Monday, June 11, 2012

The Passage of Power



The Passage of Power is Caro's fourth book in his cycle on Lyndon Johnson.  As David Greenberg notes in his review for the Washington Post,

Caro strives for the epic. He will make a book, or chapter, or anecdote as long as it has to be to achieve his desired effect — elongating even a single sentence, if necessary, and then stitching it together with a passel of colons, semicolons and dashes, as if scooped by the handful from his handyman’s belt. 

He is indeed aiming for the monumental, as this book takes in 6 tumultuous years of Johnson's ascension to President, but first having to endure the ignominy of the Vice-Presidency he found himself thrust into, and a lesser role than he imagined for himself in the Kennedy administration.  He considered himself a "cut dog."  Caro finds the humor and pathos of this difficult time in Johnson's rise to power, making for highly enjoyable reading.  He provides an added layer of depth to what already is a well-researched subject, particularly in the machinations that led to Johnson's nomination for Vice-President.

We welcome all readers to this month's reading group of The Passage of Power.



103 comments:

  1. Thanks, Gintaras. I'll try to catch up with you this week.

    The take away for me from the opening of the book is the portraits of the two Kennedys. I never had much of an opinion one way or the other, but Caro doesn't hold back the good or the bad.

    When I mentioned Kennedy's clear heroism, in spite of his illness, a friend who is extremely well read questioned the source.

    But one of the things I like about Caro is that in his excessive style I get the impression he uses everything he can to tell the story -- not trying to make someone look good or bad, but letting the story play out in excess wherever it takes him.

    I'm curious what others thought about the Kennedys before and after Caro.

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  2. I have to say I was a bit flabbergasted by Kennedy's heroism in the PT incident. I had to wonder if this wasn't taken straight from his own account, as it is hard to imagine anyone, especially someone with his ailments, surviving in the water that long. But, as you say, I think Caro decided to put it in as is for dramatic effect.

    What struck me was the image Caro painted of Robert Kennedy as such a hard ass. It definitely made him look bad, at least in regard to Johnson. But, I have never been a big fan of Robert.

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  3. His primary source for the PT 109 incident was from Hersey's interview with Kennedy and his crew in 1944 in the New Yorker -- so this was before the Kennedy mystique would have set in. He also cites another book on the PT 109.

    I tried to look up the Hersey story but I no longer subscribe to the New Yorker -- and it's locked. The abstract describes it as "Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, son of ex-Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, recounts the story of the sinking of his craft and the rescue of his crew. PT 109, carried three officers and ten enlisted men. Two men were lost when the PT was run over and cut in half by a Japanese destroyer." So it may be a bit over the top given his sources.

    That said, it was within months of it happening and given Kennedy's reputation as a lightweight, it would seem unlikely that if his crew had been interviewed, they would be making up too much like this if it weren't true.

    Plus, I have a certain trust in Caro, even though most of this early section is drawn from secondary sources. It seems like if anyone, after years of dealing with Johnson, Caro would have a critical eye for these kinds of stories if they weren't true.

    Like you, I found the story a bit hard to believe, particularly given the details about Kennedy's health generally. Still, I'm inclined to believe it.

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  4. I'm on the second section now, but there's loads to talk about in that first one.

    Bobby Kennedy for sure -- not to mention election politics and a few stolen votes for good measure.

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  5. I got the impression that Bobby Kennedy was trying to overcome his little brother status -- maybe taking on more responsibility for the campaign than he really had been given, and maybe even bragging about what he could do for the liberal wing when it came to the VP slot.

    The way Caro portrays him, he appears destined to become a formidable foil for Johnson -- a man with a grudge -- when the time comes.

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  6. I guess what struck me most about the 60 campaign was that it was Johnson's campaign to lose and he set about losing it. Seemed to me he felt he had ascended to such a high throne that he might have felt the nomination was his by acclimation, that there was no other Democrat with his status, save Adlai, who dared challenge him, certainly not "Johnny Boy."

    As Caro lays out in detail, Johnson completely misread the Kennedies, and in particular Jack. It also seemed to me that the Kennedies were better able to read the mood of the country, and that it wanted a fresh start after 8 years of Eisenhower's paternalistic leadership.

    Caro seems to feel Johnson could have still got the nomination if he had made more of an effort, not relying on his chums to seal a backroom deal for him on the second ballot. Caro seems to feel it was fear of losing that thwarted Johnson. I think it was hubris.

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  7. Speaking of Bobby, this news story caught my eye,

    http://news.yahoo.com/robert-f-kennedy-jr-nasty-family-feud-laws-185008242.html

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  8. Well, he did have a sense of entitlement in the Senate, that's for sure. But he built that power, by turning nothing into gold according to Caro.

    I got the sense, as I quipped earlier, that Johnson suffered from the George Washington syndrome -- you can't appear to want it that much. You have to be above it all, doing the people's business.

