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LBJ bios: Caro or Dallek?Biographies of President Johnson


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#1 canbelto

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Posted 09 July 2006 - 06:54 AM

I really want to find out more about Lyndon Johnson, a political character that fascinates me. However, it seems as if there are two dueling biographies:
1. Robert Dallek's two-part biography
2. Robert Caro's 4-book saga, of which only three volumes have been written.

Has anyone read both of these books? I've heard that Caro's books are well-written but Dallek's book more "fair and balanced." Anyone care to comment?

#2 Helene

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Posted 09 July 2006 - 09:17 AM

I haven't read Dallek, but I think all three of Caro's books are well worth reading. They are beautifully written, and in the first two, Caro does not pull punches. In the third, I felt that he was giving Johnson more moral credit for civil rights, despite the picture he paints of Johnson in all three books that, in my opinion, contradicts this. He may want to believe, in order to set up the tragic fall with Vietnam in the last volume. It makes a more classic story.

Caro does have his heroes, and paints a mythical Coke Stevenson. Even though you know the ending, the chapters on Johnson's stolen Senate race with Stevenson is a nailbiter to the end. The beginnings of modern media politics are described vividly, and the books give a greater understanding of the power that Brown and Root wields today.

Caro's other protagonists and heroes are more unsung and unusual: the unforgiving landscape, the Texas wives who had to do laundry without electricity. He contrasts the very few times that the Senate's braking effect -- fully intended by the Founding Fathers -- was critical, to the vast majority of the time that it provided a very thick wall, particularly against racial justice.

One of the crowning pieces of the trilogy is the description, by a Johnson aide, of Johnson's father's funeral. It says volumes about the father and son and their place in Texas history.

#3 dirac

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Posted 10 July 2006 - 10:03 AM

I have not read Dallek, either, although I understand his book was written in part as a corrective to Caro.

Caro excels at following the money and explaining complex political and financial transactions, but Caro and LBJ are not as good a fit of writer with subject as Caro and Robert Moses were. He lacks humor and a good feel for the flavor of the political culture from which Johnson sprang. There is a penchant for melodramatic contrasts (Johnson has a Good Side and a Dark Side – it’s just like Star Wars) and he’s good at telling a story – perhaps a little too good. He loves stand alone sentences like, "And he did." This does little or no damage to the first volume of his biography, the best in my opinion and the one that contains the eloquent passages about the difficulty of life in the Hill Country Helene mentions, but it mars the second and third. (The second volume, on the Senate race, is the weakest; as noted by Helene, Caro makes claims for Johnson’s rival Coke Stevenson that don’t hold up, and you’d think LBJ was the first politician in Texas to steal votes; Caro goes on and on and on about how Johnson stretched the rules till they broke, but you feel he’s trying too hard.) Caro’s claims about Johnson’s role in the passing of civil rights legislation are not inflated, although some of his rhetoric is. Why Lady Bird never hit him on the head with one of the frying pans she had to cart back and forth from one house to another is something I'll never understand, though. :)

Good luck, and happy reading!

#4 canbelto

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Posted 10 July 2006 - 01:38 PM

Ok well it looks like I will have to read both, Caro for the storytelling, Dallek probably for the objectivity. Usually for biographies I care more about objectivity than storytelling, but I've heard so many good things about the Caro biographies.

As an aside, I personally am firmly of the opinion that LBJ might have been an extremely unpleasant and amoral person, but that he was not some Senator Darth Vader either. I've read so many essays describing the "power" he had, as if the 99 other senators were just puppets in LBJ's Star Wars, episode 3. The thing that's so funny about those essays describing his all-encompassing power is that inevitably they don't explain: if he had all these magical abilities to control Everyone Around Him, then why was he so "powerless" when he was VP?

Does anyone have any more political biographies to recommend? I always enjoyed Fawn Brodie's bio on Thomas Jefferson, despite the outdated psychotherapy. And Joe Lash's "Eleanor and Franklin."

#5 Helene

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Posted 10 July 2006 - 01:45 PM

I've read so many essays describing the "power" he had, as if the 99 other senators were just puppets in LBJ's Star Wars, episode 3. The thing that's so funny about those essays describing his all-encompassing power is that inevitably they don't explain: if he had all these magical abilities to control Everyone Around Him, then why was he so "powerless" when he was VP?

That is precisely what Caro covers in the third book, Master of the Senate. To understand why these roles conflicted, Caro gives an understanding of the institution of the Senate and its aims, and why Johnson was an immediate outsider the moment he became VP. He was rather surprised by this development himself.

#6 dirac

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Posted 10 July 2006 - 02:12 PM

The subject of Johnson’s unhappy tenure as Vice President and his fraught relationship with the Kennedy brothers, particularly Robert, is also discussed in many other sources, such as the numerous books on the Kennedy administration.

I would also add that Dallek wouldn’t necessarily be more “objective” than Caro. He would have a different approach and a different view.

#7 carbro

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Posted 10 July 2006 - 02:46 PM

Does anyone have any more political biographies to recommend?

Read Walter Isaacson's bio of Ben Franklin. It is probing, thorough and written in breezy, conversational style.

I always enjoyed Fawn Brodie's bio on Thomas Jefferson, despite the outdated psychotherapy. And Joe Lash's "Eleanor and Franklin."

Brodie's bio of TJ failed in an important regard for me. What I need from a biography is a sense of what it's like to be in the subject's presence. However, the more I've read about Jefferson, and the more I've learned from living, this may not have been Brodie's fault. Apparently, on the personal level, he cultivated a certain inscrutibility.

