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“Master of the Senate” by Robert A. Caro (New York: Knopf; 1,152 pages; $35) In Texas in the mid-1900s politicos would sometimes call a certain type of speech a “longhorn” — meaning that it made two points but they were far apart and had lots of bull in between. “Master of the Senate,” the third volume in Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, ain’t no longhorn. It’s a fascinating, rich, immense study of Johnson’s U.S. Senate career: his rapid rise to power, his awesome mastery of its legislative machinery and, most dramatically, his astonishing feat of manipulating the Senate into passing the Civil Rights Act of 1957. As readers of Caro’s two previous volumes would expect, Caro lavishes yet another beautiful, messy coat of paint on this portrait of Johnson’s personality. Caro sees Johnson as a complicated, protean swirl of good and evil — with “genuine compassion for the poor and downtrodden.” But the compassion is always subordinate to overarching personal ambition. He judges Johnson to be a leader who readily “deceived,” “betrayed” and “cheated,” mostly to advance his own interests, but also “on behalf of the 16 million Americans whose skins were dark.” This volume, however, also shines a special sidelight on the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and the law. He was the most adroit, accomplished lawmaker of the 20th century. Yet he was a consummate manipulator — and even violator — of law, and he could make the law or break the law with equal facility, whichever he thought best served his current interests. The book begins and ends with legal vignettes. It opens with an excruciating picture of Southern officialdom denying blacks the right to register to vote. Registrars administered absurd oral exams, and then scored the results so that if a single applicant “failed,” as almost always happened, the entire group being tested also failed. Roy Wilkins said that in 1957 Johnson “got religion on civil rights.” Whenever that happened, upon his conversion Johnson made the denial of voting rights his first target. And he hit the mark, historically, on his very first try. The final scene is a poignant tale of “the last caucus,” when Johnson, after he became vice president, attempted to have the Senate’s Democratic caucus elect him as chairman — blithely flouting fundamental law: the constitutional separation of powers. Even his former, admiring Democratic colleagues denounced this final, desperate and ultimately unsuccessful scheme to cling to power in the Senate, where, as Lady Bird Johnson said, he had spent “the happiest 12 years” of his life. That the law would play such a major role in Johnson’s life is unsurprising. Caro discovers that Johnson’s father had “wanted so desperately to be a lawyer,” and even named Lyndon after a lawyer friend. Lyndon himself “wanted to be a lawyer, wanted it very badly.” When he was 17, Johnson went to California for two years, and worked for a lawyer cousin who told him, incorrectly, that he could easily become a lawyer by working for a few months in the law office and then passing a simple oral bar exam in Nevada. A debacle ensued. Johnson’s cousin went on a two-month drunk, and in the interim, Johnson effectively ran the office. Then he realized that he had begun practicing law without a license and could be prosecuted. He hastily retreated to Texas, and thus ended his incipient legal career. Unquestionably, Johnson had superb lawyering potential. As Caro aptly summarizes those skills: “He had a genius for studying a man and learning his strengths and weaknesses and hopes and fears … . He used his stories, … jokes, … promises, … threats, backing senators up against walls or trapping them in their chairs, wrapping an arm around their shoulders and thrusting a finger in their chests, grasping lapels, watching their hands, watching their eyes, listening to what they said, or to what they didn’t say … . All his life, he had … a ‘knack’ for simultaneously convincing people on opposite sides of an issue that he was on their side … .” Johnson’s use and abuse of his prosecutorial talents to destroy the reappointment, and the personal life, of Federal Power Commission Chairman Leland Olds is chilling to read. Johnson also personally valued lawyers. He surrounded himself with a wide array: from lawyer/lobbyist/fund-raisers such as Ed Clark (“the Secret Boss of Texas”), Tommy Corcoran, and John Connally; to expert legal writers, such as Ben Cohen, who repeatedly averted legislative impasse during the tortuous drafting of the 1957 Civil Rights Act; to the “hard-eyed Washington lawyers” who helped him acquire his Austin TV station (and, with it, considerable personal wealth) in 1952; to the brilliant lawyers — most famously, Abe Fortas — who literally saved Johnson’s political life during the litigation that jeopardized his 1948 election. Johnson’s deep understanding of the law-making process did not deter him from his own legal transgressions. Caro concludes that “at every stage of Johnson’s political career, he had stretched the rules of the game to their breaking point, and then had broken them, pushing deeper into the ethical and legal no-man’s land beyond them than others were willing to go.” The investigations following the Johnson-orchestrated passage of the 1956 natural gas bill produced indictments and convictions of lobbyists who were uncomfortably close to Johnson. And of course, throughout his career, oceans of campaign money — some legal, some not — flowed to Johnson and his designated political allies. But the centerpiece of the book is Caro’s epic, spellbinding description of Johnson’s successful effort to lead, cajole, trick, intimidate and bargain the Senate into passing the Civil Rights Act of 