    There is certainly some hubris in Johnson's ambition, but I think there's also some real deep seated fear of failing or, maybe even worse, humiliation.

    He definitely misread Kennedy, who Caro paints as somehow transformed by the election. That is one instance where I have trouble believing him entirely -- not that he's trying to make Kennedy out to be more than he was, but surely there was more clear headed and strategic thinking in that handsome head of his from the beginning.

    I think it's clear that Kennedy knew he needed Johnson with his stuffed ballot boxes from the beginning. Where that real pragmatism comes from is unclear in this section.

    [Although I got a very real sense of a man out to please his father. This must be a common thread through many of the men who ultimately run for president -- or the men who write the biographies!]

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  9. That is something I've really enjoyed so far -- the way Caro discusses the historiography and shows how writers like White and Schlesinger have shaped the way we view Kennedy, his election, and his presidency.

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  10. Caro does seem to have a very high opinion of JFK, thrusting many of the shortcomings on RFK, but like you said I think JFK knew how to use people, including his brother to serve his own interests.

    I think it is very easy to give into the Kennedy mystique. As Caro demonstrates, Jack knew how to play an audience. The way he played the Texas delegation at the convention was perfect. Bobbie was his advance man and wasn't afraid to apply pressure. I think one of the reasons Bobbie and LBJ didn't get along was because they both were so ruthless when it came to getting what they wanted. They inevitably would butt heads. Both also carried pretty big chips on their shoulders. Jack knew better how to conceal his emotions.

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  11. I haven't read far enough into the book yet to know how he handles Kennedy -- I'm chugging through section II now.

    Kennedy seems to start out as a sickly, lightweight, someone only interested in pleasing his father and filling the first son's big shoes. But then during the campaign and once he gets into office, he seems to be a different person in the way Caro writes about him. For one thing, he seems particularly good at managing people, even Johnson.

    One thing I've noticed is that most of these portraits of Kennedy are pieced together from other biographies, which makes sense if you're writing about someone else. But other than his interactions with Johnson, it doesn't seem like Caro has much to add to getting to know Kennedy or his role in history.

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  12. But how about those ballot stuffings? Reminds me of waiting on that one county in Wisconsin, where the election commissioner suddenly found 14,000 votes to swing the results to the republican.

    I'm usually naive enough to believe that it's difficult if not impossible to stuff ballot boxes, but reading how this one works (slowing down the count to see if your votes are "needed") does give me pause even now.

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  13. It is kind of sloppy writing, if very engaging writing. Mostly, Caro wants us to feel what Johnson felt during the 60 election and the subsequent Kennedy administration, but he cobbles together conflicting points of view.

    He was at his best when he analyzed those tumultuous 3 hours in the hotel with Bobbie trying to steal away the Vice Presidency from Johnson, showing how these conflicting viewpoints obscured the situation, and doing a good job of making sense of it all.

    But, he is not so good in describing the blood feud Johnson and Bobbie had in the White House. He shows Bobbie as merciless in his approach to fellow politicians, but a real softie when it came to his kids and social issues like getting James Meredith into the Univ. of Mississippi.

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  14. I think you are absolutely right. Instead of having one picture in his mind about Kennedy, he weaves in and out of other sources to keep the story going. I don't think he even sees how contradictory some of those stories are -- albeit engaging!

    Haven't seen some of Robert Kennedy's good side yet, but am keeping after it. I think he just wanted to be a player, and was maybe pushing beyond his assigned roles during the campaign. He sure seemed to be out ahead of his brother during those meetings up and down and back staircase.

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  15. Finishing up Part II, where Johnson finally begins to weigh in on matters, much to the chagrin of young Bobbie. Caro notes that RFK was 37 at the time, quite a bit younger than JFK. I suppose he felt the need to project himself in front of these older men, and JFK gave him the platform to stand on, the AG office, which I suppose is why many of them "feared" Bobbie. I read somewhere that he actually had Nixon audited after the 60 election. Vindictive to say the least. No wonder so many persons hated Bobbie with a passion.

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  16. I've just been reading about the Cuban missile crisis. Seems like Robert Kennedy was the cooler head in that particular instance -- and actually sounds like he turned his brother around on an outright bombing and invasion with some pretty strong arguments -- basically that the U.S. would be viewed like Japan in WWII.

    Also enjoying the vivid descriptions of Johnson sulking and refusing to speak and sending expensive gifts etc.

    A steer is a bull without any social standing. What a picture!

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  17. I well imagine Johnson had a lot of second thoughts given the way the Kennedy administration shaped up, with him odd man out.

    For such an ardent anti-communist, it does seem as though RFK was unusually prudent on the Cuban Missile Crisis. He must have been heeding someone else's advice.

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  18. He seemed to be the only one advising caution in those early discussions -- sounds like everyone including the president was ready to bomb and invade on Monday a.m. All very scary when you think about it.

