One of my newer summer traditions is to take on a substantial reading project. Last year I read through the published chronological volumes of the Oxford History of the United States. This time around, the summer months were dominated by one man: Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The project in question is called The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Now running four volumes, author Robert Caro has been working on the more than 3000-page project for over thirty years. Even more notable is that in all those pages he has still only progressed to 1964. Considering that Johnson was President until 1969 and lived until 1973, there remains plenty for Caro to detail in the next installment.
The project is a relatively well-known and audacious one, and its sheer magnitude drew me in as an historian. To spend the bulk of one’s life researching and writing about the life and times of one man is a bold and risky undertaking. In reading Caro’s work, though, it seems the gamble has paid off.
Lyndon Johnson was not, we might say, a particularly moral man. But then that’s not the point. The point is that he was a complex man living in complex times that defined him and which he himself helped define. His bullish personality, use of power, political skill, and the contradictions in his character all paint a picture that is as compelling as it is at grotesque.
Caro’s third volume Master of the Senate is perhaps the most popular, for it details Johnson at the height of his pre-Presidential political power as he guided the course of legislation by sheer force of will and political deftness. Two additional sections amongst the four volumes stand out as worth the price of admission: one that describes the life of the citizens of Johnson’s homeland in the Texas Hill Country in the days before 1930s-era electrification and another that lays out the deep history of the United States Senate as an institution. I well consider both of these worthwhile stand-alone essays on their subjects.
The most notable element in The Years of Lyndon Johnson, however, is Caro’s reflection on power: “Although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals.” Power shows, in other words, who a person really is. For Johnson, this might be said to be a mixed bag. Power revealed him to be a domineering bully and a man of hubris eventually brought low by Vietnam. But–and this is important–it also revealed him as a vital proponent of civil rights. The landmark legislation he pushed through as President showed many in America who he was. The fact that he had grown up in Texas in the first half of the 20th century and built his power base on oil money and southern Senators make his actions all the more surprising. But then that’s how power works: it reveals.
If Caro is right, there are questions to be asked about what power reveals in so many throughout history…and what it might even reveal in us. Not just–or even necessarily–corruption, but perhaps something else entirely. Who, after all, would we prove to be when faced with the possibilities of power?