Not toilet reading, even though about LBJ.
June 29, 2010 9:27 PM   Subscribe

Recommend the best LBJ biography!

I find LBJ a fascinating figure and want my wife to read about him - and I wouldn't mind learning myself. But I haven't been following the scholarship and have no idea what to recommend.

What I am not looking for:

1) I'm not looking for something that's going to be seven volumes filled with millions of footnotes.

2) I'm not looking for something that will cost $500 and need 6 months lead time to order.

I'm hoping for decent and lively writing without excessive jargon and multiple subclauses. I'm looking for something that would have a bit broader context so that one can understand LBJ and his times, rather than merely focusing on the minutia exclusively pertaining to him. Of particular interest is his maneuvering and tactics in the House and Senate before he became VP, though of course, I'm also hoping for good coverage of his presidency.

It can be a decent size tome, perhaps even up to a couple of volumes, but not really more. Under $100 used or new would be nice, and hopefully readily available for purchase.
posted by VikingSword to Education (21 answers total)
Robert Caro's three volumes (so far) are amazing, especially the first (The Path to Power) and the third (Master of the Senate).

These are long, but really worth it. As far as LBJ goes, nothing else comes close. Keep in mind, though, that they are generally negative and the volumes published so far stop, chronologically, when he becomes VP.

But really, read them. He's more fascinating than you think.
posted by ecab at 9:31 PM on June 29, 2010

Also I should note that Master of the Senate is an absolutely awesome on LBJ as Senate tactician and as a history of the Senate more broadly.
posted by ecab at 9:32 PM on June 29, 2010

ecab, stop, you're getting me excited :)

anyone else? I'm a bit worried about the "negative" part, I'm not really looking for a critique, more a "these are the facts", i.e. not advocacy bios.
posted by VikingSword at 9:35 PM on June 29, 2010

Robert Caro's 3 vol. biography of Johnson is outstanding and does what you describe in terms of context. Yes, there are gazillions of footnotes but they're really endnotes and you can just ignore them since they're not in the text itself.

1. The Path to Power covers Johnson's childhood through his 1941 Senate campaign.
2. Means of Ascent starts where The Path to Power ended and goes up through Johnson's 1948 election to the Senate.
3. Master of the Senate covers his career in the Senate through his election as JFK's vice-president. No shortage here of descriptions of his tactics and maneuvering.

Caro projects a 4th volume (covering Johnson's presidency) but since there were 8 years between volumes 1 (1982) and 2 (1990) and twelve years between volumes 2 and 3 (2002), I wouldn't hold my breath. All three volumes are great, I think Master of the Senate is a pretty extraordinary work of scholarship and biography.
posted by Wisco72 at 9:38 PM on June 29, 2010

I wouldn't say the books are negative, exactly, but they're sure not hagiography.

Caro doesn't sugarcoat Johnson's ambition or his ego or his willingness to lie, cheat, or steal (elections) or his incredibly capacity for cruelty and manipulation but he also does a great job of showing him as a committed teacher of disadvantaged students, a charismatic leader whose subordinates both adored and feared him, and a brilliant tactician and strategist. Generally, I think Caro's claim would be that Johnson's effectiveness was rooted, at least in large part, in some of his less-attractive qualities and you can't understand how he got things done (or why he wanted to do them) without understanding that those qualities were part and parcel of the man.
posted by Wisco72 at 9:44 PM on June 29, 2010

Caro has written, I think, four books: one long biography of Robert Moses and three volumes of a bio of LBJ. Three of these four have won pulitzers (Moses and the first and third volumes of LBJ). He's a great writer, and meticulous in his study of his subjects, but he is fascinated by a very specific type of person: both Moses and LBJ, by his reckoning, are individuals who were innately intelligent and power hungry and who were willing to do quite nearly anything to gain power for its own sake. This makes them really interesting, but not necessarily good people. Thus, Caro's take on both of them is negative in the sense that he thinks that a lot of the things that might be considered "good" broadly were done for base motives - power.

That said, the books are not, in my opinion, polemical. They are incredibly thorough and you can decide for yourself whether you agree with Caro's take. For my own part, I'm a liberal Texan who loves LBJ for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and so I feel a great deal more warmth towards Johnson than I think Caro does, but I still loved the books (except for the second, which I think portrayed Coke Stevenson in an unfairly positive light).