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  19. As life would have it, the book finally arrived today from the library and does not appear to be renewable. With my slow reading, poor eyesight, and limited comprehension skills, I won't be able to catch up with you guys. Well, I'll read your posts and try to add a word or two. Meanwhile, enjoy your reading and weekend.

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  20. Read along as you can, Trippler. Be great to have you join in!

    I think you'll find it's a pretty easy read as long as you don't try to blue pencil or parse all of his crazy sentences. I finally gave up on it, so it's much more enjoyable now.

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  21. I think there was someone not in the room advising RFK. I don't think he took the cautious approach on his own, but who knows? It is one subject I never really wanted to explore too deeply as I found it all so sickening the way we put ourselves on the brink of nuclear war like that. You think about the warheads we had previously deployed in Turkey, the failed Bay of Pigs operation and countless attempts to assassinate Castro, and they thought he would just sit idle? Such hubris!

    Of course, Johnson didn't distinguish during this time, making a complete ass of himself. RFK may have taken the opposite path just to put down Johnson. Seems JFK didn't want to invade from the start, and RFK supported him on this one.

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  22. Trip, feel free to chime in any time. Pretty easy reading. I think you won't have any problem getting the book read quickly.

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  23. I didn't get that impression about Kennedy, but I may have missed something, too. I assumed it was the note RFK passed his brother that seemed to slow down this unbelievable march to war that the nation was on.

    It does give insight into how all these men (and they do seem to be all men, except for Clinton who is as hawkish as the rest of them, or at least used to be) have this insatiable desire to do something -- regardless of the ultimate consequences.*

    That's how I read Johnson's reaction to Kennedy slowing things down to give the Russians time. You can't wait or do nothing or the nation will look weak. Amazing.

    I just received a copy of the Obamians about Obama's foreign policy team. Be interesting to see what he says about them (vs. Bush for example).

    *I have been reading too much of Caro. Can't even find a place to take a breath in that sentence.

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  24. I got the impression that Kennedy wanted a peaceful solution out of the crisis, but was starting to waver in the face of so much opposition. This is where Robert stepped in, insisting that the US had never initiated an attack on foreign soil (not exactly true) and shouldn't do so in Cuba, as much as he hated Castro. This seemed to keep his brother from falling in line with the Hawks.

    But, I also think Robert didn't like how Johnson was starting to influence others with his bellicose talk. The last thing he wanted was Johnson to gain ascendancy in the cabinet meetings. To read Caro, this was as much a power play by RFK as it was a foreign policy position. After the peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Johnson's role was further diminished in the cabinet.

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  25. He definitely played it cool there at the end. I liked the story of the plaque -- don't invite Johnson to the presentation, but make him chip in nonetheless.

    There does seem to be a real class issue in the power elite in government. I think that was what really got to them about Clinton -- he didn't fit in. Neither does Obama, but he does seem to have the elite part down. He just doesn't look right somehow.

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  26. Clinton did just fine, as has Obama. It was Carter who suffered the most. The Dems chose to rebuff him in the end. We can't have any "peanut farmer" among us, but he was vastly more intelligent and broad-minded than Ted Kennedy, who drove the party apart in 1980. I never have forgiven Teddy for that. It took another 12 years before the Dems figured out they had to back someone with a broader base and went with Clinton. Not that I was a Clinton fan, but certainly not because he didn't fit into the "in crowd." Clinton now appears to be firmly part of the establishment. As for Obama, The Kennedies themselves gave him their seal of approval, including Teddy.

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  27. Johnson was just too "old guard" for the Kennedies' taste. They wanted to reset the Democratic party. By taking Johnson out of the Senate and making him essentially "irrelevant," it allowed them to re-organize the party more or less how they envisioned it. With Rayburn's passing, there was much less resistance. But, as they learned when trying to put together their first serious piece of Civil Rights legislation, they needed Johnson. He knew how to navigate Congress. The Kennedies had no idea.

    What struck me about Kennedy's term is that nothing of consequence was passed during those 1000 days. They failed to get one piece of meaningful legislation through Congress. CR wasn't passed until Johnson came into office. Granted, he took advantage of the wellspring of emotion at the time, but it took Johnson, not JFK or RFK, to get Civil Rights legislation through Congress. This is Johnson's greatest legacy.

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  28. Clinton's doing great now -- amazing when you think about that small question of impeachment ....

    The Republicans seemed almost rabid in their hatred of him at the time. I put that all down to class, not policy or competency.

    Seems like the republicans like generals, blue bloods, or movie stars. No riff raff or peanut farmers allowed. Nixon seemed the anomaly, and then some.

    I found that story about Ted and John Kennedy going off to Europe -- the two party boys -- leaving Robert home to take care of Jackie also interesting. Ditto Johnson's aside about Chappaquiddick -- that it would have been taken care of if Bobby had been alive. Playboys of the western world.

    That said, they may have been rich, but they were also Irish Catholics so they had their own otherness to deal with. Johnson seemed to know how to get under their skin during the primaries.

