Master of the Senate is an immersive long read

During lockdown, a maelstrom of Twitter accounts have emerged that meticulously judge the décor, artwork and bookshelves of television pundits, providing a rare glimpse into the lives of the commentariat. One of the lesser known of these accounts, @CaroOnRoomRater, is a personal favourite. Robert Caro’s biographies are long and thorough, but said to be essential reading. They vividly explore the psyches of 20th century political figures, and show the guile required to be an effective political operator. Master of the Senate, the third volume on Lyndon Johnson, is an epic of Johnson years in the Senate (1949 – 1961), chronicling his rapid rise from election, to becoming the youngest Senate Majority Leader in history and his role in passing momentous legislation.

Caro’s portrayal of Johnson is based on decades of interviews and trawling through Presidential archives and libraries. In the preceding volumes, Caro shows Johnson's deprived childhood in the scorching Texan heat and how from his time as a student, as a Congressman’s aide, and eventually as a Member of the House of Representatives, he never stopped striving towards the Presidency.

In Master of the Senate, he crafts a picture of a legislator who turned cajoling and threatening Senators to an art. He intimidated those he knew he could and was infamous for grabbing Senators by the lapel and exerting every possible legislative manoeuvre to reward the loyal and punish dissenters, but also acted as a ‘professional son’ to the Senate elders, who shared their wisdom and influence. Johnson had an unusually close relationship with Senator Russel of Georgia, grandee of the Southern Dixiecrats. When he was still in the House he was known to kiss the famously distant speaker Sam Rayburn on his bald head.

Politicians tend to valorise these volumes as Johnson is cruel to attain power but flashes of empathy always shine through when he seizes it - both his callousness and kindness are instinct to him. When he learned of a Hispanic-American soldier who was denied burial at a Texas funeral home, he arranged to have him buried at a respected military cemetery. The Southern bloc of Senators rebuked Johnson, so he backed down. Yet we also see him ruthlessly interrogate and scar the sympathetic socialist Leland Olds in Senate hearings, as his appointment to Federal Power Commission Chairman would have been disadvantageous for Johnson's Oil Baron backers. Caro devotes nearly 70 pages to fleshing out Old’s life running up to the Senate hearing and his great successes in the energy world as an idealist and fervent writer, but shows how Johnson took what was supposed to be a routine hearing and transform it into a McCarthy type trail of Olds, digging into his catalogue of writing to expose links to communist parties that were tenuous at best.

The depth and contrast of Johnson's characterisation serve as a useful contrast to how the public today sees political figures in stark black and white terms. Thorough (retrospective) political biography of any kind is a useful reminder that public figures contain multitudes and are fallible human beings, though often with great ambition; Caro is a master of the form and transforms obscure Senate sub-committee hearings from many decades ago to extraordinarily compelling reading.

Johnson made the Senate work speedily for the only time in history, and the reader can see Johnson pulling the gears that are now so rusty. He disrupted the seniority, skilfully swapping committee assignments. He passed legislation at breakneck speed fostering compromises between factions that nobody else would have seen. Caro shows in depth as to how he passed the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, striking compromises between the Southern Dixiecrats and Western Senators that were impossible for other strategists or senators to fathom. He struck away some of the more progressive elements (which he would later enact as President). For other offences, jury trials were required to sentence but Southern juries were dominated by white people. Hubert Humphrey and his progressives were against this amendment, but Johnson brought them on side to pass the bill, by altering legislation so that black Americans could serve on juries. Seeing Johnson dismantling the traditional power structures of the Senate and bending this unwieldy institution is a joy to read, but maddening as the US Senate has arguably ever worked as well since.

Master of the Senate and Caro’s other volumes in this series are immersive reads. Reviewers have noted that they could be reduced by 20%, but that detracts from the nature of these volumes. They are political tomes, whose detail only serve to build the world painted by Caro. If you have the time to read over 1,000 pages, I would highly recommend the read.

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