Lessons from The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro
"Explore a single individual deeply enough and truths about all individuals emerge." - Robert Caro
Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson are not only the best biographies I have ever read - and not only the best histories I have ever read. They're perhaps the best books I've ever read. Below are the main lessons I got from these four volumes about power and powerful personalities.
If you know Robert Caro, please tell him that it would be the greatest honor to interview him on my podcast, The Lunar Society.
If you do everything…
As an NYA director to whom “hours made no difference, days made no difference, nights made no difference”; as an unknown twenty-eight-year-old running his first, seemingly hopeless campaign for Congress against seven older, better-known opponents, a race in which he drove himself so ruthlessly that a fellow politician, a man who worked terribly hard himself, said, “I never knew a man could work that hard”; at every stage in his adult life—as Congressman’s secretary, Congressman, senatorial candidate—he had displayed a willingness to push to their very edge, and beyond the edge, the limits not only of politics but of himself. In every crisis in his life, he had worked until the weight dropped off his body and his eyes sunk into his head and his face grew gaunt and cavernous and he trembled with fatigue and the rashes on his hands grew raw and angry, and whenever, at the end of one more in a very long line of very long days, he realized that there was still one more task that should be done, he would turn without a word hinting at fatigue to do it, to do it perfectly. His career had been a story of manipulation, deceit, and ruthlessness, but it had also been a story of an intense physical and spiritual striving that was utterly unsparing; he would sacrifice himself to his ambition as ruthlessly as he sacrificed others. If you did “everything, you’ll win.” To Lyndon Johnson, “everything” meant literally that: absolutely anything that was necessary. If some particular effort might help, that effort would be made, no matter how difficult making it might be.
Robert Caro, Means of Ascent
There are 3 kinds of extraordinary attempts.
In the first, a person perfectly executes on the 20% of things which will produce 80% of results.
In the second, a person extends that same care and diligence to the remaining 80% of tasks, because every marginal drop of result, no matter how diminishing, is worth the squeeze.
And the third is exemplified by Lyndon Johnson, where a person not only does every single thing that might reasonably help his odds, but even the unreasonable - he accepts the assignment which has only the remotest possibility to make the difference, and he completes it with the same intensity and attention as the task which will make all the difference. If you do everything, you’ll win.
The reason why Robert Caro is able to write so compellingly about these qualities of Lyndon Johnson - his resourcefulness and ruthlessness, his inexhaustible energy, his need to win, his inability to take no for an answer - is that the biographer shares many of the attributes of the subject.
A man who has spent almost 50 years writing the biographies of a single person - who has spent those decades sifting through thousands of crates of documents in the LBJ library, or making former goons disclose how they helped Johnson steal elections, or moving to the Texas hill country, to experience for himself the poverty and loneliness of Johnson’s youth - who continues to push himself in this way past his 87th birthday, when other men would have long retired, because his last volume, the one about the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, is still unfinished - is a man who understands Johnson’s aphorism, if you do everything, you will win.
Did Lyndon Johnson manipulate people to get what he wanted? It wasn’t just an easy smile and a charming New York accent which allowed Caro to elicit damning confessions and humiliating details from the people around Johnson (including Lady Bird herself, whose testimony inadvertently helps paint her beloved late husband as a philandering amoral megalomaniac).
Did Lyndon Johnson push himself to his physical limits, and then beyond, to satisfy a lifelong ambition that was almost spiritual in its intensity? A man nearing 90 doesn’t just wake up with the physical energy to turn the next page. Something other than the physical must be motivating him.
I imagine him sitting in front of his Smith Corona typewriter, frustrated that the words no longer flow as easily as they used to, that he keeps losing his train of thought, that he fatigues much faster than he used to. I imagine him glancing at framed images of the Johnson aides he has interviewed over the decades - people with whom he had developed close friendships. And I see him remembering each of their funerals.