    I always wondered how Kennedy would have been viewed if he hadn't been killed -- if history would have been quite so charmed by him and the rest of the family.

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  29. I don't think JFK or RFK would have done so well under close scrutiny. The press was very different at the time. They essentially gave JFK a free pass on his sexual indiscretions, even when they caught him on film.

    That was an interesting aside about Bobbie being there for Jackie. The relationship between Jack and Jackie reminded me a lot of that between Charles and Diana. She was just there to serve a purpose.

    Re: Clinton, he was handpicked from the beginning. He got singled out of the "six pack" and given star treatment, a 60 Minutes interview after the Super Bowl. The press virtually ignored Jerry Brown and gave Tsongas and the others only passing interest. Not sure what he did to warrant all this attention, but he was definitively shoved in front of the others in the 92 election, I guess because he was seen as the most "electable." History served him well in this regard, thanks in no small measure to Ross Perot.

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  30. Who would have ever thought we would say thank goodness for Ross Perot!

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  31. I'm just about to the end of part II, and am endlessly fascinated by the twists and turns of Johnson's vice presidency, finally finding his voice on civil rights and then having himself torn down again by Robert Kennedy and legislation developed without him.

    Even the polls and prospects of the next election are interesting given the timing of the book.

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  32. Speaking of the next election -- another great Moyers show on the effect of money in politics. I have really grown to like Thomas Frank. The Mother Jones editors are also very good:

    http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-dark-money-in-politics/

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  33. Speaking of Bill Moyers, it is interesting how much he figures into this book. I had forgotten he was part of Kennedy's administration.

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  34. I noticed that, too. I always associate him with Jimmy Carter, but he must have started with the Kennedys. Seems like there was an initial explanation of how he started working for them, but I have forgotten it already!

    I never thought I'd feel sorry for Johnson but the Kennedy family really was ruthless (and just mean) when it came to someone like him.

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  35. Yea, I understood the need to subdue Johnson, but the Kennedys, especially Robert, seemed intent on breaking him. Even on Civil Rights legislation, they chose to initially bypass Johnson and only later involve him in discussions. No one knew the Senate better than Johnson. You would think they would have involved him from the start, but I suppose Jack and Bobbie were afraid he would take over the discussions.

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  36. Bill Moyers worked for Johnson but not JFK, unless you are counting his work for as Assistant Director and later Deputy Director of the Peace Corps under Shriver. I don't think that Caro mentions this. I only discovered it a little while ago here:

    http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/bill-moyers

    Caro says that Bill Moyers turned him down for interviews. He thinks that Moyers intended to write his own LBJ book, but so far he hasn't done that.

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  37. He does mention it, Marti. He notes that Moyers was also on Air Force One when Johnson was sworn into office.

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  38. Not to get too far ahead, but one of the books Caro mentions is Deadlock of Democracy, by James MacGregor Burns. He noted in regard to the impasse in Congress in the 60s, which had failed to get a single one of Kennedy's proposed bills through the chambers. Here is Samuelson comparing that deadlock to the one in 2004,

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14694-2004Oct31.html

    and could be very well be used to describe the situation today, as budget proposals remain stalled on the Congressional floor.

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  39. Drifting back to the 1960 election, Caro noted that Johnson refused to do the legwork to make his name known beyond Washington, whereas the Kennedys were barnstorming the country, Robert usually serving as front man for Jack. Caro also noted that when it came to putting delegates in your pocket and keeping them there, Johnson had met his match in RFK. This guy knew how to secure delegates, and had them counted all the way down the roll call to Wyoming, where he had secured every last one of them, much to Johnson's chagrin. I would think there had to be a healthy respect for RFK on the part of Johnson, having outfoxed the old fox.

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  40. I've noticed the book is mostly about speculation. Caro tries to read between the lines of other historians, political pundits and first person accounts to help explain some of the vexing situations that occurred during this time. Caro is hit and miss in this regard.

    Also bemused by all the Evans and Novak references. From what I've read their "Inside Washington" columns were rather loose with the facts, but it seems Caro likes taking snippets from the leading periodicals of the day. I suppose this gives his account an immediacy it might not otherwise have.

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  41. Thanks, Marti. Now I know why I couldn't remember the details - I had forgotten them already and had them all wrong! Hope you will join in the discussion.

    Like my memory, there is something hit and miss about Caro's writing, patching together different sources. Chernow does that as well, but he seems to write a much smoother story. There is something, though, about the patchwork nature of Caro's writing that gives it a sense of immediacy as you say, Gintaras.

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  42. It is an interesting form of "history." I suppose these particular events have been so thoroughly covered that there isn't much Caro can add to it, except try to clarify some issues or provide a greater context as he did with the Congressional investigation of Bobby Baker and how this was leading to Johnson at the same time Kennedy had planned his Texas trip to secure Democratic leaders. This leads Caro to provide a lot of interesting speculation on whether Kennedy was planning to drop Johnson from the 1964 ticket. Given the information Caro presents, one certainly can see how Johnson was becoming a liability to the Kennedy administration, but all that changed on November 22.

