The Years of Robert Caro – A review of his Lyndon Johnson biographies Part Three

The Years of Robert Caro – A review of his Lyndon Johnson biographies
Part Three
 
           The Passage of Power is Robert Caro’s fourth book in his Years of Lyndon Johnson series (Alfred A.Knopf, 2012; ISBN # 978-0-679-40507-8). This volume covers the 1960 presidential campaign to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
            By now Caro’s style is firmly enmeshed:
            The book opens with a tease of things to come. In previous volumes it was the beginnings of his quest for financial stability or his speech on civil rights legislation. Here we are on Air Force One in the late afternoon on November 22, 1963 after …
            The next 20 (or so) pages of its 805 pages (not counting index, bibliographies and end notes) repeats the relevant facts from the previous three books – LBJ’s desire to be president since his hard-scrabble teens, his election to the House and the Senate and his rise to power to become the most powerful man in Washington second only to President Eisenhower.
            These recaps are necessary for new readers. It is possible to read one of the four books without the others. If one is only interested in LBJ’s time in the Senate, you can skip the first two volumes. Caro recaps enough information and provides enough back-story to avoid confusing the readers with Johnson’s motives. Reading the books together can make that redundant. But for a reader like me, who would put each of the books down for several weeks (or months) before resuming, the recaps are helpful.
            I must admit Caro cheats a bit in Passage of Power. He hypes his previous work in footnotes (“for an example of how Johnson could ruin another politician’s career, see Master of the Senate, pages x-xx”). Having read through the previous Years… series I remember the reference. Someone picking up Passage as the first book of the series may be frustrated. I advise the new reader go to the library and read the selected passage. If he or she is intrigued enough – check out the book and then buy your own copy!
***
            After the “In our last episode” reminders the biography describes Johnson’s desire to run for president in 1960. Most of the candidates were other senators – senators who were beneath him during the past decade. He wielded more power, and could call in more favors, than they. The power brokers planned how he would get the votes – mostly from the south, the west and the big city bosses. There were only 16 primaries at that time and some of them – such as conservative Indiana and states promised to him (Robert Byrd’s West Virginia, for example) – he likely would have won the nomination.
            (I enjoyed reading this section and noting how alien the nomination process was compared to “modern times”.)
            Caro ignores speculation how he would have done against a Republican nominee. How would he have faired against Nixon?
            But Johnson delayed and delayed running for the Democratic nomination until it was time for the convention. Why?
            Caro is as confused as Johnson’s aids. Was Johnson so scared of losing – as he did in 1956 – that he did nothing? That doesn’t sound like the opportunistic LBJ we’ve come to know in the past three books.
            In the end, LBJ hoped for a deadlocked convention and for the “smoke-filled room” to give the nomination to him as a dark horse candidate. That way he could avoid the campaign trail against the charm of Kennedy and the oratorical skill of Hubert Humphries – both traits he distinctly lacked. 
***
            After the intro and recap, we watch the race for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination.
            But first, as with the prior volumes, we read a short but thorough biography of people important to this volume’s narrative. Previously we read about Sam Rayburn, Richard Russell, the Hill Country of Texas, LBJ’s father and Lady Bird. Here Caro gives us bios of John F. Kennedy. Not a complete bio – books on Kennedys could fill the libraries of an entire state – but on JFK’s political career and his history of poor health. Caro says if Johnson had known of Kennedy’s health struggles and determination to rise above his constant chronic pain, Johnson would have taken the scrawny playboy more seriously as a competing candidate for the presidential nomination.
            Caro also gives us a brief bio of Robert Kennedy. His and LBJ’s hatred of each other permeate the book as it permeated LBJ’s life and career throughout the 1960s. Ironically before Passagecame out I read Jeff Shesol’s Mutual Contempt (1998, Norton paperback, ISBN # 0-393-04078) – the only book I could find that dealt exclusively with the Johnson-Kennedy feud. I disagree to Shesol’s critics that it is Kennedy-leaning. I find it even-handed. It enjoyed reading another view of the feud along with Caro’s in Passage – Robert Kennedy and LBJ’s convention fight, their interaction during JFK’s presidency, the assassination, the first year of LBJ’s presidency, etc.  I recommend it, not as a companion to Passage of Power but on its own merits.
            The LBJ-RFK feud hit critical mass at the convention – neither man forgave the other after their actions during the primaries and the convention. Robert Kennedy’s threats warning Johnson not to accept the vice-presidential nomination was wonderfully portrayed in both books.
***
            Caro reminds us of LBJ’s knack for taking a small, ineffectual position or office and turning it into a seat of power. He did it in college with fraternal organizations and with a small student body job. He did it as a congressional aide in the “Little Congress”. He did it with the Minority Whip, Minority Leader and Majority Leader positions in the Senate.  LBJ tried to do the same with the Vice-Presidency, but this time without success.
