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

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Sunday, September 2, 2012

How things get done in Washington (and elsewhere): Caro's LBJ bio

Robert A. Caro's LBJ bio, 4th volume: The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power is above all else a political biography. If you're interested in LBJ's personal life - his family life, relations with Lady Bird and daughters, his affair (with a Congresswoman, HD Douglas maybe? it's alluded to in the book but not discussed in any detail) this is obviously not a tome (or series thereof) that you want to devote a great deal of time to reading; however, no other bio of a famous political leader, at least no other bio for a popular readership, goes into such great depth about the actual machinations of power: that was Johnson's great theme, and strength (his stubborn personality was his undoing) and Caro's great passion. The story in this volume is quite dramatic at times - building to a crescendo with almost the minute-by-minute account of the Kennedy assassination and LBJ's first few days in office as he assumed the power of the presidency: it's unique to have this story told from LBJ POV, but I also wondered at times if Caro truly wished he were writing about JFK. As the book moves toward the conclusion (of this volume) Caro focuses on LBJ's effort to move a civil rights bill through a recalcitrant Congress - in particular, the Senate, dominated by conservative Republican committee chairs. Caro keeps saying how these men (in particular Sen. Russell) were smart and totally honest, but they were also totally racist: Caro doesn't say so bluntly and directly, but their terrible opposition of civil right legislation shows them for what they were. Johnson played both sides of the fence at times, but clearly did support New Deal initiatives and civil rights laws, and the latter part of this volume details - and I mean details - how he got the legislation through. There's probably way more than you'd ever want to read about the 1964 budget and the Mundt legislation on wheat sales to the USSR - but the volume does give a vivid sense of how things get done in Washington, or in government anywhere - or how they don't get done. Caro stays close to his theme of LBJ as a brilliant legislative mind and as the best one-on-one salesman and persuader ever - these are qualities that served him well in the Senate, that were ignored when he was VP, and that later served his ends as President - but only for a time (until Vietnam got in the way).

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