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  43. When someone spends so many years on a project, I assumed he would be working with a lot more primary sources -- the "trained" historian in me I guess. To simply master all the other books and put it together like a collage can work -- I think again of Chernow's books -- but not sure that's what is going on there. Still, I'm enjoying it and haven't started the next section yet, but will.

    We haven't talked about Bobby Baker yet. The level of corruption sometimes is breathtaking.

    And the need to bring Texas along - that Johnson may have gone "too far left" to carry the state is fascinating given today's politics. I guess some things never change.

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  44. Does Caro spend any time discussing the connection that some people see between the Bobby Baker scandal and the assassination?

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  45. The timing couldn't have been closer ... Kennedy was killed while someone was literally testifying in Washington about Johnson's shady deals. And one of the major magazines (Life I think) was planning a major exposé on Johnson's wealth which he had managed to keep secret for years.

    I haven't read far enough yet to know if that's brought back up again, but Caro doesn't seem very interested (so far) in any potential intrigue. Just shows how Johnson acknowledges that it couldn't look worse since Kennedy was killed in Texas.

    Powerful writing of that section. When Caro lets loose he's really very good.

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  46. It has been many years since I read the first volume of this biography and I remember the narrative being very compelling. I wonder if he is dictating now rather than writing. That might account for some of the sloppiness that you (?) and others have noted.

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  47. I don't know -- Marti might since I think she heard him talk about this new one.

    In this one, a lot of paragraphs are simply quotes cobbled together from a variety of different sources, suggesting some kind of 3x5 card reference system like Ambrose used to use.

    I've read all of the others, too, and it could be that so much more has been written about this period of Johnson's life that there's not much new Caro can uncover. Although he is taking exception with a lot of "conventional wisdom" (e.g., that Kennedy had no plan to drop Johnson in 64) which makes it interesting.

    Plus he has the luxury of taking the time to cover everything everyone else has written about combined. This was supposed to be the last volume as I recall, but he is just starting the Presidency as far as I can tell! I guess he and his editor argue endlessly about how long these are, but why kill the goose who keeps laying those golden eggs.

    I'm assuming I will eventually get a review copy but was anxious enough to read it that I picked it up the first day it came out. I'm sure I"m not the only one like that. Johnson's life is Shakespearean, or at least it is in Caro's hands.

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  48. Caro's comments too about the dysfunction of the Senate except for the few short years under Johnson does make me long for someone like Johnson again -- for better or for worse. Mike Mansfield sounds like another Harry Reid. How do they elect these leaders?

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  49. I think the whole thing about Baker was to show how Johnson dodged a bullet on this one. When Kennedy was shot, Baker was no longer a big issue, and as Caro amply illustrates, Johnson truly distinguished himself in the 5 days that followed the assassination.

    Plus, it was a different journalistic medium back then. It seems editors were far more discreet in what they had published than they are now. I think the major periodicals decided it wasn't in the nation's interest to make a scandal out of Johnson's acquired wealth one week into his presidency. They essentially dropped the story.

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  50. It is amazing how Johnson transformed in the days that followed the assassination. To me these are the most interesting chapters. Caro could have spent much less time on Johnson's vice-presidency and how badly he was treated by the administration, but I guess he wanted to readers to feel the full weight of the transformation. He definitely knows how to make a story very compelling. Even Mundt's attempt to kill Kennedy's wheat bill becomes dramatic.

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  51. I'll say Moyers worked for Johnson ... and Jack Valenti too!

    What a picture of them sitting in Johnson's bedroom the night of the assassination, taking notes about what all needed to be done the next day. Moyers would have been only 29 at the time. Amazing when you think about it.

    I think Johnson simply reverted to type during that period. He had been so humiliated by the Kennedy people, but he really was prestige and power hungry. And he clearly had the skills to "call a meeting" as Caro described it. He just needed an opportunity to reengage them.

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  52. The sleeping lion awoke. There was a quote in there, from Reston I believe, which said something to the effect that Johnson knew exactly how to take full advantage of the moment to get long deferred legislation through Congress. He was successfully able to evoke the spirit of Kennedy while at the same time work the Senate as only he could.

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  53. He should be known as the great manipulator. Ahh need you now more than he ever did ....

    But we could use a little of that now. As you noted earlier, I'm continually struck by how Robert Byrd et al. kept Kennedy legislation stalled and from even coming to a vote. I am just now reading about the first legislation, and Johnson's calling the governors in for their support.

    (Made the mistake of opening Jubilee Hitchhiker last night and stayed up late reading it -- amazing story and written in a Caroesque-like style with lots and lots of details. As much as I love Caro, of the two, I think Hjortsberg is by far the better writer.)