However, I got a fair dose of that feeling when an exhibition I visited displayed a letter from TJ to Benj. Rush. Pres. As the partisan rift in his cabinet was growing, Pres. Washington prevailed upon Jefferson to invite Alexander Hamilton to Monticello to try to make nice. Jefferson wrote:

Another incident took place . . . , which will further delineate Mr. Hamilton's political principles. The room being hung around with a collection of the portraits of remarkable men, among them were those of Bacon, Newton and Locke, Hamilton asked me who they were. I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced, naming them. He paused for some time: "the greatest man," said he, "that ever lived, was Julius Caesar." Mr. Adams was honest as a politician, as well as a man; Hamilton honest as a man, but, as a politician, believing in the necessity of either force or corruption to govern men.

I could almost see the rolling of his eyes and hear the mixture of exasperation and contempt in his voice. :)

#8 Helene

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Posted 10 July 2006 - 02:52 PM

I liked Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton a lot, as well as Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers. I disliked the much lauded David McCullough biography of John Adams; I had to force myself to finish it.

#9 canbelto

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Posted 10 July 2006 - 03:39 PM

Brodie's bio of TJ failed in an important regard for me. What I need from a biography is a sense of what it's like to be in the subject's presence. However, the more I've read about Jefferson, and the more I've learned from living, this may not have been Brodie's fault. Apparently, on the personal level, he cultivated a certain inscrutibility.



I thought the Brodie biography did give a sense of Jefferson as a man, especially the letters he wrote to his daughters and also the Adamses (John and Abigail). He was a very complex person, I think. Very crafty, tough, and manipulative under that genial surface.
Oh I forgot to mention Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton as an excellent political biography. But, warning: fans of Jefferson will not be pleased.
I agree, Helene, about the Adams biography: I thought it bordered on hagiography.
Actually, come to think of it, thats my beef with many political biographies, which is that they always set the rival as a villain (or hero). Sometimes even with marriages -- Eleanor is the villainess in many biographies of FDR, while FDR is the villain of the Eleanor biographies. Ditto RFK and LBJ.
Well the dye has been set: I just ordered The Path to Power/Master of the Senate from Amazon marketplace, along with Lone Star (Dallek). I'll be busy for awhile. Anyone read Mutual Contempt (about the RFK/LBJ feud)?

And this is OT but: I learned more about TJ as a man than all the biographies in the world when I visited Monticello. We were led through the tastefully designed, cozy house. Then we went downstairs, where there was a kind of tunnel that included a kitchen and winery and servant's quarters. Even in the hot of summer, the place was cold, dark, and damp. Then we went outside to the plantation area, where there were tiny cabins set up for the slaves. Obviously Jefferson was a man of his time, but I couldn't help but feel faintly disgusted with him, especially in light of the recent DNA evidence about Sally Hemings.

#10 dirac

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Posted 10 July 2006 - 04:04 PM

Brodie's bio of TJ failed in an important regard for me. What I need from a biography is a sense of what it's like to be in the subject's presence. However, the more I've read about Jefferson, and the more I've learned from living, this may not have been Brodie's fault. Apparently, on the personal level, he cultivated a certain inscrutibility.



I thought the Brodie biography did give a sense of Jefferson as a man, especially the letters he wrote to his daughters and also the Adamses (John and Abigail). He was a very complex person, I think. Very crafty, tough, and manipulative under that genial surface.
Oh I forgot to mention Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton as an excellent political biography. But, warning: fans of Jefferson will not be pleased.
I agree, Helene, about the Adams biography: I thought it bordered on hagiography.
Actually, come to think of it, thats my beef with many political biographies, which is that they always set the rival as a villain (or hero). Sometimes even with marriages -- Eleanor is the villainess in many biographies of FDR, while FDR is the villain of the Eleanor biographies. Ditto RFK and LBJ.
Well the dye has been set: I just ordered The Path to Power/Master of the Senate from Amazon marketplace, along with Lone Star (Dallek). I'll be busy for awhile. Anyone read Mutual Contempt (about the RFK/LBJ feud)?

And this is OT but: I learned more about TJ as a man than all the biographies in the world when I visited Monticello. We were led through the tastefully designed, cozy house. Then we went downstairs, where there was a kind of tunnel that included a kitchen and winery and servant's quarters. Even in the hot of summer, the place was cold, dark, and damp. Then we went outside to the plantation area, where there were tiny cabins set up for the slaves. Obviously Jefferson was a man of his time, but I couldn't help but feel faintly disgusted with him, especially in light of the recent DNA evidence about Sally Hemings.



It might be best to keep this thread for LBJ. :) Since books about the Founders are a recurring topic in this forum, I've started another thread related to biographies of political figures.

#11 dirac

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Posted 12 July 2006 - 05:35 PM

Cutting and pasting Ed Waffle's post on Robert Caro's LBJ volumes from another thread:

This may have been covered already in other threads, but Robert Caro’s three volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is as good a political biography as I have ever read. The first volume, “The Path to Power” in enthralling—it discusses in great detail how growing up in poverty in the central Texas hill country shaped everything that LBJ did as an adult and as a politician, which cover the same years saving Johnson’s military service during World War II. The next two volumes, “Means of Ascent” and “Master of the Senate” are as meticulously researched and beautifully written as the first although the subject matter was, at least to me, a bit less interesting although the chapters in “Means of Ascent” that dealt with Johnson’s relationship with Sam Rayburn are as good as anything one can read on how power relationships develop and change.



Many ambitious young men form relationships with powerful older ones -- we call it "mentoring" these days -- but Johnson's gifts in this direction were exceptional. Caro's account of Johnson's dealings with Richard Russell of the Senate is excellent, too.


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