I used to call him [Horace Busby] day after day as I was writing to ask him if he remembered some detail I had forgotten to ask about. My typed single-space notes on our interviews are 142 pages. Buzz was one of the smartest analyzers of politics and people I ever met. We became great friends and we used to go out to dinner together. Buzz had quite a crush on Ina [Caro’s wife]. Once he had a stroke, and when he got out of the hospital, he wrote Ina a letter. He wrote that, when he was afraid he was going to die, he thought, “It will be hard on Robert, nobody else can tell him about the vice presidency.” The letter was typed; he could still type. But when he tried to sign his name in ink, he could only make a scrawling, shaky “B.” Ina cried when she saw that. I may have teared up a little, too.
Robert Caro, Working
I imagine him regretting the years he spent studying that one Senate race from the 40s that Lyndon Johnson stole from Coke Stevenson. While that race was important, did it detract from the sum of time he could dedicate to his magnum opus? Did it make the completion of the final volume impossible?
I imagine him worrying whether, in his old age, he is able to do justice to this project and his legacy. I see him picking up one of the older volumes, reading a passage of beautiful prose - and remembering the moment of clear insight and hypnotic flow from which it emerged. I see him asking himself how long it’s been since he had one of those moments, and I see him comparing that decades old excerpt to the stilted and simple writing he is able to produce in his late 80s.
And yet, he can’t rest. To surrender the task to which he has dedicated the overwhelming majority of his life, to enjoy with his wife the golden years of his life, to hand off his research notes to some young enterprising biographer - that would be unthinkable. For it was not just Lyndon Johnson who “had to win”.
But there’s one big difference between Johnson and Caro. The pages of history are crowded with the names of men who were willing to do everything for advancement, for money, or for fame. I understand how people could be so resourceful - ruthless even - for power. But how likely are you to find someone who has the intensity and ambition of a Napoleon or Alexander, and who is willing to aim those talents towards writing a great biography? It’s like finding out that Darth Vader is using the death star to carve wooden figurines.
Men like Caro are rarer than men like Johnson, because the willingness to do everything is usually paired with an unyielding need for personal power, wealth, or status. And one of the consequences of this fact is that there will always be more great people who have lived fascinating and important lives than there are people capable of writing great biographies of them.
I remember Byrne Hobart asking who, outside of politics, would make for a great candidate for a Caro biography. If you could ask GPT-7 to write, in the style of Robert Caro, a biography of some figure in tech, science, or entertainment, what is the first name you enter into the prompt?
Robert Caro’s books are about formidable, single-mindedly devoted characters with storybook life arcs. It may be the case, then, that the only person who could write the biography of Robert Caro is the man himself.
Lyndon Johnson, as President, was perhaps the person most responsible for the advance of modern liberalism (maybe second to FDR). And yet throughout his entire pre-presidential career, he was sponsored and mentored mainly by men who were conservative, reactionary, and even racist to their core. For the first 55 years of his life, he convinced men of tremendous intellect and drive of their own that he was the scion of the Southern cause - that the only hope for that cause was to make Lyndon Johnson President. So much so that when Lyndon Johnson was Majority Leader, the Southern Senators, who at the time controlled all the important committees in Congress, allowed Johnson to pass liberal legislation they scorned because they believed it would help him become President. And, they believed, as President, Johnson would govern as a conservative, especially on the issue of race. The tragic irony and betrayal here is hard to over-emphasize. These powerful conservative men - who, while being ignorant and backwards in certain ways, were famously shrewd and intelligent - conceded on issue after issue, and campaigned with their immense political influence, for a man who ended up being the biggest liberal President since FDR.
Here is the story Caro recounts about interviewing the dying former Senator from Georgia, Herman Talmadge:
Asked about his relationship with Lyndon Johnson in the Senate, Talmadge said, “At first, for years, I liked him. He spent a lot of time cultivating me—hours and hours.” They would talk about “everything,” Talmadge said. “Girls, hunting.” And, Talmadge said, they would talk about civil rights, and the relationships between whites and Negroes. How did Lyndon Johnson view the relationship between whites and Negroes? “Master and servant,” Talmadge replied. Well, didn’t he have any sympathy for their situation? “None indicated,” Talmadge replied.