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  54. Also fascinated by the liberal vs conservative lines, with the liberals wanting to cut taxes to get more money into the economy and the conservatives not wanting to because it will increase revenue (I still don't get that one) and lead to bigger government.

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  55. I was struck by the fact that it was the Republicans who were blocking the $11 billion tax cuts Kennedy was proposing to help stimulate the economy. To think this was a Democratic idea. You'd never know it today.

    I think LBJ did a great job of closing ranks and getting legislation passed, while at the same time going out of his way to humble himself before the Kennedy faction, which I'm sure what have liked to rally around RFK and put him up for President in '64. But, Bobbie would have had an even harder time getting legislation through Congress than did his brother because of his bullheaded nature. LBJ knew what it took to get legislation through Congress. The Kennedies were babes in the woods in this regard.

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  56. It is interesting to see how liberal and conservative mean such different things now -- and how Johnson had to go out of his way to assure people that he was as liberal as Kennedy. In fact, I think he says something like he was more liberal than him on some issues.

    The Vietnam war is looming in my reading now. I'd heard this before, but had never seen the basis of it -- but from the sounds of it, Kennedy had gone public about getting out of Vietnam. Johnson seems hellbent on not letting the commies defeat America. Not sure I'm looking forward to reading about how that all shakes out behind the scenes.

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  57. He was more liberal in regard to domestic issues. Johnson had long believed strongly in education and battling poverty. According to Caro, harbored very little prejudice, but fell in line with the Southern legislators because that was his means of ascent in Congress.

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  58. It was interesting to read how all the southern Senators believed he was one of them, even when he put Civil Rights legislation in his speech to Congress. What's the Presidency for, he asked his advisers. We could use more of that these days!

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  59. I had previously thought Johnson was looking to redeem himself on the 64 civil rights legislation, but as Caro noted, Johnson had previously gotten through weaker versions in 57 and 60, so it would seem it was the power-hungry pragmatist that had kept him in check, not his own personal convictions.

    I thought it was interesting piece Caro noted on Johnson in St. Augustine, where he insisted on the tables for notable black persons in the community. One could argue this was a piece of showmanship on his part, but he did seem to be genuinely concerned with race relations but had taken the "gradualist" approach until 1964.

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  60. Where Caro really shines is in describing the roadblockers who held up legislation in Congress. His chapter on Harry Byrd is excellent, showing both sides of the man and why he was such a tightwad. These are really valuable insights.

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  61. I have reached that part yet, but it is fascinating to read how jammed up legislation was in the Senate. As much as I would like to see real substantive change in this country, I think Johnson's pragmatism served him well in getting things done. Always a good reminder that the more things change the more they stay the same.

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  62. Trippler, where are you in the book?

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  63. The Harry Byrd chapter was fascinating. So what's Mitch McConnell's excuse? Seems like things haven't changed much since then and the only one able to get anything done was Johnson.

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  64. Working my way through Caro's lengthy chapter on LBJ at his ranch. I guess if people were still going to call him "Rufus Cornpone" he would show them what it means Texas style. Those parties sounded like a real hoot, especially the dinner honoring the West German PM. But, what had been a negative for him before became a positive in the eye of the media, which seemed to eat it up.

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  65. One of the things that struck me reading this section was how much he accomplished before December. I had sort of lost track of time as he moved those bills and was taken aback by Caro's comment that, after all of this, the Johnson family left to spend Christmas and the New Year at the ranch. A true master. I think the civil rights folks were right when they said Johnson did what Kennedy couldn't do, even if he had wanted to.

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  66. I've long felt Johnson was the heart and soul behind the Civil Rights Bill. As Caro noted, Kennedy put it out there but hadn't done the legwork to get in through Congress. He apparently left it up to Mansfield, who wasn't the type of guy to expedite things. Reminds me a little of Obama and how he let the Health Care Bill get dragged and mangled through Congress before finally stepping in to save what was left of it. Johnson seized the moment.

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  67. I see a lot of parallels between Obama and Kennedy, their extreme initial popularity, and the battles they faced with conservatives in Congress. I'm sure some of that is intended by Caro, but some of the book had to have been written before Obama was even elected, or at least sketched out.

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  68. Obama strikes me as an odd combination of Kennedy and Eisenhower, part proactive, part hidden hand, but on domestic issue like health care it seems he would have preferred this to have been dealt with by Congressional Democrats, an he only stepped in when Reid was dragging his feet an in danger of losing the bill. Johnson would have never allowed a domestic bill to get bogged down like this, which Caro evocatively describes. Johnson knew how to keep things moving through Congress.

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  69. Johnson also understood the issue of timing, which was really impressive.

    I'm still not sure what Obama was thinking when it came to the mechanics of getting the tiny improvement to the regulation of the insurance industry through Congress. That he let Baucus take the lead was his first big mistake, as far as I'm concerned. Everyone here assures me that Baucus would never have done anything without first getting the a-okay from the White House and that may be true. But he is hardly the kind of leader in the Senate you want championing a bill. I'm assuming some book will be written now on the White House and health care to give us more of the inside story.

