The third volume of Robert Caro's epic biography of Lyndon Johnson covers what would prove to be the pivotal years in his ascent to the presidency -- his years in the United States Senate. Having finally won election to the Senate after a humiliating defeat and a razor-thin victory over a popular governor, Johnson now sought to broaden his profile and use his position as a springboard to the presidency.
It is one of the many strengths of Caro's book that he demonstrates just how challenging this effort would prove. Though less hierarchical than the House of Representatives (where Johnson had already served for over a decade), seniority was still key to the exercise of power in the Senate. Chafing at the prospect of waiting his turn, Johnson instead took over the position of his party's leader in the Senate -- one which had little authority over the committee chairs who dominated the body -- and turned it into a position of real power. In this he was aided by the support of Georgia senator Richard B. Russell, the head of the Southern caucus and a man who wanted to see a Southerner in the White House. Ingratiating himself with Russell, Johnson soon won his support for the post, and after his election to it in 1953 began to an unprecedented degree of control over the geographically and ideologically diverse Democratic caucus. It is here where Caro is at his best, as he meticulously describes how Johnson exercised power in pursuit of his goals.
Johnson's time in the Senate coincided with the rise of the civil rights issue. Though opposed to integration, Russell recognized that Johnson needed flexibility in addressing civil rights -- a fact demonstrated by the hostility Johnson encountered when he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1956. Stung by the defeat, he acknowledged his need for support from Northern liberals by moving a Civil Rights Act through the Senate. Accomplishing this seemingly impossible task was, in retrospect, the highlight of Johnson's tenure as Senate Majority Leader, as the increasing aggressiveness of liberal senators and his own impending presidential campaign served to halt any further progress on sweeping legislation.
Caro describes all of this in a massive tome that, for all its size, maintains a strong narrative pace. Crammed full of detail and analysis, it is an indispensable work for the insights it offers about Johnson and how he exercised power in the halls and corridors of the Senate.