            Passage shows us Johnson going through the few duties, assignments and positions given as vice-president; but focuses mainly on LBJ’s dislike of the job. He went from being the second most powerful man in Washington to the least (to paraphrase the author) in a town where power means everything.
***
            Little was said of Lady Bird. Perhaps this was an unintentional allegory: this volume had as much to do with Lady Bird as LBJ had. One passage was telling – when the secret service met with her at the White House to discuss the needs of the First Family in the private quarters, Lady Bird said Lyndon’s needs come first (in this case it was about the size of their bed), then the children, then hers. Other than quotes from Lady Bird about Jackie Kennedy and other events, she was no more present in this biography than, say, Bobby Baker.
***
            I looked forward to Caro’s take on the assassination. There has been more written about the events of November 22, 1963 than any other – perhaps with the exception of Lincoln’s assassination – from the technically detailed to the laughingly paranoiac to politically-motivated hack jobs. I wasn’t disappointed here.
            We are shown LBJ’s and JFK’s Texas trip – speeches given, banquets attended and people met. We learn about the feud between Texas’ governor and one of its senators; who wanted to ride with LBJ; who refused to ride with LBJ.
            We are with LBJ in the motorcade.
            We are standing with LBJ in the hospital as he grimly awaits the news.
            We walk with him through the bowels of the hospital to his limousine and to Air Force One.
            More importantly, we see LBJ’s transformation from the sulky moping vice-president to the firm, decisive President of the United States.
            Bravo to Caro for his portrayal of this magnificent transformation.
            Caro doesn’t come right out and say it, but it is obvious Johnson had planned this moment from the minute he agreed to be the vice presidential candidate.
            Neither I nor Caro are implying Johnson had a hand in the assassination – the author strongly states that in all his research he found NOTHING to imply LBJ’s knowledge or involvement. The only acknowledgement the author gives to any conspiracy is to name Jim Garrison, author of On the Trail of the Assassins, a publicity hunter.  I must admit to being a fan of assassination conspiracy theories and Caro’s opinion on it was short and brief – LBJ was not involved. The author stopped his inquiry there. Any other opinion would be his alone and is not a part of this book. Good for him, I say. Caro does state that both Robert Kennedy and Johnson believed the assassination was a conspiracy and the Warren Commission Report was wrong, but went no further than that; because Johnson went no further than that.
            Back to the point – it is obvious Johnson knew what he would do the moment he became president should it happen. Perhaps JFK would die from his various illnesses or drown or be in a plane or automobile accident. An assassin’s bullet was likely the last scenario on LBJ’s list. But it happened. Johnson was president. What would he do first?
            He met with the country’s leaders; he begged, cajoled and pleaded with Kennedy’s staff and cabinet to stay on. He had to pass a budget and decide whether to run in his own presidential election less than one year away (not counting the convention only ten-or-so months away).
            He had to keep the Kennedy people – even Robert – as allies and in his White House. He did not want to ostracize or anger them lest they form their own kingdom in exile. Robert Kennedy had already made noises about running on his own after his brother’s presidency ended. LBJ’s spoke his famous phrase “my worst fear was Robert Kennedy running for president against me” from Day One. Johnson did NOT want to be known as “the mistake between the Kennedys”.
            And he kept the staff and cabinet. Well, the essentials: Salinger, MacNamara, Sorenson, even Robert Kennedy. By the time they did leave Johnson had shown enough muscle in the office to make it his own. The rest of Passage shows how he did it.
            He broke the logjam in the Senate – first with a small bill involving sending wheat to Russia, then his tax bill, then, finally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
            LBJ made sure to have the other bills passed before the Southern Caucus could filibuster Civil Rights – thus the Caucus’ extortion or holding hostage of the tax and budget bills until the civil rights legislation was withdrawn. LBJ called it getting all the kids into the basement before the storm hits.
            He did it through a series cajoling and influence-peddling that is alien to us now. “NASA is looking for a place to build”, “You want that water works, don’t ya?”
            He reminded the Republicans they were the party of Lincoln – that gave great weight during the Civil Rights Act debate. One of the Act’s most ardent opponents was the Republican from Illinois Everett Dirksen. A Republican. From Illinois. Dirksen didn’t stand a chance.
            At this point Passage of Powerbecomes glorious reading. The author himself beams with pride and admiration at Johnson’s accomplishments.
            The book leaves us with an LBJ nearing the peak of his power and influence. The election of 1964 will validate that. At the end of the book Johnson has a 77% approval rating. He was at the very top.
            … and when you are at the top there is only one place left to go.
           