Talmadge said that during the 1950s, Johnson would assure the southerners that they could count on him to weaken a civil rights bill as much as possible, that he was on their side on civil rights, that he had to pretend that he wasn’t, to meet the Southern Caucus as infrequently as possible, but that he really was their ally. “He would tell us, I’m one of you, but I can help you more if I don’t meet with you.” And, Talmadge said, the southerners believed him, believed that while changes in the civil rights laws were inevitable, Johnson would keep them as minor as possible, that “he was with us in his heart.”
“I believed him,” Talmadge said, but “I changed my opinion.” When? “When he was President,” Talmadge said. How did you feel then? “Disappointed,” Talmadge said. “Angry.” There was a long pause, and then he added, “Sick.” When asked, How did you feel when he said, “We shall overcome?,” Talmadge repeated, “Sick.”
The author then asked, “Did you feel that Lyndon Johnson betrayed you?” There was a longer pause. It could not have been easy for a politician as wily as Herman Talmadge to admit he had been fooled so completely. “Yes,” he finally said.
Robert Caro, Master of the Senate
I hear a lot of talk about empowering ambitious young people within Silicon Valley circles. The word “ambition” seems to have lost the suspicion with which it was treated in previous generations (for example, the Federalist papers explicitly say that the purpose of their new constitution is to “counteract”, rather than empower, ambition). This is largely a good thing - smart young people are usually quite interested in self-advancement. A society does better by aligning their self-interest with the social good than by discarding competent people altogether.
But a bit of shrewdness is warranted when you meet a brilliant 18 year old who claims to believe what you believe (who might have actually gotten himself to believe what is convenient to believe right now), and who is eager for admission, mentorship, a grant, or an open role.
A professor in college once told me that you don’t really understand a proof until you see all the alternative ways in which it could have been constructed. The same is true for history - to understand a place and time is not only to know what happened, but to understand what could have happened instead, and what historical dynamics picked our timeline over the counterfactuals.
There is a perennial debate about whether great men or great forces direct the flow of history. This debate is too big for a single story to provide anything but an anecdote. But nonetheless we proceed.
The unexpected death of a president provides the closest thing to a natural experiment that history can offer. In an instant, one man is substituted for another - and how much the man matters (in comparison to the forces around him) becomes obvious rather quickly based on how different are the results he can obtain. The civil rights movement in America had been building up for decades leading up to 1964. It was not in some obvious sense stronger in 1964 and 1965 than it was in 1963. And yet 64 and 65 saw a torrent of liberal legislation that was just a year earlier hopelessly stuck in committee.
Scoop Jackson would say that when Jack Kennedy, as President, urgently needed a senator’s vote, he would summon him to the Oval Office and “would explain precisely why the bill was so important and how much he nxeeded the senator’s support.” If, however, the senator said his constituency would not permit him to give that support, that if he gave Kennedy the vote he needed, the vote might cost him his seat in the Senate, “Kennedy would finally say he was sorry they couldn’t agree, but he understood.” Lyndon Johnson, Jackson would say—and Jackson worked closely with Johnson as Representative and Senator for twenty-five years—Lyndon Johnson wouldn’t understand, would refuse to understand. He would “charm you or knock your block off, or bribe you or threaten you, anything to get your vote,” Jackson would say. He would do anything he had to, to get that vote. “And he’d get it. That was the difference.
Robert Caro, Master of the Senate
As Vice President, Johnson had been sidelined by Kennedy. He had gone from the second most powerful person in the country as Senate Majority Leader to a humiliated showpiece, who could not even get an audience with his head of chief without waiting for months.
The scene of him returning to power - as illustrated in Volume 4, The Passage of Power - reminds me of Steve Jobs returning to Apple. Executives and product managers are called in to explain why they have been making such unthinking and obvious mistakes. Entire departments are disbanded or reorganized. Important projects which have been stuck for years are jolted into action.
