While not as good as the first volume of Caro’s LBJ series, Means of Ascent is still an engaging read, despite the fact that it deals primarily with Johnson’s years of frustration between his first campaign for the Senate and his tainted victory over Coke Stevenson in 1948.
Three stories dominate this volume, the first two, the story of LBJ’s somewhat underwhelming WWII experience (he flew one mission, as an observer only, in a bombing run on a Japanese base) and the story of how he acquired his vast wealth through the acquisition of a small radio station, hammer home themes already touched on in The Path to Power. Johnson’s inability to tell the truth about just about anything yet again remains prominent throughout the narrative. He lies almost constantly. As Caro points out, about events large and small. When he is caught in a lie, he extricates himself by lying even further. He lies about the wealth generated by Lady Bird’s radio station, and he lies about his war experience.
The greatest lie occurs in the final and longest story of the volume, the story of how he stole the 1948 Democratic primary election from former Texas governor Coke Stevenson. Caro lays out in great detail just how two hundred extra votes were added to the tally in one of the famously corrupt South Texas counties - and how Johnson and his followers and friends managed to prevent the lie from being exposed in court (although not in popular culture). The tales of outright ballot stuffing, voter intimidation and the open corruption that ran through Texas politics in those days should be required reading for anybody interested in the sometimes sordid story of American politics. As in The Path to Power, Caro never hides his contempt for Johnson’s amoral actions, yet the tale takes on the tone of a caper film at times, with Johnson and his acolytes always trying to stay one step ahead of his rivals who seek to take him down. In Caro’s retelling, the crime is not so much in the deed itself, but in the getting caught.
While retaining his mostly negative assessment of Johnson’s character, Caro introduces Johnson’s negative image, his rival in the Democratic primary, Coke Stevenson. While Johnson is a liar, Stevenson is truthful, whereas Johnson is obsessed with his media image, Stevenson is genuine. Johnson is without deeply held beliefs and is possessed of an amoral lust for power, Stevenson has power thrust upon him by others, yet retains his deeply held convictions. Much like Sam Rayburn in The Path to Power, Coke provides a much needed counterpoint to Johnson’s venal powermongering. Yet Caro sometimes goes to far. Stevenson is, apparently, at least in Caro’s narrative, a man with no flaws. His only weakness is his unflinching honesty (which is no weakness at all, at least in this strange morality fable) and belief that good will triumph. Coke is a literal white-hat cowboy from an old Western film, and Caro sometimes falls too deeply under Stevenson’s spell. Stevenson is Thomas More to Johnson’s Cromwell, and like most saints, is sometimes very boring. While Stevenson’s story is no doubt interesting, Caro fails to expose him as an historical figure, and any flaw in his character or actions is nearly brushed aside (The Stevenson camp also stole votes in the 1948 primary and acted unethically, but Caro excuses these actions with reference to the Johnson camp’s extreme corruption). Caro is a little bit in love with men like Stevenson and Rayburn, but Rayburn, at least, had flaws which made him a recognisable human being.
A final mention must be made of Luis Salas, the enforcer who played a pivotal role in the stealing of the election. One of the finest passages of the book occurs when Caro interviews Salas, who, now old and frail, is both somewhere remorseful and proud of his actions in 1948. It is one of Caro’s achievements that relatively minor historical figures who nevertheless played pivotal roles in history like Salas are given the prominence they deserve.
Addendum: I have no idea why this is the case, but it seems either Caro or his editor(s) believed that this book would or should be read on its own. Hence the many number of times stories already recounted in The Path to Power were repeated here. A minor quibble perhaps, and Caro clearly believes these stories to be crucial to understanding Johnson’s life and personality, but it was frustrating to be engaged in the narrative only to find oneself reading passages reproduced almost word for word from volume one.
so that game of thrones eh