***
            Passage of Power finally solves the mystery brewing over the previous million words. Well, a mystery at least to me: why was such a cruel, Machiavellian autocrat so concerned about civil rights, about educating and feeding the poor and providing them health care?
            Caro points to a few phrases: LBJ’s aids at the beginning of his presidency advised how difficult passing a Civil Rights Act would be. Should he waste his time on it? “What is the Presidency for?” he said. In another (and to me, more telling) he said he wanted to help the blacks of Mississippi and the Mexicans in California and the Johnsons of Johnson City.
            Johnsons of Johnson City? He was comparing his perceived shame in growing up destitute thanks to a “failure” of a father with the plight of the oppressed lower classes in America.  He saw the lower class’ humiliation and lack of respect and dignity mirrored in his own. Robert Caro makes us believe LBJ wanted sincerely to help – a sincerity that this reader did not believe existed in the prior volume.
            But LBJ was president now. Before, he cajoled his way to the top. He did EVERYTHING to reach his goal; and now that it was reached, he could afford to be munificent as well as magnificent.
            Some criticize Caro’s earlier books saying that Johnson was portrayed as a villain. That is because he was, in fact, a villain. With rare exception LBJ was unlikeable. If you could benefit him in some way (financially or politically), he could be your best friend. If you were a detriment, you were removed. If you were neither, you were ignored.
            But Caro transforms Johnson into a magnanimous champion of civil rights in a matter of a dozen pages. He compares LBJ to Lincoln. No president, Caro says, none of the 17 men between Lincoln and Johnson did as much for civil rights as Johnson. He was the 20th-century Lincoln, Caro concludes.
            Shocking hyperbole, but after reading Caro’s defense of the statement, I am inclined to agree. LBJ finally becomes the man he claimed to be in his campaign speeches. The author raises LBJ up to almost Kennedy-esque idealism. I happily joined the ride.
            Caro mentioned that the cruelty would return during his full term as president – the belittling of staff, the crushing of opponents and the ignoring of anyone else. He foreshadows Viet Nam withering the advancements made in civil and social rights; almost as if he were preparing us in case Volume Five is not finished.
            This book ends at Johnson’s height of power and popularity. It would make a good place to end the series if required. Fortunately, Caro promises a fifth volume.
***
            Robert Caro’s first book in The Years of Lyndon Johnson was released in 1982, the second in 1990, the third in 2002 and the fourth in 2012. Despite this once-every-decade schedule, he says he will publish the fifth and final volume in two or three years.
            I hope so. I’m looking forward to it. I also hope it will be in three years and not in the 2020s.
            Caro turns 79 this October: that he will be around to publish the fifth book after a decade-long wait is … well … unlikely.
            Can he finish the fifth book in one-third of the time it took him to finish the others?  To answer yes is not necessarily being optimistic.
            Most of the people he interviewed for the series are gone now – Connally, McNamara, Sallinger, Lady Bird – and he plumbed as much as he could from them. Bill Moyers still refuses to be interviewed, but Caro does a splendid job without Moyers’ input. Imagine the flavor of the book with Moyer’s viewpoint.
            Surely Robert Caro is smart enough to have asked McNamara, for example, all he wanted to know about Viet Nam and Johnson’s involvement before McNamara’s death in 2009.
            Additionally, of Johnson’s entire career, the topics fifth and final book has already been covered extensively by others. He can justifiably rely on secondary sources. I doubt there will be any surprises or bombshells.
            What there will be is the story of Johnson’s full term as President of the United States; the Great Society and Viet Nam told in Caro’s style. That is something to look forward to.
            But a personal plea, Mr. Caro – make copious notes of how you want this book to be. Have your estate ready to pick the person to complete the book if your health demands you cannot finish it. Find someone who can emulate your style – make sure it reflects your voice.
            With the fifth book we will say goodbye to Lyndon Baines Johnson; but also goodbye to you as his biographer. Thank you for 32 years of an excellent series. Thank you for helping us know our 27th President.
Original material copyright 2014 Michael G Curry