At the time of Kennedy’s death, not only was the President’s Civil Rights bill hopelessly trapped somewhere in the gears of the Congressional machinery, but so were several important appropriation bills, including Kennedy’s tax cut bill, which was essential to an economic recovery.
Literally within days of the assassination, Johnson had identified why all these bills had been stuck, and he had been able to get them moving. Even as head of a separate branch of government, Johnson was able to micromanage Congress - feeding his ideas for parliamentary maneuvers to his protege Senate Majority Leader Hubert Humphrey, instructing executive agency heads to make grants to certain state projects contingent on the loyalty of that state’s representative, and renewing his relationships with the old Southern barons of the Senate, who held Johnson as their protege.
How, when confronted with evidence like this, can we claim that the great men of history are irrelevant, and that the great forces could have proceeded without them?
Lyndon Johnson’s political genius was creative not merely in the lower, technical aspects of politics but on much higher levels. And if there was a single aspect of his creativity that had been, throughout his career, most impressive, it was a capacity to look at an institution that possessed only limited political power—an institution that no one else thought of as having the potential for any more than limited political power—and to see in that institution the potential for substantial political power; to transform that institution so that it possessed such power; and, in the process of transforming it, to reap from the transformation substantial personal power for himself.
Robert Caro, Master of the Senate
In college, Johnson was blackballed by an exclusive club called the Black Stars. So he formed the White Stars, and from it, he practiced the same Machiavellian talents which he would eventually rehearse on the national stage. He would steal elections, distribute to loyal friends the patronage he earned from kissing up to administrators, and even direct members to sleep with girls in order to manipulate their votes. Who would bother doing all this to win a college election? The kind of person who could eventually win a national election.
Before Lyndon Johnson grasped for it, the Senate Majority Leadership was seen as a crown of thorns, to be avoided by anyone serious about his political career. It forced the holder to take positions on controversial proposals and bills, but did not give him the power by which to get other Senators to vote in solidarity with those positions. Before Lyndon Johnson became Majority Leader, the Senate was, as it is now, a chamber of bickering old men who would hamstring and belay any important legislation.
The men in charge of the most powerful committees in Congress - and therefore the most powerful men in Congress - were not figures of generational gravitas and wisdom, as in the time of the founders or during the reign of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster. But rather they were senile old men, unable to comprehend, much less energetically solve, the problems of a technologically advanced modern society.
The institution was becoming a joke, one that was contemptuously told. And the default punchline of the joke would be the Senate Majority Leader who was the face of this feckless chamber. More than one Majority Leader lost reelection, because he was identified in the press as the man accountable for the Senate’s failure to get anything done, and because the responsibilities of this thankless job kept him away from his state while his opponent got to attack a wide surface area of positions that a Majority Leader is forced to take. It was largely because the position of leader was seen as an embarrassing and powerless one that Johnson was able to maneuver himself into it after only four years in the Senate.
But while the Majority Leader was a crippled figurehead until Johnson, this was a disability designed by the founders4. Senators were meant to be independent and equal ambassadors for sovereign states. They were supposed to be wise, powerful, aristocratic personalities, who would, through lengthy deliberation and redrafting of bills, check the transient impulses of the majority (and of the House, which was the direct representation of the majority’s will).
Volume 3 - Master of the Senate - tells the story of how Lyndon Johnson inverted the founders’ vision for the Senate - how he converted the Majority Leadership (formerly a meaningless position that was fumbled around like a hot potato) into the seat of absolute power - how he became, behind the President, the second most powerful person in the country. It is also the story of how Lyndon Johnson made the Senate function - maybe not in the way that the founders intended it to function, but function nonetheless.
The volume about Johnson’s domination of the Senate reads a lot like the story of how modern nation states like France or Germany were formed. A powerful king disempowers provincial medieval lords, institutes top down bureaucracies, and claims the monopoly on violence.
