When I was a Senate Page boy long ago in the 1950s, my boss was Lyndon Johnson's young pet lizard, Bobby Baker. Senator Johnson would snap his fingers softly, and I would hustle to the cooler in the Democratic cloakroom to bring him a glass of White Rock sparkling water or dash down the marble back stairs to the Senate restaurant to fetch a dish of vanilla ice cream, which he ate at his desk on the Senate floor as he played his mighty legislative Wurlitzer.
In those days, a distinctive cast of characters populated the Senate. The spectacle seemed like continuous American Shakespeare, with a more interesting regional variety than homogenized America offers today.
The Southerners, flamboyant or saturnine, came from another age. Hoey of North Carolina wore wing collars. Freshman John Kennedy of Massachusetts, thin and glamorous, the millionaire's dreamboat boy, hobbled at the rear of the chamber, on crutches from his back operation. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, remembered now as a dark cloud shadowing America, could show, in private, an unexpected sweetness and charm. Always, front and center (first desk, middle aisle, the Democratic leader's spot) stood Lyndon Johnson, almost handsome then, in his 40s, leaner than history remembers him, narrow-eyed, his hair sleek with Stacomb, alert in a vaguely dangerous way--an impresario, a genius of nuances, a wolf in his prime.
Master of the Senate (Knopf), the third volume of Robert Caro's massive biography of Johnson, splendidly reassembles the U.S. Senate of those Eisenhower years, the arena of L.B.J.'s rapid rise to national power, from freshman Senator in 1949 to the youngest Senate Democratic leader ever, in four short years. Caro, whose great gifts are indefatigable legwork and a sense of historical drama and character, has a fine protagonist for his life's work. His Johnson, a man of Manichaean contraries, is now familiar--by turns Caligula and Lincoln, a narcissistic monster capable of immense personal cruelty and breathtaking political cynicism who now and then metamorphoses into an angel of compassion and statesmanship.
Part of the key, Caro writes, lay in Johnson's astonishing ability to talk himself into anything, including, sometimes, the right thing. (Bill Clinton also possessed the trait.) "[Johnson] had a remarkable capacity," Caro observes, "to convince himself that he held the principles he should hold at any given time, and there was something charming about the air of injured innocence with which he would treat anyone who brought forth evidence that he had held other views in the past."
Caro seems energized by his ambivalence toward L.B.J. Sheer ambition drove the Johnsonian dialectic portrayed in Master. First, Johnson veered to the right and allied himself with conservative Southerners when he arrived at the Senate in 1949. Some years later, he emerged as the hero of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. L.B.J. saw that he could never be elected President if he was perceived as merely a Southerner; he also saw that the civil rights bill was just and necessary.