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The Years of Robert Caro – A review of his Lyndon Johnson biographies Part Two

The Years of Robert Caro – A review of his Lyndon Johnson biographies
Part Two
 
            Volume Two of Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Means of Ascent(Albert A. Knopf, 1990; ISBN # 0-394-49973-5) was the first book of the biography series that I purchased. It was in the bargain bin of the Wal-Mart in Murphysboro, Illinoisduring the spring of 1992. I took it with me to read in the lobby of one of the law firms with which I interviewed (and got the job). It was snowing heavily and I dropped the book in my driveway when I got home. The dust-jacket was off (I always take off the dust jacket) and the black cover bled onto my hands and shirt. Good thing it happened after the interview.
            It is the shortest of the four volumes published to date – 412 pages not counting index, bibliographies and annotations – just over half the page-count of the previous volume (and the fourth) and 2/5th the length of Master of the Senate.
            That is because it covers the nadir of LBJ’s political career. It begins just after his defeat at the hands of Governor Pappy O’Daniel for Texas’ open US Senate seat and concludes with his successful second Senate run – from 1941 to 1948.
            The introduction is a masterful retelling of LBJ’s call to arms for civil rights as president in the 1960s.  The author tells us he intends to take us back to show the means that led to this noble end; means which were far from noble. We see a Lyndon Johnson beginning to amass his fortune, his ruthless style of running his Congressional office, and his do-or-die attitude in his second bid for the Senate. This is not the Lyndon Johnson of the introduction; this is a vicious opportunist at the start of his climb to power.
            What changed? Future volumes will show. In the meantime we the readers can watch his climb – and watch as he uses everyone he meets as an expendable rung.
            He had his plan to power: the House of Representatives to the Senate to the Presidency. He made no bones about the desire to become a Senator, but more-or-less kept his presidential ambitions secret. Occasionally the plan would slip out. The book mentions LBJ looking upon the House gallery muttering, “too slow, too slow…” Because of the unbreakable tradition of seniority of House committee chairmanships, he would be an old man before he achieved anything close to power in the House. And Congressmen rarely made it directly to the White House. He needed, NEEDED, to go to the Senate.            
            Challenging incumbents were futile; he had to wait for an opening as was the case in 1941 (and as was the case for his House seat in 1937). So what to do in the meantime?
            Amass his fortune.
            The introduction of Path to Power revealed the beginnings of his association with Brown & Root, a Texascorporation that helped finance his elections and begin his financial career in exchange for votes favoring their schemes. They were involved in construction, engineering and military contracts. LBJ’s influence in the House helped them get their contracts, and in exchange … well, LBJ didn’t get a kickback, but did get to ride their coattails in B&R’s financial ventures. Eventually Johnson bought a radio station where his new friends would advertise. In later volumes, we discovered that if anyone – anyone – wanted a political favor from the Congressman-then-Senator would require they buy advertising on his now-network of Texas stations. Even if the business was an insurance firm in North Carolina– they advertised in Texas in exchange for favorable passage of their pet projects.
            During WWII he finagles a commission in the Navy and, during a House junket, sees genuine combat, from which he was awarded the Silver Star.
            The other two-thirds of the book show the details of his 1948 Senate run.
            The author gives us a biography of his opponent – then-Governor Coke Stevenson. His last Senate run was against a sitting governor as well, showing the reader the importance of the seat.
            Coke Stevenson, Mr. Texas, is given all the respect that was his due (supposedly, he was a raging bigot). Caro also shows Johnson slowly, ever so slowly, chipping away at his huge lead.
            LBJ campaign used modern technology – using a helicopter to enter towns and villages in the most dramatic fashion, and using telephone solicitations and polls.
            And he cheats.
            Oh how he cheats.
            His moniker “Landslide Lyndon” came from this campaign and election. Caro vividly explains how politics work in the most southern counties in Texas. We learn about Alice, Texasand Jim Hogg County as well as short bios of “The Duke of Duval County”, his ilk and their fiefdoms. Caro shows how they work, and decide, elections.
            Johnson lost his last run for Senate by reporting their returns first. His opponent then reported their returns – not coincidentally reporting more votes for their candidate.
            He would not make that mistake in this election. He won by 47 votes. Some people voted in their precincts in alphabetical order.
            Caro discusses Stevenson’s challenge and his dislike of LBJ for the rest of his life (he supported Goldwater in 1964). But in the meantime Stevenson found the love of his life and retired from public life as a rancher. It was, after all, a happy ending for Mr.Texas.
            And a happy ending for LBJ. He was a Senator now, on the second rung of his ultimate plan for power. He was happy and rich. The scorched bodies he left behind are irrelevant.
            Aren’t they?
            Master of the Senate (2002, USBN # 0-394-52836-0) picks up immediately after the second volume. First, though, Caro gives us a superb history of the US Senate and its role in UShistory through its legislation as well as its lack of legislation. Caro shows us a history of the radical House as well as the Executive Branch proposing bill after bill reflecting the changing attitudes of the country. Civil rights, labor reform, environmentalism, care for the poor and aged. Wave after wave of legislation smashing against the unmovable dam of the US Senate – the keeper of the status quo – all to no affect.
            You shall not pass.
            Attaining power in the Senate would take almost as long as in the House, despite there being only 95 men to leap-frog on the way to power. Johnson would have to suck up to the committee chairmen; some of which had been chairmen for decades (during the times while the Democrats held the majority). Fortunately Johnson had a leg up here – most of the chairmanships belonged to the longest-serving senators. And all of them were from the south. They belonged in what was called the Southern Caucus – fiscally and culturally conservative Democrats. Put another way – the only black they like is the color of ink on a ledger; as opposed to the color of one’s skin.
            In Means of Ascent, Caro provided a thorough biography of Sam Rayburn – the Speaker of the House. Here are meet Richard Russell – the “head” of the Southern Caucus. Russell did not have a title equal to Rayburn, but he had equal power. Johnson sucked up to Russell in the same way he had Rayburn. LBJ became his sycophant; and then his second-in-command. Russell was priming Johnson to become the leader of the Southern Caucus. This was as high a position as a senator from the south can become.
