Oconee Regional Library

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate

A review by Leard R. Daughety
July 26, 2003
Master of the Senate

Until you've been in politics, you've never really been alive. It's rough and sometimes it's dirty and it's always hard work and tedious details. But-it's the only sport for grownups-all other games are for kids. Heinlen

I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me. I know where to look for it, and how to use it. Lyndon B. Johnson

Try and forget that Lyndon Baines Johnson was ever President of the United States.

I know that I'm asking a great deal for some of you, but just try.

Remember that Lyndon Johnson was once a member of the U.S. House of Representatives-elected in 1937. Remember that in 1948 he was elected to the United States Senate, in one of the most controversial elections in the state of Texas, even by its standards. Some sources reported that he stole tens of thousands of votes and yet Johnson still only defeated his opponent by a margin of 202 votes (just imagine if CNN had been around then). "Landslide Lyndon" was now in the Senate. It didn't matter how he had arrived there, he was there.

Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro is the third volume of Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Master of the Senate provides an overview of the twelve years during which Johnson went from being a rookie senator to the height of his power as Senate Majority Leader. Caro uses the passage of the first civil rights legislation since 1875, the 1957 Civil Rights Act, as the centerpiece to showcase the exercise of Johnson's talents and power. Caro introduces his book by describing the humiliating and sometimes futile process that African Americans were forced to endure while trying to register to vote. The first chapter of the book provides detailed information about the physical settings of the Senate Chamber and how the Senate's power had declined over the years until the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. With the exception of the Senate's defeat of Roosevelt's plan to "pack" the Supreme Court in 1937, the public's view of the effectiveness of the Senate continued to be more of a source of humor and disgust rather than providing leadership for its citizens. After the war, strong committee chairmanships, particularly those belonging to southern Democrats, held the power in the Senate as never before. As a first term senator, Lyndon Johnson quickly saw a need to once again cultivate the favor of older men as he had in the past such as House Speaker Sam Rayburn, in order to further his ambition. In the 1950s, no senator was more powerful than Georgia's Richard Brevard Russell Jr. Caro devotes over 280 pages of his book in describing Senator Russell, his personality and power in the Senate, as well as his relationship with Johnson.

Russell's ultimate goal was to see a leader sympathetic to the southern political view elected as President. Likewise, Johnson's thoughts and unmitigated ambition were never far from the Oval Office. Pragmatically, Russell and Johnson knew that to achieve the highest elected office would ultimately require some positive action on the issue of civil rights for African Americans. Master of the Senate provides captivating reading about how the members of the Senate, a dam on the Snake River, and Lyndon Johnson's mastery of the Senate brought hope of voting equality for all Americans in 1957. Master of the Senate reads more like an old Allen Drury political novel than the mural of history that it is. This is a real "Leard book", containing over 1,100 pages and measuring 2 inches thick. After finishing Master what struck me most was that it is as much a book on the management and personalities of people as it is a biography or political science tale. Master of the Senate was awarded the 2002 National Book Award for Non Fiction and the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

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