[I]n a single day, as Newsweek reported, “the Senate passed 90 bills, confirmed an ambassador and a Federal Trade commissioner and then knocked off because it had temporarily run out of business. The elapsed time: four hours and 43 minutes. Washington was jolted to attention.” The first session of the Eighty-fourth Congress, Alsop wrote, “is certainly the most efficiently run session in recent memory.” In less than six months as Majority Leader, the youngest Majority Leader in its history, Lyndon Johnson had tamed the untamable Senate.
Robert Caro, Master of the Senate
Here are the top handful of maneuvers by which Lyndon Johnson became the master of the Senate.
Each party in the Senate had a Policy Committee, a tertiary institution whose responsibility was to give some clarity on the will of the party as a whole. But under the leadership of Johnson, the Democratic Policy Committee went from observing to deciding the will of the party. Johnson asked the heads of the Senate’s powerful standing committees (which acted as independent baronies) if they would be so kind as to advise his Policy Committee on the contents and timelines of their bills. Slowly but unmistakably, Johnson’s Policy Committee would be the one advising the standing committees, not the other way around. The Policy Committee would suggest what the bills being drafted inside these committees ought to say. It would also suggest when the bill ought to hit the floor so that it wouldn’t clash with other important legislation on the calendar. If a deal needed to be struck between two Senators for a bill to move forward, then it was not the Senators who would resolve their differences. Rather, they would come before their Majority Leader - like fighting siblings who come crying to their mommy - to iron out compromises.
Before he would bring a bill to the floor, he would make a motion for a “unanimous consent agreement.” This parliamentary device (among the many that Johnson discovered hidden in dusty rule books and transformed into instruments of control) restricted the ability of senators to debate bills or offer amendments once they were on the floor. The very raison d'etre of the Senate was to consider and alter legislation, in a studious and unhurried manner. But this lethargic pace was not acceptable to the new Majority Leader.
It wasn’t just bills which Johnson moved through the Senate - it was the Senators themselves. The Democratic Steering Committee decided who would be assigned to which committees, and who among them would be chairs of those committees. Before Lyndon Johnson became Majority Leader, these positions were filed by seniority. So that the most important committees (which were the most coveted) were filled with the oldest members, and the oldest among them would be their committee chairman. Seeing the sluggishness and inflexibility of these old men, Johnson resolved to change the system. Immediately after his ascension, the Steering Committee started selecting not the oldest candidate, but the candidate who Johnson wanted. This required of course loyalty to Johnson, but allegiance was not sufficient. These men had to be capable of pushing through the bills which Johnson needed to be pushed through. And so, for the 10 years in which Johnson was Majority Leader, merit became a greater consideration than seniority in the appointment of committee seats and chairmanships.
All of these powers reinforced each other. Because of the overwhelming control which Johnson had over what bills would say and when (or whether) they would make it to the floor, Senators would have to appeal to him directly in order to get things moving. And here is a situation engineered to produce leverage. You do not antagonize the man who will decide whether the bill authorizing a major project in your state will get added to the docket, or whether you will become chair of your committee before you become too senile to do your job. You will be asked to do favors if you want a certain vote to go one way or another. And should you obstruct the Majority Leader, you will be threatened to back down, unless you want all your future bills, projects, and committee assignments blocked. All these threats and favors built up an ever-thickening enamel of soft power on top of the sturdy marrow of parliamentary creativity.
The net effect of all these “reforms” was that bills, drafted in large part by Johnson aides from the Policy Committee, would pass through the Senate expeditiously and without complication - like a high fiber meal.
What is interesting is that Johnson accomplished each one of these maneuvers without opposition from other Senators. These were wise, shrewd men - who treasured their own power and independence, not just for its own sake but because they believed that their cherished Senate would lose its very purpose if one man could run the chamber like an orchestra.
[Johnson] accomplished this almost without conflict or opposition precisely because authority and influence of this kind had been of no significance to the exercise of Senate power and were not perceived as a potential threat to those who ruled. It did not occur to his powerful associates—respectfully consulted in every move—that from such insubstantial resources Lyndon Johnson was shaping the instruments that would make him arbiter and, eventually, the master of the United States Senate.