            Right?
            So other than an informal position with nose firmly implanted in Richard Russell’s bottom, how can LBJ gain power not just over the Southern Caucus, but the rest of the Senate? How will that help him with his ultimate goal? Caro marks the parallels with Johnson’s first days in the Senate with his days in the House and before that as a Congressional aide. He takes a little-used office – Minority Whip – and transforms it into a title that brings him power; just as he did in college and in the “Little Congress”.
            He took command of the disbursement of funds for election campaigns. Those he instinctually knew would lose their seat either in a primary or general election got little money. Those who would win got more. Those who begged – those who kissed ass – got even more. He wielded his power with the strict purpose of gathering more power.
            He transformed the post of Minority Leader and, soon, Majority Leader. He brought the Senate to a level of power not seen since before FDR’s presidency. And with the rise in the power of the Senate, came a rise in his power and influence.  No bill passed that he did not want passed; no bill failed that he wanted to fail.
***
            Before becoming the second most powerful man in Washington, though, we learn about Johnson’s rise in the Senate. He firmly planted himself with the Southern Caucus with his “We of the South” speech. Before the senate and the nation he explained the unwritten mandate of the Caucus and showed that he firmly stood with them.
            And yet in the presence of northern liberals he stated he was in favor of their policies, too. All things to all people; keeping all options open; keeping your political aspirations multiple choice.  
            He enmeshed himself with his Texas oil benefactors by destroying the career of Leland Olds – painting him as a communist with a McCarthy-like precision. Caro spends more time than was probably necessary focusing on LBJ’s hatchet job. I became bored with it after a while.
            Speaking of McCarthy, Caro shows us an LBJ conspicuously silent during Tailgunner Joe’s red-baiting rampage. Johnson said he would wait to allow the Wisconsin Senator to self-implode. This would keep Johnson from taking sides. History proved LBJ right, fortunately for him.
***
            We focus next on LBJ’s 1955 near-fatal heart attack and recovery. Johnson lies to the press about relaxing at the Ranch and finally sitting back and reading books. He still controlled the Senate from his swimming pool.
***
            Johnson tried late in the campaign to run for president in 1956. He was soundly trounced.  But this paved the way for a possible run in 1960. He learned in 1956 that he must prevail over his magnolia taint. How can he as a southerner overcome (no pun intended) his segregationist associations? Did his “We of the South” speech doom his presidential aspirations?
            By passing a civil rights bill for the first time in 80 years.
            When it was time to finally address civil rights and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Caro shows us how LBJ did it against all odds.
            So why, after thousands of pages of ruthless exploitation of some and the crushing of others for his own advancement (and seeming amusement), did LBJ support a civil rights bill?
            As mentioned in the prior blog, Robert Caro is the wonderful writer.  He has a novelist’s skill in inserting drama, cliffhangers and foreshadowing/foreboding in his work.  In addition his books are thoroughly researched and he uses direct quotes as much as possible.
            That being said, Master of the Senate is my least favorite book of this series. Here LBJ is still a ruthless opportunist. He’s still a sycophant, too; but that fades when he becomes Majority Leader. He is the Master now. He still needs the support of Russell and the Southern Caucus – the men that made him Leader. Although he is not as harsh to them as he is to the “northern liberals” – demanding they kowtow to him and treat him deferentially almost to the point of ludicrousness – he no longer completely demurs to them.
            Caro so succinctly shows us LBJ’s use of power offensively that when Masterfocuses on the passage of the first real Civil Rights bill since Reconstruction, I find LBJ’s support of the bill unconvincing and artificial.
            LBJ seemed so villainous and Machiavellian that his concern for passage of the bill rang false. What was his motive? Altruism? Surely not, how will the passage of the bill line his pocket or aid his career in any way?
            We discover it was a way to break out of his “We of the South” mold. How can he have a chance to become president by being associated with the Southern Caucus? Richard Russell’s run for the Democratic nomination in 1952 proved the futility of such hopes.
            LBJ hoped to show that although he may be southern; he was no Southerner. However, Caro’s skill at portraying Johnson made this reader not believe a word of it! If the phrase was around at the time, any speech or quote by LBJ in support of civil rights would have been met with a “Yeah, Right…” by this reader.  The “northern liberals” at the time agreed with me. Caro would change my mind in the fourth book.
            Regardless of his reason why LBJ supported the civil rights bill; we see how masterfully LBJ got the votes to pass it – by co-opting western conservatives into the fight by promising dams, water projects and other programs and by gutting parts of the bill that were found “offensive” by the Southern Caucus. The right to trial by jury was cut – effectively making it unenforceable by federal prosecutors trying to make their case in front of white southern judges.
            So now LBJ can claim to be a champion for civil rights while still being “of the South” – paving a path to a presidential run in 1960. He kept all his options open.
            To repeat: throughout Master, Caro showed LBJ’s ruthless, unquenchable desire for power as well as his ability destroy the lives of anyone in his way with such efficiency that it is hard to believe this is the same Johnson involved in Civil Rights during his presidency. I truly disliked LBJ at the end of this volume. Why did such a self-centered power-grubber later become the champion of civil rights? How is that possible?
            Caro will explain that in his next volume …
            The book more or less ends at the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The next three years are covered by a small chapter and sets the stage for the 1960 presidential campaign. There is also a small addendum of LBJ trying to transform his position as President of the Senate into something more powerful – as he had done with “useless” offices throughout his career. He fails. Senators no longer fawned over him as he entered the cloak room. They have no need to fear him now. 
            More power was yet to come thanks to scheming back-room negotiations during a party convention and, three years later, an assassin’s bullet.
           
