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Maybe it's the political season...I don't know what possessed me but I decided to read the first volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson.  Johnson never did much for me.  I didn't particularly like him and never found him that interesting.  But...politics makes strange bedfellows, so I picked it up...Maybe I wanted to harken back to a time when Dems knew how to win.

Folks...it's positively fascinating!  More after the flip.

Not only is Johnson vividly painted as an incredibly complex man but as a true political genius.  At times odious, obsequious, hypocritical to the max, etc. etc. still in all, he was a flat-out political visionary.

For instance, I had no idea that Johnson was the individual who essentially created for the Democrats, the DCCC.  It existed but it was moribund.  However, during the waning days of the 1940 election, the Dems turned to Johnson (who was relatively unknown but garnering power behind the scenes).  The Dems were in a bad way and the conventional wisdom was that they were going to lose their New Deal majority.  Johnson had about eight weeks to right things (he was made an informal liason to the DCCC) and promptly created a massive political machine that studied each and every representative election, targetted who should get the money and, by election day, had totally turned things around.  

Johnson did it by this strange alchymical marriage of immense practicality...he knew that big money wanted to keep certain reps with seniority because they kept the money rolling in...tapping new sources of big money (the wildcatters o fhte Texas oil fields) and shadowy power-brokers who were, by in large, reactionary conservatives but knew that the New Deal meant mucho dinero.
By opening up the spigots of cash, scientifically evaluating races, etc. Johnson managed to create a whole new day in Dem funding and electoral politics.

As well, it is a gripping account of electoral politics.  Unblemished skullduggery.  Shadowy bag-men.  Political fixers.  Out and out bribery.  Election box tampering.  On and on and on.  And guess what?  It's the same as it ever was.  Caro's description of Johnson's first Senate race is extremely instructive in placing Bush's electoral rise in context.  While I bitterly hate the result, in all honesty, the 2000 election was definately NOTHING new...if anything it was an amibitious extension of the same governing principles of stealing elections that has made this country what it (gulp) is today.  I'm neither lauding nor condoning.  Just saying that ANYONE with a political jones will find this a page-turning primer in what really goes on behind the scenes.

I add that it is at once exhilerating to read of the past and quite sobering to extrapolate to the present day forces at play. Johnson's primary source of money, legal and otherwise, was Brown and Root. I believe that Brown and Root has been absorbed into Halliburton (I think...if not, they are still a major, MAJOR player). Of course, oil played a major role...as did the media barons. At the time, they knew that their bread was buttered by the New Deal and supported those who could keep bringing in money but at heart they were reactionaries. Currently, of course, they would have little impetus to do anything but contribute, legally and otherwise, to the reactionaries who not only harmonize with their view of government and regulation BUT are also bringing them money like never before. Money, unfortunately begets money. Honesty, fairplay and truth have nothing to do with it. For as much as I want a sea change, it is hard to see how that will happen with the deck stacked with aces for the people who have thrown open the bank vaults for these interests. While I coulda submitted this to an open thread, I think that there is stuff to discuss.  So feel free to contribute, comment, remonstrate or,WTF, hijack the diary.

Over and out.

Originally posted to mayan on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 02:39 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  You're just as fast with your... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mayan, dotsright

    ...reviews as Caro is with the volumes.

    I agree, and the credit goes to both LBJ and to Caro. If you haven't read "The Power Broker" about Robert Moses I strongly recommend it.

    I've read all three LBJ volumes so far. The third ends before the 1960 Presidential namination campaign has started. Caro says he'll wrap everything up in Volume IV.

    Pfft. He started the Senate volume with a 100-page detour into the history of the Senate. I see at least four more volumes:

    1. The Johnson run for the nomination, Kennedy selecting him as VP choice, the 1960 campaign against Nixon/Lodge.
    1. Inauguration Day through Nov. 22, 1963.
    1. His honeymoon. The Veep candidate choice: Humphrey, RFK, Gene McCarthy. Building a team (the best since FDR). The 1964 race against Goldwater/Miller. The Great Society. Bobby Baker, Billie Sol Estes. Civil Rights, Voting Rights Act. Supreme Court appointments.

    I think Caro might fit that into three more volumes, though at his level of detail it looks more like 4.

    1. Vietnam and the collapse of his Presidency.
    •  Just finishing Volume 1... (0+ / 0-)

      His Senate defeat comes at the hands of big alcohol interests who don't want Governor O'Daniel (Johnson's opponent) to stay in Texas because he's a rabid prohibitionist.  It was incumbent on them to figure out a way to get O'Daniel the victory.

      Caro claims that Johnson's big mistake was to release the returns on election day.  Everyone thought that Johnson had won.  He thought he had won...after all, he had paid far more for the votes and precinct bosses than anyone else.  Unfortunately, there was iron-clad control of the ballot boxes (no doubt owned by Diebold, right?), so once the first returns were known, the "forces" knew how many ballots to stuff in order to secure victory for O'Daniel.  (I should add that reading about O'Daniel is VERY redolent of Bush...O'Daniel apparently wasn't in on the fix that got him the Senate seat...he was as crooked as a country mile, though...and secured power through feigned cornpone ignorance, evangelical religion (even though he wasn't religious) and spouting as many promises as he could make though he didn't have a prayer of keeping.)

