Jim Dey: Book about LBJ a revelation

Jim Dey: Book about LBJ a revelation

Jim's Pseudo-Intellectual Book Club — Volume LX

Step aside fellow pseudo-intellectuals. "Landslide Lyndon" rides again, and he'll crush anyone who gets in the way.

The late President Lyndon Johnson was one tough hombre, a man who knew what he wanted and how to get it — by any means necessary.

Basically, what he wanted was power and money — women, too, but that's another story. Robert Caro's masterful "Means of Ascent" tells how Johnson got the first two. Let's put it this way — he didn't play by the rules.

Those familiar with Caro's work know this brilliant biographer has devoted much of his professional life to a planned 5-volume Johnson series. He's written four, and work on Vol. V is under way. But each is a separate story unto itself, describing in fascinating detail, based on exhaustive research, just how Johnson rose from poverty to the presidency.

"Means of Ascent" (Vol. II) tells exactly how this relatively low-paid public servant laid the groundwork for the vast wealth he ultimately acquired. It also describes then-U.S. Rep. Johnson's historic run in 1948 for the U.S. Senate from Texas against popular former Gov. Coke Stevenson, a race he won by 87 votes on the strength of massive vote fraud carried out by those on his payroll or in his debt.

Johnson was to become one of the greatest senators in American history, a peerless leader who knew how to bend powerful politicians to his will and a master tactician who could operate the levers of power blindfolded.

But how he got to the Senate is another story altogether, one that begins, ironically, with Johnson's defeat in his first run for the Senate in a special 1941 election. Johnson rarely made mistakes, but in that contest he was so far ahead of incumbent Democratic Gov. Pappy O'Daniel that he allowed his underlings throughout the state to report all their votes rather than hold some back in case of an emergency.

That's when the man who stole the 1948 election had the 1941 election stolen from him. Hey, Texas politicians play rough.

Depressed and defeated, Johnson had to wait seven years for the right opportunity to win a Senate seat.

In the meantime, World War II started, and Johnson had promised he would serve, even though he did not want to do so. Still, he took an officer's appointment, flew as an observer on a combat mission, was awarded a medal he didn't deserve and then returned to his congressional seat after President Franklin Roosevelt called members of Congress who were in the military back to service in Washington, D.C.

Some members resigned their seats so they could remain in the military. Johnson had better things to do, including use his congressional power to acquire the first of a string of radio stations (and ultimately TV stations) on which his wealth was built.

Caro's research makes it clear that he used his political influence at the Federal Communications Commission first to acquire a down-in-the-dumps Austin station and then get it longer hours on the air and a more favorable spot on the radio dial. With everything in place, Johnson used his political influence to sell air time to advertisers who wanted a congressman to provide help when they needed it.

It was all on the hush-hush. Johnson falsely claimed his financial success was the result of his wife's entrepreneurial skill. But, as Caro demonstrates, that was not true.

The meat of the book, however, focuses on Johnson's Senate race, how he badly trailed the popular Stevenson in the polls and then worked like a dog to catch up. Johnson was the first politician to campaign by helicopter. Through influential friends, he had access to unlimited funds, cash he used to smeare the popular Stevenson as corrupt and lie about his opponent's positions.

Finally, when push came to shove, Johnson used a coterie of political hit men led by the "Duke of Duvall" County to steal the election.

It's a heck of a tale, if you don't mind learning about how politicians can behave when they are cornered and desperate.

Readers of history will find "Means of Ascent" a real page turner and Johnson one of the most interesting characters in this country's long political history. It doesn't get much better than this.

Previous likes

Here are previous recommendations from Jim's Pseudo-Intellectual Book Club.

— "Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II's Most Dramatic Mission" by Hampton Sides.

— "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" by Edmund Morris.

— "A Night to Remember" by Walter Lord.

— "April 1865: The Month That Saved America" by Jay Winik.

— "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" by Laura Hillenbrand.

— "Lindbergh" by A. Scott Berg.

— "The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963" by Laurence Leamer.

— "The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case" by Sam Roberts.

— "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy" by Jane Leavy.

— "Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions" by Ben Mezrich.

— "Harry & Ike: The Partnership That Remade the Post-War World" by Steve Neal.

— "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game" by Michael Lewis.

— "Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingstone" by Martin Dugard.

— "In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors" by Doug Stanton.

— "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34." by Bryan Burrough.

— "Flags of our Fathers," by James Bradley.

— "Cary Grant: A Biography" by Marc Elliot.

— "Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager" by Buzz Bissinger.

— "Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York" by Kenneth Ackerman.

— "They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967" by David Maraniss.

— "Flashman" (a novel) by George MacDonald Fraser.

— "Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and A World on the Brink" by David Margolick.

— "Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics and the Battle for the Soul of a City" by Jonathan Mahler.

— "Five Families: the Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires" by Selwyn Raab.

— "The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and the Golden Age of Basketball." by John Taylor.

— "American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies" by Michael Kauffman.

— "The Looming Tower: al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11" by Lawrence Wright.

— "A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports" by Brad Snyder.

— "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game" by Michael Lewis.

— "The Education of a Coach" by David Halberstam.

— "Arc of Justice: A Sage of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age" by Kevin Boyle

— "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived The Great American Dust Bowl" by Timothy Egan.

— "The Wrong Man: The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case" by James Neff.

— "The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House" by John Harris.

— "FDR" by Jean Edward Smith

— "The Unlikely Spy" (a novel) by Daniel Silva.

— "Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal" by Ben Macintyre

— "The Interpretation of Murder" (a novel) by Jed Rubenfeld

— "The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country" by Laton McCartney.

— "The Last Great Fight: The Extraordinary Tale of Two Men and How One Fight Changed Their Lives Forever" by Joe Layden.

— "The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958 and the Birth of the Modern NFL" by Mark Bowden.

— "Making Jack Falcone: An Undercover FBI Agent Takes Down a Mafia Family" by Joaquin "Jack" Garcia.

— "Into the Wild" by Jon Krakauer

— "Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi" by Neal Bascomb

— "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Goodwin.

— "His Excellency: George Washington" by Joseph Ellis.

— "Clemente" by David Maraniss

— "An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963" by Robert Dallek

— "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" by Neal Gabler.

— "Tears in the Darkness" by Michael and Elizabeth Norman

— "The Scarecrow" by Michael Connelly (mystery novel).

— "Four Days in November" by Vincent Bugliosi

— "Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald." by Edward Jay Epstein

— "America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation" by Michael MacCambridge

— "Billy Boyle" (fiction) by James Benn

— "The Ghost War" (fiction) by Alex Berenson

— "Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President" by Candice Millard

— "A Higher Call: An Incredible Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II" - Adam Makos

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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