Original material copyright 2014 Michael G Curry


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Years of Robert Caro – A review of his Lyndon Johnson biographies Part One

Years of Robert Caro – A review of his Lyndon Johnson biographies
Part One
            Lyndon Baines Johnson won the 1964 presidential election of the United States on November 3, 1964; two days before my birth.  Both events mark their 50thanniversary in 2014.
            Last night, March 22, 2014, I finished Robert Caro’s fourth volume of his masterful biography of the man who was president on the day I was born. The book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power (2012, Alfred A Knopf – all the books are by Alfred A. Knopf; the hardback volumes that I own at any rate), ISBN # 978-0-679-40507-8 covers his time as Vice-President until the passage of he Civil Rights Act of 1964 in July of that year. The book touches on later events, but more as a precursor of the fifth (and presumably final) book of the series.
            As with the prior volume, just before The Passage of Power (as with all his LBJ books, they are titles The Years of Lyndon Johnson: …; I will refer to the four books by their secondary title to avoid writer’s cramp), I read the previous books to get back into the subject and the writer’s style. I doubt I will do that with the fifth volume. Mr. Caro is already at, by my poor estimation, over 1.1 millions words. I may not live long enough to read through them again, particularly considering the Trollope-an lengths of most of the series.
            The first book was released in 1982 and the author’s style has not changed in the past 32 years. Robert Caro writes as a novelist – dramatic retelling of events and people that figure most prominently in LBJ’s life and surroundings. He quotes directly as often as possible. Although this “leads to … some” creative “sentence (structure) throughout … the book(s)” it does not distract. His chapters and sections sometimes end on the type of cliffhangers or ominous forebodings that would make Dan Brown jealous. That may annoy some people; I find it nail-biting fun! I am sucked into the drama Caro produces.
            An internet search shows Mr. Caro has written only one book other than his Years of Lyndon Johnson series – The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York – so I do not know if the author’s talent for drama (sometimes melodrama) is a talent of his own or based on his subject. Regardless, the style fits in perfectly with his subject. There are not many politicians and no presidents known more for their melodramatics than the 36thPresident. At least, according to this series.
            John Connally, LBJ’s key aide in the Senate, Governor of Texas (he was in the front seat of Kennedy’s limousine on that day in Dallas– he died with shrapnel from the assassin’s bullet still in his wrist, supposedly) and was in the field of Republican nominees for president in 1980, said LBJ …
… was generous and he was selfish, he was kind and at other times he was cruel; at times he was an earthy, crude, active fellow; at other times he was incredibly charming. He could be whatever he wanted to be.  He was a strange complex man who had basically almost a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence.  He was two different people.
(from the PBS program “The American Experience:  LBJ by David Grubin, 1991)
George Reedy, LBJ’s aide and press secretary, said;
What was it that would send him into those fantastic rages where he could be one of the nastiest, one of the most insufferable, sadistic, SOBs that ever lived; then a few minutes later really be a big, magnificent, inspiring leader? 
(ibid)
            Robert Caro’s one million words show us the answer by giving us glimpses of his family, the land that family came from, his triumphs and tragedies, and his public and private face.
            1982’s The Path to Power (USBN # 0-394-49973-5) is, to me, the most interesting of the volumes to date; if only because it covers the part of LBJ’s life of which I know the least: his upbringing and childhood.
            The book sets the tone for the rest of the series. It contains mini-biographies of the people and places that were vital to his life at the time; or in this case, to the development of his personality.
            The book begins with the “settlement” of the Hill County of Texas and the hard-scrabble life of anyone foolish enough to believe one could prosper there. The book looks at LBJ’s Bunton ancestry – the “Bunton strain” – the fierce eyes, the temper, the ambition, the shrewdness and toughness. But when Johnson blood was mixed with the Buntons, with the Johnson’s unrealistic idealism and dreams of success without the Bunton pragmatism, the family’s life slid into poverty and humiliation.
