was stealing student government elections in college.
And, ultimately, this is what a great biographer/historian does. To understand the things that drove Lyndon Johnson and made him, at times, admirable, you need to see how these same qualities were put to fairly disreputable ends. Caro's project seeks to show his reader what happens when a man obsessed with power accumulates it. The key, though, is not simply how power is accumulated, but also about how it is obtained and, crucially, through what means this occurs. We may triumph at Johnson defeating Senator Richard Russell's filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but Caro wants us to know that he is employing the same cold-blooded political machinations that lead him to have his friends seduce and manipulate women for their votes in rather meaningless college elections. As Caro helps me see, you can't have the triumphant Johnson without first having the problematic schemer. And it's in recognizing all of these moments--difficult as some of them may be--that I arrive at a closer understanding of who Lyndon Johnson really was.
I don't know if I'll still admire Johnson by the time I complete Caro's epic series. But his research and writing make me confident that these books are essential reading if I want to know more about Johnson, the presidency, and the use (and abuse) of political power.