The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, by Robert Caro, New York: Knopf, 1982, 882 pp., $19.95.
"The effect of power and publicity on all men," wrote Henry Adams, who certainly saw enough of power and publicity to know, "is the aggravation of self, a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim's sympathies, a diseased appetite, like a passion for drink or perverted tastes; one can scarcely use expressions too strong to describe the violence of egotism it stimulates."
That may have been true of the politicians Adams knew. But they were temperate and self-effacing saints compared to Lyndon Johnson, with his "hunger for power in its most naked form," as Robert Caro puts it—"for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will.…No consideration of morality or ethics, no costs to himself—or to anyone else—could stand before it." The Path to Power is an exquisitely, gruesomely detailed chronicle of the young Lyndon Johnson and the monstrous obsession that carried him, a man with a mediocre education, with no money, from one of the most backward areas of the country, to the presidency (or at least the vice-presidency) and greater personal wealth than any president has had before or since.
The obsession was there when Johnson was a child. After interviewing scores of Johnson's contemporaries, Caro found that during his youth, Johnson was immensely unpopular with his playmates because of his scheming and domineering. At San Marcos State College, the hostility of his fellow students became intense and deep because he lied constantly, betrayed his friends, blackmailed his enemies, and created a political machine and elaborate patronage system that rigged student elections. (One of his underlings smiled as he told Caro, "You know, later on, when everyone got so excited about the  election that Lyndon Johnson stole, I felt that I had been in on the beginning of history, because I was in on the first election that Lyndon Johnson stole.")
Johnson's first important political job was as Rep. Richard Kleberg's secretary in 1931. Kleberg, the heir to the enormous King Ranch, was good-natured and lackadaisical, but his secretary took up the slack and more. Having at his disposal only the meager resources of an aide to an anti-New Deal congressman without seniority, Johnson worked day and night, learned Washington thoroughly, schemed and cajoled, caressed and annihilated. Even in a city brimming with ambitious young men, Johnson stood out. By 1934, there had been only two statewide political machines in Texas's history. One was the machine of Jim "Pa" Ferguson, a legendary governor. The other was that of Lyndon Johnson, a 26-year-old congressional aide.
Critical to Johnson's rise to power was his relationship with George Brown, and Caro describes it in detail for the first time. In the mid-'30s, Brown—a smalltime contractor—wangled a public-works contract for the $10-million Marshall Ford Dam in Texas under unusual circumstances. The comptroller general was appropriating money for the dam even before it had received congressional authorization. Moreover, after Brown had borrowed $1.5 million to purchase construction equipment, the Bureau of Reclamation learned that the federal government didn't even own the riverbed on which the dam was being built and threatened to cut off all funding on the project.
Worst of all, the congressman on whom Brown was relying to clear up these complications—House Public Works Committee Chairman James "Buck" Buchanan—suddenly died. A total of $10 million worth of business was in jeopardy. Brown and his chief political fixer, Alvin Wirtz, were desperate.
The Path to Power tells how Brown and Wirtz found Johnson and financed his first race for Congress (it was for Buchanan's seat) and how, after he was elected, Johnson saved the dam with the help of Abe Fortas and William O. Douglas, among others.
Nor did the Johnson-Brown relationship end there: even though he had never even seen a ship being built, Brown received a $100-million Navy contract during World War II, and it is likely that Johnson interceded with Roosevelt to stop an IRS investigation of Brown's company. A huge financial empire was born with Johnson as midwife. In return, Brown and a small group of Texas oilmen not only helped to finance Johnson's own campaigns but also established an unprecedented fund under Johnson's control to contribute to 1940 congressional candidates around the country. It is altogether one of the most remarkable and unnerving stories in recent political literature.
What made Johnson so distinctive as a politician? First was his byzantine duplicity—he double-crossed even mentors such as Roosevelt and House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Second was his compulsive secretiveness that led him essentially to rewrite his own history with falsehoods. People of a certain age who remember the phrase "credibility gap" will be interested to learn how early in Johnson's life the gap opened.
Caro also portrays Johnson as strikingly free of any political principle or ideology whatsoever. He was, more precisely, chameleon-like. For example, one summer he worked for one of the most right-wing members of Congress, Richard Kleberg, as well as for one of the most left-wing members, Maury Maverick. He was privately contemptuous of the New Deal, but he won his first race for Congress largely by identifying himself as a Roosevelt man and endorsing FDR's "court-packing" plan. During the contest between Roosevelt and John Nance Garner for the 1940 Democratic presidential nomination, a contest that divided Texas politicians, both sides firmly believed that Johnson was on their side.
But for all this, Caro's Lyndon Johnson cannot be casually reduced to an evil genius. During the depression, when mortgage companies were foreclosing on farms in Kleberg's district, Johnson devised a brilliantly inventive financing mechanism by which both the farmers and mortgage companies benefited. At taxpayer expense, he brought electrification, which is to say he brought much of modern civilization, to the Hill Country, and he personally taught improved farming methods to scores and maybe hundreds of farmers in his district. And these were as much in character for Lyndon Johnson as was his mendacity and brutality.
For those happy few whose interests temporarily coincided with Johnson's—usually because they had money or votes or power that he coveted—Lyndon Johnson was a blessing. But the circle of Lyndon Johnson's victims was there from the start, and it grew as his victories grew.
Because he went to astonishing lengths to falsify his own past, Lyndon Johnson is a peculiarly difficult subject for a political biographer. But if anyone is equal to the task, it's Robert Caro. An investigative reporter by profession, Caro's only book before this, The Power Broker, was a splendid biography in 1974 of New York boss Robert Moses. It won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Society of American Historians' Francis Parkman Prize. Justly so. No other American political biographer of Caro's generation has anything like his extraordinary understanding of power, his tenacity as an investigator, and his gifts as a writer. So it's no surprise that The Path to Power is the best biography of a 20th-century American politician to be published in years.
Paul Gordon is an assistant editor of REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Diseased Appetite".