            In the fourth volume the author surmises this is the base for LBJ’s attitude on fighting war and poverty. He knew what it was like to have no money at hand; to have no credit with the local stores. In current terms he knew the sound of the collection agencies rap at the door and ring on the phone. He knew the neighbor’s disdain of those lazy, no-account, good-for-nothings, despite his father’s success in the Texaslegislature. His father was, by this account, a great man; a progressive visionary. But in the Hill Country, visions don’t feed the family. He had nothing to show for his success at the end of his political career. He was trapped and tricked into get-rich-quick schemes that always failed. He failed. LBJ never forgot – probably never forgave – that. Caro examines the father’s rise and fall politically, socially and economically.
            He also examines LBJ’s mother. By today’s standards she would be prissy and likely would have wanted to belong in the same circles as other presidential mothers Mittie Roosevelt and her distant cousin-in-law Sara Roosevelt. Her devotion to her eldest son is thoroughly verified.
            Thus, LBJ had to work on road crews – back-breaking work paving roads and leading mule teams in sweltering heat. He had to attend a small teacher’s college instead of the more prestigious universities in Austin. He taught the poorest of the poor children in the southern tip of Mexico– the vast majority Mexican children living in the kind of squalor he recognized. He helped them, and their parents, as best he could – such as teaching them English.
            But we also see the Bunton Strain reestablish itself in the family line. If he wasn’t loved by his college classmates, he was determined to make himself respected. In a trait repeated through his life, he ingratiated himself to the powers-that-be in the school. He took a useless elected position in school government and transformed it into a position of great power and influence. Barred from the influential clique of the college? He formed his own and quickly out-cliqued the clique.
            He considered becoming a lawyer and worked in a law firm. He did not like the slow pace to power and respect a career in the law parceled out.
            He was right about that. Trust me.
            He also took a mostly ceremonial group (the “Little Congress”) and transformed into a mover and shaker in Washington – with himself as its head.
            The index says it best: Under Johnson, Character the headings include “need for affection”, “need for attention/prominence”, “need for respect, need to win”, “pragmatism/practicality/realism”, “secrecy”, “self-criticism”, “sensitivity to criticism”, “story-telling ability”, “thoroughness” and “viciousness”.
            The Bunton Strain is strong in this one …
            We see LBJ enter politics as a congressional aide for a man in the next district. We see his election as a member of the House of Representatives for his own district (he had never ran against an incumbent – political suicide in those days (and usually these days, too), bringing electricity to the Hill Country. Along the way we view, for the first time, his absolute tyranny and cruelty to his underlings: the legend of his spouting orders while sitting on the toilet begins here. He would walk past an aid and bark, “I hope your mind isn’t as cluttered as the top of your desk.” When the aide caught up on his work the insult would change to “I hope your mind isn’t as empty as the top of your desk.”
            His mantra of “if you do everything, EVERYTHING, you will win” was proven.
            Until he tried to run for Senate.
            He ran against Pappy O’Daniel, a popular radio personality and current governor, and was taught a lesson of Texaspolitics. His people called in the votes too early – early enough for O’Daniel to call in HIS numbers – just high enough to overcome Johnson’s. It was a bitter defeat – one he vowed never to repeat. EVERYTHING also included out-cheating your opponent.
            The book ends with that defeat, but along the way we are provided biographies of O’Daniel, LBJ’s Texas and Washington benefactors – including Sam Rayburn and various Texas oilmen and, of course, Claudia Alta Taylor – Lady Bird.
            Caro sets the stage for the events of the rest of LBJ’s life – his gruffness and sincerity mentioned by Reedy and Connally above. Most of the history he researches has dimmed with time and LBJ’s own desire to mythologize his past. Caro chips and brushes the small fossils to reveal the truth –a little boy humiliated by his poverty and his father’s (perceived) failures determined – by any means – to do better than him. To show the people of the Hill Country that he will NOT be a failure just like his father. In the meantime, if he can help others in similar situations (in a later campaign speech he referred to the meek, the weak, the poor and the suffering) to “lift them up” and give them a chance to better themselves.
            As long as that “chance” did not conflict with his personal ambitions for wealth and power. For now they did. For the first twenty years of his political career it did. That was to come later. For now, he was still on the path to power.
Original material copyright 2014 Michael G Curry
 