Context is what really sets these books apart. In the first volume, there is a chapter called "Sad Irons" which is quite possibly the best history of the Texas Hill Country (where Johnson's family came from) that has ever been written. Later, there is what amounts to a mini-biography of another of my favorite Texans, Sam Rayburn, the longest serving Speaker of the House in history. Master of the Senate, similarly, goes into a great deal of depth on subjects like Sen. Russel and the history of Senate Majority Leaders, such that you really understand just how powerful LBJ really was.
posted by ecab at 9:45 PM on June 29, 2010

This question seemed tailormade for the Caro biography. I wouldn't let the negative thing bother you.
He made his name with the Power Broker, his biography of Robert Moses and has been accused of being both too negative and too sympathetic with Moses.
posted by minkll at 9:46 PM on June 29, 2010

Sorry to keep posting, but this is one of my favorite topics. Here is an excerpt of "Sad Irons" -- it should give you a feel for the style [it's a direct link to a .doc file].
posted by ecab at 9:53 PM on June 29, 2010

Caro's books are excellent. I would say they're uncompromisingly frank rather than negative.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:57 PM on June 29, 2010

All right, all right, I cave. I'll get the 3 Caros. I must admit I'm a bit shocked to hear that there's only one game in town though (Caro), on as major a figure as LBJ. Live and learn, I guess.
posted by VikingSword at 10:02 PM on June 29, 2010

Thank you everyone, I guess I should mark all of you as best answers. Is the question resolved, or is there going to be a late entry to open up the game :) ?
posted by VikingSword at 10:03 PM on June 29, 2010

I'm still voting for the Caro but if you want a one-volume bio that does a good job on the people involved and the strategy/tactics Johnson used to get the first (1957) civil rights bill through the Senate, Robert Mann's The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, and the Struggle for Civil Rights fits the bill.

Mann covers all three figures in some depth and made me want to know more about them. But a ton of what he has to say about Russell and Johnson comes from Caro so this is maybe just a re-endorsement of those books.

As for the absence of other contenders, it's hard to imagine a biographer wanting to go up against Caro's achievement in these books. Certainly one can quibble and argue about how he shades some of the tales but they are astonishing works of scholarship.
posted by Wisco72 at 10:10 PM on June 29, 2010

Haven't read the Caro biography, but based on The Power Broker, which I *have* read, from cover to cover, I would recommend anything the man has written.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:32 PM on June 29, 2010

Not sure if this is what you're looking for, but in addition to Master of the Senate, I would check out the text (and audio, if you like) of a famous civil rights speech LBJ gave before congress as president in 1965:
posted by goodnight moon at 10:50 PM on June 29, 2010

Master of the Senate is one of my all-time favourite books. It's essentially one big case-study of Machiavellian observations put to practical use. Robert Caro is pretty incredible.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:35 PM on June 29, 2010

Nthing the Caro. I read them for free at my local library. They are sprightly, despite their length. Understanding the minutiae and maneuvering *is* understanding the man, alas.
posted by gregglind at 4:38 AM on June 30, 2010

Sounds like you've already been convinced, but I just wanted to add a nth to the Caro. I'd decided to read these books not out of some intrinsic interest in LBJ, but because I'd always heard of them as great biographical writing.

I couldn't put The Path to Power down; it read like a novel to me. In fact, it's a weird thing, but I'm currently reading East of Eden and it occurs to me there's something similar in the two books...perhaps it's the emphasis on telling the story of the land and place as a shaper of identities.

At any rate, can't recommend Caro (or East of Eden) enough.
posted by Bourbonesque at 8:18 AM on June 30, 2010

If I had only a few books to take with me to a deserted island, I would skip "How to Survive on a Desert Island" and read the 3 books about LBJ by Caro. My all time favorite books I have ever read, and I am a voracious and diverse reader.
posted by Senator at 10:23 AM on June 30, 2010

You might want to check out Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential biographer and former lover of LBJ. I'm not sure if she has written a book specifically about him but you will be able to find passages in her other works.
posted by custard heart at 5:15 PM on June 30, 2010

I am fascinated by LBJ. I've read many of the books listed here. Joseph Califono did a great book on LBJ that gives a little more personal insight on the man. Here's a link to the book -- you can get it used for 1 cent! Michael Beschloss has two great books of LBJ transcripts -- here's a link to that! This is available for 1 cent also -- plus shipping of course. One of my favorite LBJ anecdotes concerns his discussion with George Wallace -- go here and click on view transcripts. Richard Goodwin, who really didn't care for LBJ (as much as he did Kennedy) wrote one of the greatest speeches in American history for LBJ. The speech on civil rights. That speech is here.
posted by gilast at 11:24 AM on July 5, 2010

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:10 PM on July 12, 2010

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