Means of Ascent by Robert A. Caro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is positively monumental. How does Caro do it? Well, I know how he does it. I read his book on the topic. He does it with a lot of hard and humble work (and some excellent help from his wife).
I was enthralled by Caro’s depiction of Coke Stevenson, and as soon as his qualities started becoming evident (which was at a very young age), I knew just what story arc Caro was planning. He was going to set up the honest man (Stevenson) against the cheater (LBJ). He was going to paint such bright colors on the former and such lurid colors on the latter that no one could fail to feel the injustice of LBJ’s underhanded Means of Ascent. I was almost inured to this plan because I saw it so clearly in advance; despite my love for Caro’s work I wasn’t sure I could trust him not to up the saturation on those colors just a bit.
But he sucked me in. I believed him. And I do believe him: I trust his honesty, as I came to admire Stevenson’s. Stevenson really was an amazing figure, someone who embodied American virtues and Western ones. It was heartbreaking to watch anyone in Texas listen to Johnson’s overt lies about Stevenson just because they were repeated so often. (I took a lesson from this: Stevenson’s refusal to defend himself probably did need to yield sooner than it finally did.)
And then, I don’t know how Caro did it, he had me half rooting for that scoundrel LBJ to win the 1948 Senate primary! You knew he was going to do it: the book title is itself a spoiler.
The book comes to a satisfying conclusion with Stevenson, who lost power, instead finding joy on his ranch, in God’s creation, with his wife. I feel safe in assuming that LBJ’s story arc—if Caro’s own arc allows him to give it to us—will not end as Stevenson’s did. The lives of the amoral aren’t permitted to do so.