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Oh God! Body Grease! Murder in the Magnolias Act Six

Oh God! Body Grease! Murder in the Magnolias Act Six
             I’m very sad that it is over. I’m very glad that it is over.
 
           The final performance on March 2, 2014 was canceled due to this season’s monthly snowpocalypse. We ended up getting less than an inch of ice, but I’m glad they canceled – it was not worth taking the chance in case the weather was worse. It was only the second time a production by the Sparta Community Chorus was canceled. The other time was the December 2013’s Christmas production during the first major snow of the season. Only two cancellations ever; and both during the same period.
            The director and I joked about the play being “cursed”! It was canceled en toto back in 1981 and now again! It was the culmination of curses throughout – my forgetting my shoes on the first Saturday performance; the actress playing Lorraine forgetting her shoes on the second Saturday (forcing both of us to hie to the Wal-Mart across the street for shoes. I only found one pair large enough for me and it was still half-a-size too small. They had men’s shoes there size seven. Seven. The WIDTH of my foot is wider than that. Lorraine found lots of shoes for 1/3rd the price I paid…).
            The actor playing Pete Bogg cut his finger on a glass figurine that shattered on the floor (the shattering was part of the play, the cut finger was not). It wasn’t a bad cut and a Band-Aid and some anti-septic took care of it, but at the time he bled quite a bit! Blood was dripping on him, the furniture and the gold coins his character discovered.
            It was always freezing cold backstage.
            Lines were also a problem. There were so many similar lines and even repeated lines throughout the play. My characters used the words “rapscallion” twice. Two separate characters repeated “over here, dear” to Amanda and “are you trying to be amusing” to Pete Bogg. The sheriff had two similar lines when he entered a scene and said the buried treasure was separately a story for children and a myth. Listening backstage, I was unsure which line went where. Blanche had to watch her finances and a few lines later had to watch her pennies. It was confusing and you couldn’t blame anyone for switching lines. During the first weekend, we skipped over the lines about state authorities doing some drainage work. My response was “to dig or not to dig, that is the question”. The lines were lost that first weekend, but said during the second weekend’s performances.
            Some of the cast apologized for missing their lines that first weekend. The rest of us assured them it was fine – we worked around it and ad-libbed our way back to the script. The performances were marvelous! The audience loved them!
            The hoop skirts were a hassle at first – it was hard for any of us to tie it firmly enough to prevent it from falling off.
            There was hardly enough time for me to change from the Colonel to Thornbird between acts without missing my cue. Fortunately the rest of the cast helped me change, put on my spats, touch up my moustache and beard and put up my first costume so that, during the performances, I had plenty of time.
            The stage and auditorium is haunted by a ghost or gremlin, so I was told. It would flicker lights and otherwise disrupt the show. I only saw one example of this: while discussing the Colonel’s portrait that hung over the mantel, it fell with a crash and cracked the frame as we watched it. Other than that, no ghost or gremlin. I once showed up for rehearsal very early. Some patrons were in the auditorium preparing for a children’s show in March and let me in as they left. I spent 20 minutes in the auditorium waiting for other cast members. If there was a ghost, I would have been a tempting target that evening. Nothing. In fact, it was nice to relax and listen to some music on my ipad.
            A rehearsal was cancelled due to bad weather. It wasn’t until the week of opening night that we had rehearsals with the entire cast present.
            One cast member left the show in the first week and was replaced quickly. His replacement was one of the people I auditioned for.
            None of these were long-term problems and all were resolved quickly. If these were curses I could live with them!
            In fact the play could not have gone better. The audiences for each of the five performances were wonderful and receptive. Each audience laughed at different parts of the show, it seemed. There were more children in the audience that first Friday and Saturday night and their laughter was louder than the others. They also laughed at the more silly/slapstick parts. We had an older audience the final Friday and Saturday and they laughed less at the modern references to “twerking” and “Dancing with the Stars”.
            I had to ask the director if the last Friday audience was laughing. They sounded dead from the stage, but she assured me they were laughing.
            And laughing at all the right places.
            Lines we thought were funny barely got a titter. Lines we thought weren’t all that funny got howls from the crowd. Blanche’s line “Gone with the first wind that …” the rest of the line was lost to the laughter. Every time. Blanche’s deliver was spot-on.
            My favorite line from the whole play, also a Blanche line, was “I’m a friend to all animals. I want to be your friend, Stanley,” got no reaction from the crowd. None. Haha.
 
 
            At intermission of the last performance we had the cast thank-yous. I did not know what that was and thought it was something we did onstage to the audience. But we gathered backstage to thank the director, the assistant director, the light and sound people, and each other. The director Stephanie told the story of why the play was never done back in 1981 and we all gave our appreciation to each other for a wonderful show.
            I posted this on Facebook on Sunday March 2nd. I posted it about two in the afternoon – the time we were to begin what would have been the final show:
I’m very sad it’s over; I’m very glad it’s over. I auditioned more or less on a whim and, to be frank, if Stephanie had not directed I probably wouldn’t have. I am so glad and grateful you took a chance and allowed me to play not one, but two roles on someone whose only real experience was during the last days of the Carter Administration. The cast and crew were at all times friendly, helpful and kind to me and made me feel quite welcome! It encourages me to try out again in future productions! Thank you to all my new friends and have a wonderful rest of the year! Thank you for wonderful new memories!
            And it is all true! It was a wonderful two months ending in a fun and entertaining time for us and our audience.
            Oh, and the title to this blog? The Voodoo Woman’s opening line for each appearance is an invocation of the Voodoo male fertility god Ogoun Bodagris. In 1981 that was transliterated to “Oh God, Body Grease”. I knew it was gnawing at you!
 
 
 
Copyright 2014 Michael G Curry
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 
 
 
             

 

 


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