A monster of colossal power

Master of the Senate: the years of Lyndon Johnson, volume 3

Robert A Caro <em> Jonathan Cape, 1,1

This will not be an unbiased review. The first two volumes of Robert Caro's biography of Lydon B Johnson were astounding in their sweep, magisterial and gripping, and I have waited impatiently almost 12 years for volume three. As if it were possible, Master of the Senate takes what was already an outstanding multi-volume series on to a still higher plane. It is, quite simply, the finest biography I have ever read, or could ever imagine reading. It is more than that: it is one of the finest works of literature I have encountered, or ever hope to.

It has taken Caro three decades to research the critical aspects of LBJ's life - longer than it did his subject to live them. Such depth of knowledge, spread across so many words - a million so far, and we have not yet even reached LBJ's 1960 attempt at the presidency - would normally mean only that every triviality was written up, making for tedious prolixity. The opposite is true: Caro is so much in command of his research, and has so much to say, that not a word is wasted. It has been 30 years well spent. But the chronological aspect of Master of the Senate is almost the least important. What lifts it to the level of great literature is that it is also a meditation on power, on the nature of leadership, on human relations - and, taken with the first two volumes, a history of America in the 20th century.

LBJ was a shit. He was corrupt to the core, a liar, a megalomaniac, a misogynist, a bully and, like most bullies, a coward. He would urinate into his washbasin in front of the secretaries and then wiggle his penis around; he barked orders to his aides while defecating. He would grab hold of women's thighs in the presence of his wife, Lady Bird.

He was also, with FDR and Ronald Reagan, one of the three most important presidents of the 20th century. (LBJ himself was responsible for initialising his name, in a conscious effort to suggest comparison with FDR.) He changed the lives of hundreds of millions of black Americans for the better, with a record of outstanding achievement that exposes how inconsequential were both his predecessor, JFK, and his successor, Richard Nixon. Were it not for the endings to their presidencies, neither would be remembered as more than lacklustre. Yet most people know almost nothing about Johnson other than the manner of his elevation to the presidency, and the catastrophe of Vietnam.

Volume three stops before his first run at the presidency in 1960, yet already shows why he deserves the label "great". The Senate had for generations been the main obstacle to civil rights, with Confederate Democrats ensuring that blacks were not given the vote. LBJ seized hold of the position of majority leader, turning what had withered into a non-job into a position of unrivalled congressional power.

Caro begins with a scintillating history of the Senate, which puts LBJ's political achievement into historical perspective. Indeed, his account of LBJ's rise within the Senate is not simply about the accumulation of power, but about what makes human beings tick. As Caro puts it: "He seemed to sense each man's price and the commodity he preferred as coin."

The crux of the book is the civil rights legislation that he pushed through, achieving what no one had thought possible, given the unchanged membership of the Senate. The fundamental issue raised by Master of the Senate is thus: can a good deed be done for base motives? Indeed, can a good deed be made possible only by base behaviour? LBJ was not interested in civil rights as a cause. As with everything else in his life, his use of civil rights was entirely political. No southerner could be elected president while the South was still a cesspit of reaction. So he turned his energies and skills to removing that blockage to his prospects. But even if his motives had been pure, he would never have been able to succeed without using his every base political skill, from the lies and the bullying to the sycophancy and corruption.

Would we ever want to see a figure like LBJ in power again? The question is impossible to answer. The man was unspeakably awful, a monster. His epitaph could state, quite accurately, "he did good". What a trade-off: on the one hand, hundreds of millions benefited from his actions; on the other, he was a beast to his colleagues, stole his election to the Senate, and his behaviour represents everything bad in human affairs.