Robert Caro, Master of the Senate
Riches to rags
An interesting thing I’ve noticed in the biographies of great men is that their ancestry includes people of great status and power. But for tragic and random reasons, their family has fallen into poverty and humiliation by the time they are born. So there ends up being this conflict between the station they feel entitled to because of their aristocratic heritage, and the demeaning and conspicuous scarcity they have to face growing up. And the ambition of these men seems to be in large part motivated by the need to resolve this incongruity. Some notable examples:
Napoleon. The Bonapartes were a noble family on the island of Corsica. When that island was conquered by the French, the former nobility lost most of their wealth and privileges. Instead of being respected for his elite descent, young Napoleon was mercilessly bullied. He would not be found in the playground, socializing with other kids, but rather in the library, reading about the campaigns of Alexander and Caesar.
Churchill. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill made it all the way to the cabinet, but in one of the biggest blunders of British political history, threatened a resignation that, to his surprise, was accepted. Churchill was raised to believe he was part of the ruling class of Britain, and that he had inherited with his privilege a noblesse oblige. Later in his life, he wrote a four volume biography of his ancestor John Malborough, who led the allied armies from 1701 to 1710 against Louis XIV. But in reality, his childhood had little resemblance to the nobility which he thought he inherited, and his father (whom he idolized his entire life) was powerless and humiliated (not to mention negligent).
And so it was with Lyndon Johnson.
[Lyndon’s father] Sam was described as “a man of great optimism,” and to some extent that optimism was justified in Austin: popular and skillful in the legislature, he got an impressive number of laws passed. But he also had to make a living, and he had to make it in the Hill Country. And his “optimism,” his romantic, idealistic streak, kept him from looking at hard facts …
Generations before, during the 1870s and ’80s, the era of the “Cattle Kingdom,” there had been a great, sprawling Johnson Ranch along the Pedernales River … But the family had ceased making money and had lost the ranch some decades before Lyndon was born in 1908 and now, when Lyndon was about ten years old, it came on the market, and Sam Johnson determined to buy it—to re-create the original “Johnson Ranch,” to make the whole Pedernales Valley “Johnson Country” again. One reason that the ranch had been lost, however, was that its soil had worn out, had washed away when cattle grazed on it, or, later, when attempts were made to grow cotton on it, and there was no longer much soil left on top of the limestone base …
But beautiful as it was when Sam looked at it, there wasn’t going to be any way of making much money out of that land. And Sam didn’t realize that. Seeing how beautiful it was, he had this romantic dream of restoring the great Johnson Ranch, and so he believed he was going to make it pay, and, to outbid other people, he overpaid for the ranch. He paid so much that the ranch couldn’t possibly earn back what he paid for it. And very quickly, when Lyndon was fourteen, Sam went broke and lost the ranch. And a crucial element of Lyndon Johnson’s youth is a consequence of that loss: the insecurity that followed … Every month, Lyndon had to live with the fear that the bank was going to take that house away. He lived in a house in which his father, broken by his financial failure, was constantly ill, and there was often no food, and neighbors brought covered plates. Worst of all, perhaps, his father became the laughingstock of the town, an object of ridicule (“Sam Johnson is a mighty smart man. But he’s got no sense”) in the speeches given at political barbecues as his son stood listening.
Robert Caro, Working
A reader of men
There’s a theory that our ability to empathize with people originated to help us manipulate them. If we have a theory of mind about someone, we can simulate how we can get them to believe a lie, or do something for us, or feel a certain way about us.