      "We're all working for the Pharoah" - Richard Thompson

      by mayan on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 03:00:57 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  "he's a rabid"... (0+ / 0-)

        should be, of course, "he was a rabid"  Eye/mind/finger coordination, tsk, tsk.

        "We're all working for the Pharoah" - Richard Thompson

        by mayan on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 03:01:58 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Where to keep critical perspective on Caro (0+ / 0-)

        I'm a big fan, but:

        1. A lot of critics thought that Caro was very unethical when he included the claims of Brown and Root bribing VP LBJ in the forward to Volume I, without providing any documentation until the later volumes. And that was when we thought we talking five years! It's been 22 years now, and he still hasn't backed up the claim.
        1. You'll find out in Volume 2 that Coke Stevenson was a blend of Saint Theresa and Superman. He wasn't; Caro went overboard for the sake of dramatic contrast.
        •  Interesting...thanks... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Elwood Dowd

          Yep...I have no sense of the author behind the three books.  At this point, I get the sense that he's as fascinated by his subject as the reader...in awe of the naked drive and energy but recognizes an almost alien intellect...amoral and nurtured solely by power and "winning" rather than compassion or goal for betterment.  Maybe that changes later on.  I know there's a new biography of Johnson out...I'm not sure whether it takes a different slant or not.

          BTW...any recommendations for books that go into further depth of F.D.R. the political animal?

          "We're all working for the Pharoah" - Richard Thompson

          by mayan on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 06:51:11 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Sorry - (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            mayan

            Please pass along any you find.

            Spending this much time on Johnson is going to change Caro's view of the world. He will come out different than he went in.

            'Alien intellect' is a great perspective on the whole phenomenon. The French have a phrase, 'the sacred monster.' The figure -- often a political leader, but Picasso CERTAINLY qualifies, IMHO -- who is so much bigger than life that we just abandon the normal perspective. They get judged by different rules; they are not 'one of us.'

            World War II was full of them: Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt -- and DeGaulle.

            After DeGaulle it was: LBJ.

            •  I totally get you... (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Elwood Dowd

              I've seen several in the arts, of course...people who are just...well, they may as well be dolphins.  Definately looking at the world through different eyes...processing things differently  Monk, for instance.  An obscure folkie/spaceman named Michael Hurley.  Probably Little Richard and Sun Ra...even behind the shtick is the alien intellect.  William Blake?  Maybe all artists have a bit of it but some got the whole friggin' semi load.

              So yeah...why not politics?  

              "We're all working for the Pharoah" - Richard Thompson

              by mayan on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 07:18:38 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  caro is fantastic (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mayan

    Yes, these books are just great, as great as great is.  You don't have to know or care about LBJ, but when you walk into these biographies, you are grabbed like any well written novel.  Caro is a powerful union of an unreal researcher with a flat out excellent narrative writer.

    Gotta laugh at the first comment about the rather belated review, here.  The second volume is equally gripping.  As for the 3rd volume, while it is as intellectual and well written as the others, is longer and a bit slower . . . but I'm still desperatel awaiting the next one . . . however many years it'll be...

    But I will tell you that, having read these volumes and seeing how Brown & Root came out of its alien spawning grounds to sponsor the career of LBJ, it just gives me the creeps every time I read about today's Halliburton / KBR.  

  •  Read the book a few years ago, and it is (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mayan

    worth recommending. However, IMO, your reaction glosses over the illegal and obstructionist role of the Supreme Court in the 2000 election, plus the large role of nepotism (Jeb Bush, GWB Bush, and Bush family links to arms, oil, and banking interests). I think its fine to point out the parallels in the methods and tactics used, but the result of the use of elected office achieved very different ends than the Republicans of that time would have wanted enacted. LBJ ended up being ensnared in Vietnam partly because of the huge anti-Communist fear machine that had been a Repub Party staple since the end of WWII. Caro, as I remember it, did not focus as much on the Repub fear machine of that day. But it is common knowledge that the McCarthy era Republican politics helped shape the political environment of the 1960's--yet we got different types of leaders from the two parties. The Repubs yielded Nixon; the Dems yielded JFK and RFK.
     Which brings every politican to the age old question from Socrates to Machiavelli, etc, i.e., do the ends justify the means? 56,000 soldiers on the Vietnam War Memorial are a by-product of flawed policies. But it is short-sighted to blame only Democratic President LBJ for the policy failures--he still had to operate in a government filled with a very active Repub opposition--and getting legislation through is never easy. The Repub opposition has caused a lot of policy "mistakes," from Eisenhower (U-2 shootdown) and the McCarthy era, Nixon (Watergate and "Peace with Honor"), Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan (Arms for hostages, El Salvador policy), G.H.W. Bush (Willie Horton Ad), and now G.W. Bush (Take your pick of policy mistakes). The larger narrative, though, is that there are political forces on the Repub side in the US which are much bigger than the actors in the limelight that they suffer to be elected president, and it is these permanent interests that try to impose a form of stability that is most to their liking, whatever the voting public prefers.
      For books on the larger oligarchy, it's worth reading Kevin Philips.

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