1957. In so doing, Johnson had to change the Senate. He had to change himself. And, as a consequence, as Caro writes with justifiable grandiosity, Johnson “changed the course of American history.” The seniority system and the filibuster had given Southern senators a legislative death-grip. No federal civil rights legislation had passed since 1875. In 1956, the year before Johnson’s successful effort, the Senate had crushed another proposed civil rights bill by the largest margin in history. The South was Johnson’s power base. His first speech on the Senate floor had been in a Southern filibuster against civil rights legislation. He desperately wanted to avoid alienating the Southern senators. Yet, to succeed, he had to convince the Southerners to permit a “token” civil rights bill to pass, while simultaneously convincing Northern liberals of exactly the opposite: that the proposed legislation was meaningful, substantive and important. Johnson stage-managed an elaborate, tangled, grueling series of legislative compromises, tactical machinations and floor maneuvers. And he passed what almost no one thought could pass. Not only was this “one of the most notable legislative feats in American history,” as Caro concludes, but it also began Johnson’s personal transformation into the foremost legislative champion of blacks since Lincoln. And although the law itself was ineffective, just as Johnson had told the Southerners it would be, the victory destroyed the mystique of Southern invulnerability to federal civil rights legislation, just as Johnson had predicted to Northern liberals. That paved the way for passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. In telling what Johnson did and how he did it, Caro is absolutely masterful. In telling why Johnson did it, Caro stumbles somewhat, though not as badly as in his last volume, “Means of Ascent.” Critics of that book noted that Caro was a little too quick to demonize Johnson. Caro condemned Johnson ad nauseam for “stealing” votes to win the 1948 Senate election and for thereby violating “the morals of Texas politics.” (The “morals of Texas politics”? In the patron-dominated, feudal South Texas of the 1940s? How stupendously oxymoronic!) At every juncture, Caro concluded, Johnson’s overweening ambition eclipsed his compassion. Indeed, the index in that earlier book, under the heading “LBJ,” lists 35 entries for the topic “ambition” — and none for “compassion.” A tad unbalanced. Here, by contrast, Caro at least devotes an entire chapter to “The Compassion of Lyndon Johnson.” True, the bulk of that chapter assails Johnson’s compassion as hypocritical. It attacks him for telling different groups completely different things, and for too seldom following through on the compassionate sentiments he did express — sort of an early prototype for modern-day Bush Republicans. But Caro finally admits — seemingly grudgingly, but also with some measure of genuine admiration — that there was something special about Johnson that lifted him above his place and time. Something that drove him to deliver on those compassionate promises, to elevate equality beyond slogans, to codify equal justice into enforceable law:
In the twentieth century, with its 18 American presidents, Lyndon Baines Johnson was the greatest champion that black Americans and Mexican Americans … had in the White House, the greatest champion they had in all the halls of government … . He was able to win these victories in part because of empathy … he understood their thoughts and emotions and felt their thoughts and emotions as if they were his own.

Caro has written another complex, often profound, book about Johnson, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a grand chronicle of the U.S. Senate, the civil rights struggle in Congress, lawyerly intrigues in and around the legislative process — and some of the most extraordinary lawmaking in the nation’s history. OTHER NEW TITLES “The Antitrust Laws: A Primer” by John Shenenfield and Irwin Stelzer (AEI Press, $25.00) When a lawyer and an economist try to write a book, one might expect jargon and endless text. Not in this case. “The Antitrust Laws” is a cogent and simply written analysis of antitrust laws for students in the classroom and corporate honchos in the boardroom. The book explains everything from the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index to the rules governing a lunch at which an executive wants to tell competitors that their price war should stop. “The Business of Law: Planning and Operating for Survival and Growth” by Edward Poll (ABA Publishing, $119.95) This 600-page tome examines and answers almost every question about how to manage a law firm, including how to choose stationery, select clients, manage staff, and create a Web site. A floppy disk is included. “Movies on Trial: The Legal System on the Silver Screen” by Anthony Chase (The New Press, $25.95) The legal profession occupies a lot of the screen at a movie theater near you. Chase’s work analyzes different genres of legal movies and puts them into context in American culture, politics and morality. Chase examines the usual suspects among courtroom dramas (from Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” to John Grisham’s “The Rainmaker”). But he also sifts through more complex legal material involving international law (“Judgment at Nuremberg”) and comparative law and politics (“Three Kings” and the more offbeat cartoon “X-Men”). Charles Herring Jr., of Austin’s Herring & Irwin, is a former Democratic county chairman in Texas and author of a book on Texas political humor. His father worked in Lyndon Johnson’s congressional office and later on Johnson’s 1948 U.S. Senate campaign. E-mail: [email protected].

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