Back in about 1974 when Robert Caro had finished writing his monumental biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, he turned his attention to what he expected would be a two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Always interested in political power - how it is gained and how it is used - Caro found Johnson was the ideal candidate for a biography. Nobody was more nakedly ruthless in grasping for power and nobody knew better how to use it, both for ill and for good.
Caro is now working on volume 4 of that two-volume biography, which rumor has it he may need a fifth volume to finish. It could go on forever as far as I'm concerned. It's one of the finest biographies I've ever read. I've been reading Caro just before I go to sleep at night and there are nights when midnight comes and goes and I'm still reading.
Johnson lived as a child in Johnson City, Texas, a small, dusty Hill Country town. His mother was educated and attempted to maintain cultural standards in the Johnson household. But she was unable to cope with the drudgery of keeping house for a large family without much income to work with. As a young man Johnson's father was a member of the Texas legislature and was remembered by many men as "the finest man I ever met." His honesty and hard work on behalf of his constituents was legendary. But he made foolish decisions and the family was dirt poor. People laughed at the Johnson family and his father lived with the shame of not being able to provide for his family for much of his later life.
When he grew up Lyndon Johnson swore that he would never be like his father, laughed at and without resources. He made sure he was nothing like his father and he succeeded. He acquired a significant fortune by using his political connections and he grasped for power no matter what he had to do to get it. He stole elections from the time he ran candidates for class offices in college until the Senate race of 1948 which has gone down as one of the dirtiest in Texas history - and Texas has had some of the dirtiest politics in the US.
This first volume follows Johnson from his impoverished youth and his shame at being laughed at to the eve of World War II which promised to derail his hitherto smooth rise in national politics. As a congressman, Johnson made hydroelectric power generation and rural electrification his issues. The former was to please Brown and Root who wanted to make significant money on the dam they were building on the Pedernales River.
But his passion to bring electric power to the farms of Texas was to benefit the poor people who as late as the 1930s still had no electricity and had to do everything from hauling water to cooking on a wood stove in much the way it had been done in the middle ages. The powerful utilities saw no point in stringing electrical lines great distances to these poor farms assuming the people couldn't afford the rates or the electrical pumps and household wiring and appliances that would increase usage. Johnson proved to them that when the electricity arrived the people would acquire these conveniences and as they used more electricity the rates went down and they were able to take more advantage of this now-essential benefit of civilization.