Robert A. Caro's life of Lyndon Johnson, which began with the greatly acclaimed The Path to Power, also winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, continues - one of the richest, most intensive, and most revealing examinations ever undertaken of an American President. In Means of Ascent, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer/historian, chronicler also of Robert Moses in The Power Broker, carries Johnson through his service in World War II and the foundation of his long-concealed fortune and the facts behind the myths he created about it. But the explosive heart of the book is Caro's revelation of the true story of the fiercely contested 1948 senatorial election, for 40 years shrouded in rumor, which Johnson had to win or face certain political death, and which he did win -- by "the 87 votes that changed history."
Caro makes us witness to a momentous turning point in American politics: the tragic last stand of the old politics versus the new - the politics of issue versus the politics of image, mass manipulation, money and electronic dazzle.
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I just finished the the fourth and final available volume (over 150 hours worth of listening), and I have nothing but praise for Mr. Caro's remarkable achievement. Not only are we given probably the most in depth biography that could possibly be crafted about LBJ, but we are are also provided with enlightening historical back drops and smaller sub-biographies of such important, but largely forgotten men like Sam Rayburn, Richard Russell and Leland Olds. I came away from this book with a sense of awe, admiration, contempt, and a real sadness. The stolen election of 1949 was an utterly fascinating piece of American history which we would all be better to know and understand: it could happen and it did. I learned about the depression, and its real effect on the rural population, and especially how the event effected American politics for decades. I came away enlightened about our history of civil rights, and the book gives such a thorough back drop of the injustices in the South, the legislative frustrations which prevented the injustices from being addressed, and ultimately how LBJ, because of who he was and what drove him, was able to overcome and redress a malignancy which festered in our country for so long. At the core, one can only conclude that LBJ was a pure megalomanic. The portrait that Caro gives us is of a man that could simultaneously amaze, amuse, frustrate and sadden. The megalomania, and the drive that necessarily accompanied it, allowed him to accomplish great things, but we also see how such megalomania ultimately corrupts, and for all the good things he accomplished (and there is a long list here), his corruption is clear. I learned about Texas history, especially the history of the hill country in Texas, and how it contributed in forming the man. The coverage of the JFK presidency and rather eerie events leading up to the assassination could not have been more interesting. After learning what a scoundrel LBJ could be, especially in how he treated Leland Olds, his treatment of Lady Bird and his staff, his rank mendacity, his penchant for stealing elections (and the list goes on), we then learn the other side of the man, and it is hard not to be filled with admiration for how he was able to assume the presidency and through his guile and determination, cause the civil rights laws to be enacted. It was a monumental, wholly admirable feat. I came away from this book enlightened. I gained a tremendous understanding of at least two eras of American history which continue to reverberate today. I would recommend these books to anyone. I look forward to Volume 5 and learning all about the Vietnam Era and the fall of the great man, and can hardly wait until it arrives.