The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power
by Robert A. Caro
Knopf, 882 pp., $19.95
Lyndon B. Johnson: A Memoir
by George Reedy
Andrews and McMeel, 159 pp., $12.95
Edmund Wilson observed that the works of Theodore Dreiser are like a newspaper full of “commonplace scandals and crimes and obituaries of millionaires, in which the reporter astonishes the readers by being rash enough to try to tell the truth.” Robert Caro is the most Dreiserian of our chroniclers. He proceeds in the same plodding, laborious, heroic way, which makes The Path to Power’s arrival at fashion something of an astonishment. For Dreiser seems fated always to be the least fashionable of great novelists, because he too much oppresses us with the weight of how capital is accrued and careers made.
Any catalogue of rascalities so enormous presents us, and perhaps even its compiler, with the danger that its scandals will be too great a distraction from its more consequential import as testament to the immutability of our social history. Caro’s Johnson, like Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood, is a creature liberated from moral prejudices; and, unless we set aside our own, we will miss each one’s lesson.
Once we suspend ethical judgments of the personal sort, we begin to recognize that, in all affection and piety, Caro has thrown a dead cat into the garden of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s centennial. The Path to Power’s truly resonant message is that the richest rewards of social reform are reserved for the enterpriser with the wit and detachment to find his main chance in the spirit of his age.
In The Titan, Frank Cowperwood creates a barony of short-term Chicago street railway franchises and aspires to make it an empire with a $200 million stock issue. He is balked when the investment bankers refuse the uncertainties of a venture dependent upon the purchased kindness of Chicago aldermen, who could, at their corrupt will, peddle Cowperwood’s franchise to another tenant when his lease expires at the end of a bare seven years.
Cowperwood scents rescue from these perplexities when Joel Avery, one of his lawyers, reminds him that the New York State legislature has thought to temper the greed of the utilities by mandating a Public Service Commission, which will “fix the rate of compensation to be paid to the state or the city… [and] regulate transfers, stock issues, and all that sort of thing.” But such prospects are minor vexations when set next to the grander comforts for men of vision offered by a Public Service Commission’s power to extend the terms of franchises.
“I was thinking,” Avery says, “if at any time we find this business of renewing the franchises too uncertain here we might go into the state legislature and see what can be done about introducing a public service commission of that kind into this state.” Cowperwood at once detects the blessing that a lesser enterpriser would have mistaken for the curse of public regulation. Here was not the seed of destruction but “the germ of a solution—the possibility of extending his franchises for fifty or even a hundred years.” In …