Means of Ascent by Robert Caro

Summary

  1. Caro’s legendary book about the rise of LBJ from Texas Hill Country to Senator

Key Takeaways

  1. Social justice was the key platform for LBJ and the war in Vietnam became the black eye that haunted him to his last days. He was caught in many lies – both big and small – and the media coined “credibility gap” to describe his situation. LBJ drove a great divide, both domestically and internationally. Before him, the president was revered, feared even, and that image forever changed after his presidency
  2. LBJ had a nose for power and would destroy anything in his way to achieving it. He had a nearly unlimited capacity for deceit and betrayal, coupled with the ability to mobilize government to help the downtrodden. His whole life and presidency brings up the question between means and ends. Many of the noble ends – especially with social justice – would likely not be where they are today if it weren’t for the ignoble means in which LBJ took to accomplish them. There is no more important question his life covers than between means and ends
  3. LBJ started his political career by stealing thousands of votes to get into the Senate. This has become known as the “87 votes”
  4. LBJ was the first political candidate to campaign in a modern way with advertising firms, helicopter, use of electronic media to influence voters. It was new politics vs old
  5. He grew up very poor in the Texas hill country. He was driven by fear – fear of having to go back, fear of having nothing, worst of all, fear of being like his daddy. His dad was a successful politician for sometime but a terrible businessman. He eventually was penniless but was too proud to change his ways, which led to ridicule. The Johnson’s became the joke of the town. From then on, it wasn’t enough just to lead, he had to dominate. He had to be the one giving orders and never taking them, he had to stand out from the crowd
  6. He very consciously tried to earn the trust and affection of influential older men and sarcastically became known as a “professional son”. FDR helped LBJ with a lot, giving him his backing during his political runs
  7. LBJ was a master at counting votes, solving problems and raising money. He was fun and charismatic
  8. He was an incredible bullshitter but the thing that separated him was that he eventually came to wholeheartedly believe his own bullshit
  9. LBJ embarrassed Ladybird in public and treated her as hired help. He had an affair, he was rude to her in front of others, he was demeaning. Even though she took it all in stride and never lost her patience, beneath her shyness she was incredibly ambitious and determined. She was incredibly well read and able. She eventually became a big part of his political life, helping organize and run campaigns
  10. While he was in Congress, he did everything he could to keep his opinion to himself. He avoided saying anything substantive, saying what he knew the other side wanted to hear.
  11. LBJ believed – to the point of obsession – that he’d die early like his father. This gave him an insane drive to achieve things while he could. Normal means of ascent were too slow
  12. Coke Stevenson was governor and became known as Mr Texas. He had his own ranch, got up at 5 every morning to read, never made a campaign promise, was the cowboy politician who never spoke an ill word about anyone. He hated politics but loved government. He truly loved the ranch he had built with his own hands. LBJ and Stevenson went up against each other for Senator in 1948. LBJ would use modern means such as radio and press and advertising whereas Stevenson would do it the old fashioned way with road trips and small gatherings. Stevenson was far more popular but because of this difference, LBJ actually had a chance. LBJ also was the first to travel by helicopter to various small towns around Texas. He was ridiculed at first, but it was a stroke of genius. It was novel and drew a crowd, but most of all it eliminated the daunting task of traversing a state the size of Texas. LBJ’s Machiavellian tactics against Stevenson are legendary. He used money, psychology, press, antics, and more. Anything to give voters some doubt and to tarnish Stevenson’s reputation. He had to utilize brash and unconventional means because anything else would utterly fail. He knew that Stevenson would never do anything he was pressured to do. Even though he was for a labor bill, Johnson said he wasn’t and that if Stevenson now said he was, he’d be flip flopping. It worked perfectly. Stevenson didn’t want to play politics and didn’t speak out soon enough. It was enough to introduce some doubt
  13. LBJ was a political genius, but had many other world class talents too. He would see the simple answer in a complex situation. He’d be able to think clearly even under the most intense pressure. He’d be able to persuade any man to come work for him and know exactly how to make the most of their talents. To him, every man was a tool and knew to use them best
  14. Although it went to court and nearly turned against LBJ, it was never conclusively proven that LBJ had stolen the election. While he won, it formed the foundation for misgivings and distrust that would follow him all the way to the White House. The stealing of the election was essentially confirmed later on. LBJ was one of the slickest politicians – in the most vulgar form of the word – and would do anything to amass power. He was amoral in his approach and would use it in the senate to become the most powerful majority leader up to that point

What I got out of it

  1. An insanely good book. I felt like I was there and really came to know each character. Caro’s ability to transport you into the moment and share the details and personality traits of these people who were obsessed with power is just incredible