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Caro Chips Away at LBJ

THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON: MEANS OF ASCENT by Robert A. Caro, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 506 pp. $24.95.

STANDING more than six-feet three inches tall with his Stetson perched jauntily on the side of his head and waving his huge bear-like arms with his ``howdy, y'all'' Texas exuberance, Lyndon Baines Johnson strode into American history as the president who sought to rectify the nation's long neglect of civil rights, champion the downtrodden, and save Vietnam from communist expansionism.

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Ironically, the man who won the presidency in 1964 by one of the largest electoral mandates ever has not fared well in recent years. By 1968, LBJ was blocked from seeking reelection through strident antiwar opposition within his own Democratic Party. In recent years, Johnson's domestic legacy, such as model cities and job-training, has come under attack. And to the chagrin of Johnson enthusiasts, LBJ's successor, Richard M. Nixon, who also left the White House largely discredited, has seen his own political reputation rise, in part because of Nixon's historic opening to China and his policies of detente with the Soviet Union.

Robert A. Caro's sweeping but grim study of Lyndon Johnson will not add to the restoration of the 36th president's reputation - at least, not based on this second volume of a projected four-volume biography. Caro has written a brilliant but disturbing book that Johnson admirers will intensely dislike. It throws a merciless and long-overdue spotlight on its subject. Readers are asked to reexamine the distinction between political means and ends. Caro examines what he perceives to be Johnson's deepest weaknesses: his lust for power and wealth; his mean spiritedness; his perversity to exploit the difficulties of others and then revel in his own brazen dishonesty. One looks in vain for a redeeming sign of decency in the LBJ of this volume.

Caro's book is also a sobering study of democracy. The American electoral experience has always been untidy in practice - from noisy torchlight parades to rigged elections.

In the first volume, Caro took Johnson from his birth in the hill country of Texas to the late 1930s, and his experience as a New Deal-Democratic congressman. In this one, Caro examines Johnson during the years 1941 to 1948. Caro is a tireless investigator, a practice he put to good use in his excellent biography of New York developer Robert Moses, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and which was also a study of power.

Caro scoured public archives and met folks who knew Johnson well, including some of the people, says Caro, who helped Johnson steal the senatorial election of 1948. Such a detailed approach was absolutely essential, since the ambitious Johnson liked nothing better than creating his own blend of biography, based on not a few tall tales (case in point: Johnson's military experience, including carefully posed photographs of Johnson in his naval officer's uniform). But as Caro shows, Johnson, who as President would later send hundreds of thousands of men to fight in Vietnam, was a most-reluctant warrior. LBJ's own war experience consisted of a flight for a few minutes on a Pacific bombing run. ``Ambition,'' says Caro, ``may have governed his war service as it governed his entire life, but, as had always been the case, in the service of that ambition he had done whatever he had to do.''

Similarly, Caro finds that Johnson's great wealth, estimated at upwards of $20 million by the time he became president, came not from his wife, Lady Bird, as LBJ was fond of saying, but from backroom wheeling and dealing. ``He grabbed for money as greedily as he had grabbed for power,'' writes Caro.

Worst of all, argues Caro, Johnson stole the famed senatorial election of 1948 when he defeated fellow-Texan Coke Stevenson by 87 votes. That election has been characterized in subsequent years as the ``eighty-seven votes that changed history.'' But according to Caro, Johnson didn't even steal the election by a mere 87 votes. No, Johnson stole it by thousands of votes. And then he had the audacity to trumpet that fact to others.

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The largest part of Caro's book, about half, examines the 1948 senatorial election. Coke Stevenson, Johnson's opponent in the Democratic primary, was perhaps the most-popular statewide political leader in Texas. Like Johnson back then, he was tall and lean, given to cowboy hats and hyperbole. Caro is clearly taken with Stevenson, perhaps too much so. Caro sees that election as a metaphor both for LBJ and for modern politics; Johnson used ``modern'' techniques, including polling, barnstorming by helicopter, and spending huge amounts of money for advertising. Coke Stevenson preferred casual chats with old-timers on a porch.

Johnson also had something else going for him: stuffed ballot boxes. How does Caro know this? He talks to ballot-stuffers and cites names, dates, and numbers.

Is Caro terribly unfair to Lyndon Johnson? Johnson admirers will say so. The evidence suggests otherwise. Caro may have overstated his case somewhat. Yet Caro's documentation suggests that Lyndon Johnson was unfair to the American people and thus, ultimately, to himself. Nor is this book really about political ``liberalism'' or ``conservatism.''

What Johnson seemed not to realize was that truth has an orbit of its own, unaffected by public relations campaigns. To write this is not to detract from Johnson's larger legacy - the civil rights legislation, for example, or his admitted interest in bettering the lives of the disadvantaged.

Caro's book will not be the last word on LBJ. Nor, even if Caro's account stands the test of subsequent scrutiny, will Johnson's misdeeds necessarily injure his place in history. Many of the great founders of the American republic had feet of clay - Thomas Jefferson and Daniel Webster, for example - yet remain high in public esteem.

But for now, Caro has written a devastating study that warrants the broadest readership. Caro reminds us that Americans need to be vigilant in upholding their highest standards of ethics and good government.

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