First book I finished in 2022…and it might already be the best thing I’ve read. Pack it in, people.
I was hoping sitting on it for a day would help me form a more coherent review but I think I’m going to need to process it more to get there. This is gonna be a bit of sentence salad.
What I love about Robert Caro’s books is how unconventional they are. Caro has no interest in the typical biography, whether it’s a hagiography, a hack job, or something in between. Caro is fascinated with power and how it is used. His fascination with Johnson is looking at a man who used it better than anyone.
Yes this is an incredibly dense 1040 pages. But it doesn’t feel wasted at all. Caro intros with how the Senate came to be in its present incarnation (present relative to the 1950s when Johnson ruled it), which sets the stage perfectly for Johnson to become the first effective Majority/Minority Leader in Senate history. And how Johnson expanded his power over his colleagues in ways both good and mostly not good.
What I appreciate most about it is how Caro allows the reader the ambiguity and complexity of the carnival show that is American politics. He doesn’t play up ambivalence towards Johnson’s; he’s clear on Johnson’s racism and the racism he perpetuated as Majority Leader. Nor does he want to us assume that Johnson’s ends justified the means.
In fact, Caro is telling the American story through Johnson: its growth, its challenges, its inability to confront its racism, its reluctance to give Black and brown folks even the crumbs. So much of this could be read for 2021: the stasis of progress, the leveraging of minoritarian power in a few racist states, the leveraging of white angst in the form of the filibuster. I was surprised at how so much of the anger felt towards the Senate then translates through today.
So in sum: this is the best book about American politics ever written. Abolish the filibuster.