    Mansfield is a huge hero here but in Caro's description he comes across as another Reid. I wonder if the Senate really doesn't want a leader.

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  70. Good review/overview of the book:

    http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/104205/sean-wilentz-efficacy-and-democracy

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  71. And there's a good comment at the end, countering some of Wilentz's parallels with Obama.

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  72. But didn't Johnson and the Democrats have big majorities in both the House and Senate? That's got to count for something.

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  73. Not when they are Dixiecrats. The Southern Democrats generally tended to side with the Republicans on most domestic issues, and they were dead set against Civil Rights, but here Johnson managed to split the Republicans by shaming them into signing the petition to get the CR bill out of committee by constantly alluding to them as the "Party of Lincoln."

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  74. Plus, on the budget, you had Byrd who had a limit to how much he would accept and wouldn't advance a bill otherwise. So the genius of Johnson's strategy was to figure out how to move these forward without getting tangled up, and to take Byrd at his word that he would support a budget if it met certain criteria.

    Either the Wilentz review or the comment notes that Kennedy did not move any single major legislation in three years. He just didn't understand how Congress works the way Johnson did. This may be the single greatest parallel with Obama, although as that commenter points out, he hardly had a majority even at the beginning. I think we are living in dark times, even against the longest view of political history.

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  75. But wasn't the majority in the Senate 67-33? Even taking Dixiecrats into account, that is still a pretty large majority.

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  76. They just wouldn't move anything they didn't like. They would drag their feet and it wouldn't get out of committee. That was one of the big accomplishments with the budget. Just getting it out of committee with Byrd's approval, and then getting it out of the way so that Congress couldn't use it as a way to kill the Civil Rights bill.

    For the Civil Rights legislation, which Kennedy couldn't move either, Johnson pointed out all the Republicans who said they favored it, knowing they would never have to vote on it. With that petition, which is apparently some obscure procedure, he made them sign in favor of bringing it to a vote or admit they weren't in favor of civil rights as they claimed. THAT was an amazing tactic.

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  77. I had assumed he passed all that early legislation by playing on people's sympathy after the death of the President and making people feel obligated to show the nation's solidarity and continuity. I'm sure some of that played into it, but he knew how to get what he wanted. I think it's Russell who says Kennedy wasn't smart enough to get legislation through, but Johnson was smarter than everyone there and knew how to do it.

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  78. Here's one of those photos of Johnson and Salinger (in windbreaker) on horses. Cruel and unusual punishment:

    http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/pierre-salinger-with-pres-lyndon-b-johnson-news-photo/50545265

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  79. I think sympathy played very little into Johnson getting that legislation passed. He knew exactly how to butter up Harry Byrd, and shame the Republicans into signing the petition. It really is amazing how effective he was in getting this legislation through Congress, but Caro noted that Robert Kennedy had a strong hand in the CR legislation battle, although he doesn't elaborate. I guess Walls of Jericho is next for me,

    http://books.google.lt/books/about/The_walls_of_Jericho.html?id=Xj92AAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y

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  80. I don't think Salinger ever forgave Johnson for that ride.

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  81. Rick, over 20 Democratic Senators came from the South and border states, which had no interest in seeing Civil Rights legislation passed.

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    1. I understand that when you subtract the Dixiecrats you lose twenty from the 66 majority. But the Republican party in the 1960's was not the Republican party of today, so Johnson had quite a bit to work with on that side of the aisle. Indeed, many Republicans of the 1960's would not be welcome in today's party, which is an understatement.

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    2. The bill had been sitting in the House Rules committee before Kennedy was shot. Johnson worked with Bolling to get a petition to move the bill out of the House before Christmas. As it was, it didn't move until January, with a lot of pressure exerted on Howard Smith to speed up the process.

      According to Caro, it wasn't easy getting the Republicans to sign onto the petition. It was very comfortable for them for the CR bill to be locked up in the Rules committee without having to vote on it one way or the other. This is where Johnson really pressed the Republicans, reminding them that he represented the "Party of Lincoln."

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    3. Plus, from my understanding of what Caro is saying, there was support in theory for some sort of civil rights legislation, but when it came to actually committing to anything in writing or in law, it was a different matter. This weird petition idea made everyone, including republicans, step up and say whether or not they would even allow it to come to a vote. And if not, admit that they might talk in generalities but weren't all that committed to the principles of Lincoln.

      As understandably hard as he is on Johnson, Caro suggests that Johnson was indeed sympathetic to anyone who was disenfranchised or poor the way he had been as a child.

      I also think the January date on Civil Rights had to do with his strategy on getting a budget passed first. From experience, Johnson understood how Congress can manipulate the outcome simply by stalling one bill to prevent another from moving. Very discouraging when you think about it.

