Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2007 | Reviews

The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1) by Robert A. Caro

By Joan Kjaer
Joan Kjaer

Long after she first read The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1) by Robert A. Caro (Vintage), Joan Kjaer, 75BA, deputy director of Iowa Public Radio and station manager of the UI's radio stations KSUI/WSUI, remains impressed by the book's compelling account of a man whose complex personality and unfortunate brush with destiny helped shape modern America.

What's it about?

The first of three volumes examining the life and career of President Lyndon B. Johnson, The Path to Power received enthusiastic praise, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, when it was published in 1982. Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Caro shadows LBJ from his boyhood in the desolate Texas Hill Country until he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948. Caro shows how major events in American history, such as the Great Depression, influenced this mesmerizing and polarizing politician who would go on to lead the nation through other defining watersheds.

Why did it have such an impact on you?

During the era of Kennedy and Johnson—when I was growing up—politics seemed to show the best sense of what it meant to be an American. We had the Great Society, the war on poverty, the fight for civil rights, and the Peace Corps; it was all about people helping each other. And yet, LBJ, who pushed for most of those programs, eventually got bogged down in the mess of Vietnam. The book made me wonder what kind of president he could have been—and what legacy he could have left—if fate hadn't intervened in the shape of the Vietnam War.

What would you tell people to encourage them to read it?

The book is simply spellbinding. Certainly not a dry, dusty political biography, The Path to Power is a carefully written history that's as vivid and colorful as a novel. It shows real people and their problems, like the poverty-ridden Texas farmers—good, hard-working people who endure terrible hardships and yet don't expect anyone to help them. In particular, it revealed many sides of Johnson I didn't know about—he was definitely a complex character. As a president, he was defined not only by his own actions but by Kennedy's legacy. This book presents an epic tale that makes you wonder how much of a role destiny plays in human affairs—and how much we really control our lives.