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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, September 3, 2012

Home on the Range: LBJ in Texas

The "Serenity" chapter of the Robert A. Caro LBJ bio The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power is the closest Caro gets to the personal or private side of Johnson's life, a bit of a glimpse into his family life back at the ranch, with some interactions between LBJ and Lady Bird and visits to some of his quaint cousins and uncles - but of course all of this was for show, as Caro is well aware - an attempt to stage an LBJ personality that's very different from both the highly cultured and preppy athletic culture of the Kennedys and the cloakroom wheeler-dealer that the media knew of LBJ from back in DC - here they can see him in stetson and boots, riding a big horse, herding Herefords, eating bar-b-q and just being folksy. Caro details the glowing press accounts of the 12-day xmas visit to the ranch - a successful effort by Johnson to manage his image: today, it would be handled by high-priced media consultants, and it wouldn't be so easy to pull off, either. For one thing, it's amazing that nobody in the press pushed the envelope on how the hell does a U.S. Senator build up a fortune like this, so out of line with the simple homes all around him, so out of line with the fortunes of his relatives (maybe they assumed Lady Bird had a lot of $?). Then, Caro gets into the darker side of LBJ, showing how in his private phone calls from the ranch he spent a great deal of time muscling weak-willed Texas newspaper editors to quash investigative stories under way - typical of the era, maybe still (though less so, newspapers rarely controlled now by local publishers), but still despicable and pretty amazing that a president would get so involved in what LBJ himself called "chickenshit." All his careful image management would fall apart, in a few years, thanks to his stubborn pursuit of the Vietnam War and his persistent lying about every aspect of the war.

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