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    4. Discouraging yes, but in the hands of a master legislator like Johnson, doable. Caro stresses throughout his book that Johnson knew how to get things done. The Kennedy administration simply didn't have a handle on Congress, and as Caro suggested, Conservative leaders were purposely blocking Kennedy legislation.

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    5. I just read the chapter with the Senate breakdown (on page 564) and teaching Humphrey how to count. Of the 67 Democrats, 23 or 24 were from the South or border states and opposed desegregation, so he only had 56 or 57 votes. He needed to get the others from Republicans from the Midwest, most of whom wanted major compromises.

      Johnson didn't want to compromise on this one. So he coached Humphrey to woo Dirksen. I think he also gave away a few major state investments and made some promises to look out for Senators later.

      How the South tried to slow down the count by allowing Southerners to speak over and over again on the bill is an amazing story in its own right.

      What always amazes me is how diverse this country is and yet we are still represented (if that's the right word) by men not unlike those in the 1960s. Although as Caro points out, the Civil Rights legislation helped ensure that we could have Barack Obama as a president, and that definitely is a major achievement.

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  82. And seeing that photo you realize the horse that Johnson made Salinger ride is not much more than a pony ...

    The descriptions of the barbeques and hunting deer from a convertible are 100% Texas -- just what he was trying to fight against when Kennedy was in power. Fascinating story. (And one I'm assuming George Jr. was trying to emulate with his "ranch.")

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  83. It is funny how Dubya seemed to use LBJ as a role model, at least as far as projecting the image of a "Texan." Maybe it sprung from this encounter,

    http://trailblazersblog.dallasnews.com/2010/11/the-day-george-w-bush-and-lbj.html/

    whatever the case, Dubya didn't come anywhere near filling LBJ's boots.

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  84. It was all photo ops (and cornpone).

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  85. The CR bill was a monumental achievement. Caro notes in the following chapter that RFK was dismissive of Johnson's efforts, saying the Kennedy administration would have gotten the bill through Congress sooner or later, but Caro shows that had they enlisted Johnson from the start, they probably wouldn't have had the problems they had in Congress, where virtually all their legislation was bogged down in committees, headed by Southern legislators combative toward the Kennedy administration.

    I enjoyed the book. Taking a break as I'm going with the wife and kids to Druskininkai for the weekend, but will add more when I get back Monda.

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  86. Have a great weekend. I had intended to wrap this up earlier, but hopefully will have finished by the time you get back. Then I'm going back to Brautigan -- an 800 pager.

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  87. One of the other stories that really jumped out from this chapter was Johnson's disdain for "you liberals," (i.e., Humphrey et al.) who were always disorganized and working at cross purposes. They never even bothered to learn the rules in depth or how to work the system. Some things never change I guess.

    Wish Robert were here. He worked for Humphrey at one point.

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  88. Caro leaves you on a high note with this book and with a real appreciation of Johnson -- hard to believe, but he did some amazing things in a couple of months and used his preternatural powers for good. But Caro also gets a dig in for what's to come. I'm hooked.

    Gintaras, the notes at the back about sources etc. are also worth reading. Interestingly, Moyers never agreed to an interview -- apparently he is planning to write his own book.

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  89. Very positive view of Johnson, but then it was before the proverbial shit hit the fan with Vietnam. It will be interesting to read how Caro deals with that subject in his subsequent book. Will look over the endnotes, av. Surprised that Moyers didn't give Caro the courtesy of an interview, not like he had to divulge anything major he would say in his presumed book, just share a few anecdotes.

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  90. I wish Robert could have been here with us too. I haven't heard from him in quite sometime.

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  91. Someone else refused him an interview to begin with -- can't remember this early who it was, Schlesinger maybe? -- but then read the first volume and gave him a multi-day one.

    I'm sure there were also those who stayed loyal to Johnson until the end, but I'm assuming Moyers surely wouldn't have been one of them after Vietnam.

    Still, I give Caro credit for painting such a positive picture of Johnson during this period, and giving the man his due. But yes, the proverbial shit is about to hit the fan since we know how he feels about backing down from his comments about Cuba.

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  92. I had my reservations about the book to begin with -- it takes awhile to get used to Caro's style again. If I were his editor I'd fight with him, too! But well worth the time. Thanks for reading with me.

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  93. Thank you for suggesting the book, av. I enjoyed it. There were times I found myself scratching my head, but he clearly marked what was conjecture and what were the expressed thoughts of the persons involved. However, Caro repeats himself a lot. The book could have used some fine tuning. Will add a few more thoughts.

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  94. I think I will work backward with Caro's books, although not in any hurry. Put in an order for Master of the Senate.

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  95. It is an amazing series. I read the first one in paperback and was hooked! And I've never had any interest in Johnson or his crooked politics.

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  96. Congratulations Robert Caro,

    http://news.yahoo.com/caro-wins-national-book-critics-circle-bio-prize-233256353.html

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