Among old school liberals, Johnson’s empathy is legendary - he saw the plight of the poor, elderly, and colored. And he did more than any other President to help them. Among old school conservatives, what is legendary is Johnson’s ability and willingness to make people bend to his will. To powerful old men, he would posture as a son eager for his respected father’s sage advice and favor. To men who were his equals, he would cajole those whose egos were too big and threaten those whose egos were not big enough. He would craft tailor made arguments for different people that were mutually contradictory. He would tell a liberal that a moderate bill must be passed because there was no way that they could sneak through an even more liberal bill, and he would tell conservatives that if they didn’t pass the moderate version of the bill, the left-wingers were sure to ram through something totally socialist.
But what if those two talents - to empathize and to manipulate - are the same? To put yourself in someone’s shoes, to really feel what they must be feeling, is a precondition to making them feel what you want them to feel.
It may be the case that the most empathetic people are the most capable of manipulation. If you ask for an empathetic CEO, President, or husband, you are asking for a person who can access your mental state and figure out how to tweak it.
He tried to teach his young assistants to read men—“Watch their hands, watch their eyes,” he told them. “Read eyes. No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes”—and to read between the lines: more interested in men’s weaknesses than in their strengths because it was weakness that could be exploited, he tried to teach his assistants how to learn a man’s weakness. “The most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you,” he said. “The most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say.” For that reason, he told them, it was important to keep the man talking; the longer he talked, the more likely he was to let slip a hint of that vulnerability he was so anxious to conceal. “That’s why he wouldn’t let a conversation end,” Busby explains. “If he saw the other fellow was trying not to say something, he wouldn’t let it [the conversation] end until he got it out of him.” And Lyndon Johnson himself read with a genius that couldn’t be taught, with a gift that was so instinctive that a close observer of his reading habits, Robert G. (Bobby) Baker, calls it a “sense”; “He seemed to sense each man’s individual price and the commodity he preferred as coin.” He read with a novelist’s sensitivity, with an insight that was unerring, with an ability, shocking in the depth of its penetration and perception, to look into a man’s heart and know his innermost worries and desires.
Robert Caro, Master of the Senate
Johnson’s ability to read and cultivate people was strongest on old, powerful, and lonely men. These patrician figures, who influenced entire chambers of Congress, had developed, through decades of leadership, an air of stern and cold command that warded off any attempt at friendship. They had no wife or children to retire to on evenings or weekends. And Johnson knew this. So he would invite them to dinners and Saturday brunches at his home, with a tender and endearing hospitality supplied by Lady Bird. In this way, Johnson became the professional son of some of the most powerful men in the country.
The modern Prince
Caro is often asked why he has dedicated his life to writing the biographies of powerful political figures. He always responds that he wants people to understand how political power works. Because in a democracy, what matters is what the people think and want. But if you read his books, this is definitely not the message you get about how power works. Something might happen if Richard Russell, the South’s great general in the Senate, wants it - or if Sam Rayburn, the all-powerful Speaker of the House wants it - and something will definitely happen if the master of the Senate, Lyndon Johnson, wants it. But nothing ever happens just because “the people” want it.
In a fantasy novel, the magic system exists to provide background constraints on the story. But the ultimate basis and focus of the novel are the few individual main characters who move the plot forward. The democratic process in Caro’s books acts as a world-building magic system. A bill may become harder to pass if the opposite party gains a few seats. But if the main character Lyndon Johnson wants the bill to pass, then the bill will pass nonetheless.
If you asked me to identify a Straussian reading of the books, this would be it. That these volumes are not written to educate the public (who are portrayed as secondary characters anyways), but rather to train the next Lyndon Johnson. This is the modern liberal equivalent to Machiavelli’s The Prince - it is a guide for a person aligned with Caro’s politics on how to amass power in the American political system, and how to use that power to get things done the way Johnson was able to get them done. If you knew about some of the ways in which Johnson got things done, you wouldn’t treat this speculation lightly.
Many people react to the length of this collection by claiming that the insights / page can’t be that high with such a large denominator. But this is the wrong way to look at the value of a reading experience. It’s like saying that in a decades-long marriage, there can’t be that much love / day.
The lessons on power are not to be found self-contained in individual passages. What good will it do you to know the minutiae of Johnson’s parliamentary fuckery? There’s no point in reading these biographies with an uncapped highlighter between your teeth, searching for the revelatory paragraphs on how power can be acquired. The lessons come from the books as a whole - from understanding the psyche and genius of Lyndon Johnson.
I remember I was visiting India as a teenager. My uncle was talking about his son, who was studying business in the US, in the hopes that he would succeed my uncle as head of the family import/export conglomerate. My dad said something to the effect of, “You must be proud that your son is studying in the US.”
“No,” my uncle responded. “In fact, I’m a little worried.” In America, he explained, a student learns that if you can’t agree on a price with a counterparty, or if a regulator says that you’re out of line, then you sigh, say, “Ah, too bad”, and move on. But one cannot conduct business this way in India. In India, if an apparatchik of the License Raj tells you that you can’t do something, then you make a personal appeal to the man. And if that fails, you offer him cash under-the-table. If that fails, you make such appeals to his boss. And if that fails, you find some way to avoid their authority altogether. You never just accept a no at face value. You couldn’t get anything done in India if you did. Reading about how Lyndon Johnson got what he wanted - how he flattered, threatened, manipulated, and lied to get bills passed - reminded me of this story.
The economically necessary tax cut had been stuck in the Senate finance committee, because Kennedy’s aides didn’t understand how to assuage the concerns of that committee’s chairman, Harry Byrd. The frugal Byrd had told the Kennedy people that he could not allow the government to forfeit the revenues from taxes unless the government budget was cut under $100 billion. Kennedy’s aides thought that meant that they shouldn’t go too far above $100 billion in the budget. But as soon as Johnson was briefed on the situation, he understood - in an instant - that to get Byrd to agree to the tax cut, he had to get the government budget significantly under $100 billion, and he had to make sure that Byrd was publicly credited with this cost cutting measure, so that he could fiduciarily justify the tax cuts. Johnson did exactly that.
This part was the most interesting to me. I was a Sophomore in college when the pandemic started. Classes went online, and I felt like a laid off student. Out of boredom, I started a podcast. One thing led to another, and now I get to interview (and get listened to by) a few of the most interesting and influential people in the world. As I read these biographies, I find myself wondering what a Johnson-like figure would do if he was in my position. What would he do with a niche-but-growing public platform which was especially popular among the people building powerful, unprecedented technologies, and that too on the eve of potentially the most important decades in human history? If Lyndon Johnson could step into this novel post-prologue, how would he write the rest of the plot? What opportunities for influence and advancement would he notice?
At the time he arrived in the Senate, seniority governed all its workings. New members were not supposed to speak much, or at all, on the floor during their first year or two, and during the remainder of their first six-year term to speak only infrequently, and to participate in other Senate activities in a largely apprentice role. After his first two years in the Senate, Lyndon Johnson was Assistant Leader of his party. In another two years, while he was still in his first term, he became his party’s leader, the Democratic Leader of the Senate. Since the Democrats were in the minority, he was therefore Minority Leader. When, two years later, the Democrats became the majority, he became Majority Leader, the most powerful man in the Senate after just a single term there, the youngest Leader in history—after a rise unprecedented in its rapidity.
Robert Caro, Master of the Senate
Loved the post and the footnotes, I've always been a bit intrigued by robert caro since you've kept mentioning him in questions in the podcast–– now I'm definitely sold and adding the power broker and this series to the reading list! Psyched to watch how you write the rest of the plot too and hope you find what spiritually motivates you and what you "have to do" eventually :)
Based on the few podcasts I have listened to you're already among the best interviewers around. Tyler Cowen being the obvious king. Nonetheless, after reading this article, the first of yours I have read, you should definitely write more.
I wonder if you were inspired to read and write this by Misha Saul's series on the Caro biographies? Those articles prove, in extension of your point that every volume is worth reading, that Caro's books doesn't just chronicle Johnson but everything that happened in society and the notable figures.
For those who aren't aware they can read Saul's articles as companion pieces to this one.