30 September 2017

Lyndon Jhonson, Master of the Senate: Book Review / Report / Reconnaissance

This post is written in honor of a book I once read, just now in geologic time, by Robert Caro, called Lyndon Jhonson, Master of the Senate.

This was a completely amazing book, one of the best books I have ever read, certainly one of the most eye-opening.  I strongly, positively, feverishly recommend that if you have any interest the world as we know it you acquire this book by any legal means and read it in its entirety. But, the book is a thousand pages and most people (no offense) will never read the whole thing; so I’m going to tell you briefly some of the many amazing things I learned from it.

This will involve plenty of simplifying/summarizing not to mention flat-out omitting but hopefully without distorting.  Broadly the following is divided into things I learned about LBJ, and about Senate history / context, followed by the story of the 1957 passage of the first major civil rights legislation in nearly a hundred years, a relatively toothless bill but one which paved the way for the historic bills of 1964 and 1965, which are covered neither in the book nor in this podcast, which is hereby published in the form of a blogpost, which you may read it aloud to yourself or others, as you are already doing now (more or less) in your own head right there as it sits atop what is roughly the midpoint of your own two shoulders, on a good day.

This book was so good that I knew this blogpost could never begin to do justice to it.  Thus the recent hiatus around here.  But the pipes must be unclogged.  Time to dislodge this, and move forward.

About LBJ
Before reading this book my knowledge of LBJ was perhaps typical of members of my generation: know him mostly as the one after Kennedy, the Civil Rights prez but also the one who got us into Nam. From Texas, wife named Lady Bird. My Chicago aunt had an old comedy record called Welcome to the LBJ Ranch that I played more than once.  Fans of Seinfeld have a particular, vulgar association with the man that is beneath elaborating upon here. That's about what I knew on the subject going in.

This book tells us, in a nutshell*, that LBJ was a bastard with a heart of gold who wanted more than anything else in the whole wide world to be POTUS, with the result that he was mostly a bastard all the way along the path to power but not opposed in principle to doing good if it could serve his ambition.  A central point the book makes about LBJ’s mix of ambition and compassion is that when these two motivating forces came in conflict, ambition always won. But if doing good aligned with his ambition, LBJ could get big, like tremendously good shit done.  So he simultaneously embodies the best and worst of humanity. Which is pretty cool, not everybody can pull that off, especially at that level.

What makes 'the great man' great?  The following were among LBJ’s talents.
Tireless – worked all day and all night, at all times, if not working on people then mastering information, combing the details looking for the smallest advantage. In fact, one reading of the book goes a long way to suggest that LBJ was quite possibly an animatronic cyborg sent from the future, although Caro devotes no more than a few paragraphs in passing to this remarkable theory.
Hardass – did whatever needed to be done.
People skills – talking to people all day; and listening. A sponge. A reader of people, a tireless observer of what motivates them and how to manipulate them.
Suck-up. Gets on the good side of those he needs. First Rayburn in the House, then Russell in the Senate. Known in college as a suck-up. Going to the funeral of the guy who hated him's father. Sucking up to Truman. A potent blend of obsequious and dictatorial.

Mostly though my overall grade for LBJ is, he was a bastard. I came away from this book disliking this mofo because of what he did to Leland Olds.  So, a brief digression to tell a little of Leland Olds, who was a truly great american. A liberal, an advocate for the poor, the working class thus pro-labor, who, first working for FDR in New York before serving as chairman of the Federal Power Commission, did as much to get electricity to the homes of the broad mass of americans as perhaps anyone. He showed utilities that were refusing to electrify rural areas and reduce rates that they would make even more money by doing so (by increasing demand), and he was right. He was also a staunch anti-communist, he considered communism to be antithetical to the american spirit (or in the modern parlance, sucky).

One of the many results of Leland Olds' actions was limiting the ability of filthy rich natural gas interests in Texas to get even filthy richier.  LBJ needed these same filthy rich bastards to bankroll his presidential run. To show them they could count on him, he needed to destroy Olds.  So he did.  Destroyed a man who had served his supposed political idol FDR in New York and nationally and who had done so much to bring affordable electricity to the broad mass of Americans (ironically, one of LBJ's early successes politically was bringing electricity to rural Texans). And he did it in the lowest possible way, by smearing him as a commie based on deliberate distortion of things Olds had written 20 years prior, long before ever getting into regulating the power industry.  LBJ torpedoed the 1949 renomination of Leland Olds, basically ruining the man’s life not to mention raising gas prices on countless americans so that filthy rich bastards could get even filthy richier ... so that they could pay for his campaign to one day be president.  So, LBJ was a complete and total fucking bastard, the worst kind of human being.  How do such people live with themselves?  How do they sleep at night?  To find out, press 1 on your touch tone phone, now.

II. Senate History / Context
The book literally** oozes information about the historical role of the Senate. As the dam against the passions of the masses. A bulwark against the popular will. Part of the design of our government. Founders were rich and feared levelling/redistribution that democracy could bring. Staggered six-year terms, impossible to turn over the body in one election.
"In creating a Senate for the new nation, its Founding Fathers had tried to create within the government an institution that would speak for the educated, the well-born, the well-to-do, that would protect the rights of property, that would not function as an embodiment of the people's will but would rather stand--"firmly"--as a great bulwark against that will.
    They had succeeded." (p.33)

Examples of Senate ‘stemming the tide’ are detailed: Chase impeachment trial 1805, Andrew Johnson impeachment. Webster’s Second, Exasperated Reply to Hayne, in which Webster was  like, Dude, we're not just like a bunch of freakin' disparate states and stuff, man ... we're like a country and shit.  Woodrow Wilson and the whole League of Nations thing (due to time constraints, we'll just leave it at that).

This book also educates the reader about how the Senate has traditionally worked over its long and storied history, how power flows within it, committees and procedures and so forth.  Power in the Senate in large part was/is executed through committee assignments; you want a place on the most important committees along with a path to the chairmanship of that committee.  When LBJ got there committee assignments were based almost entirely on seniority; so new senators had to get in line and it may take 20 years or more to get to the top if you ever do.  Almost singlehandedly, LBJ ended the seniority system; not right away, for he rose faster than most through hard work and sucking up; nor out of principle, but rather he did it after becoming majority leader mainly so he had more latitude to dole out committee assignments which gave him some power over the other senators, something no previous majority leader had possessed.  It was this rigid seniority system, along with the filibuster, that allowed a relatively small minority of southern senators to control the senate.

The 1957 Civil Rights Bill Story
The main story of this book is the passage of the 1957 civil rights bill, and while it does not say much about the Civil Rights movement as a whole, it makes with clarity and erudition (I had to) a few basic important points. One, Jim Crow was apartheid, an absolutely inhuman system of discrimination enforced by the government, backed by the power of the law. Stories of trying to register to vote. The lynchings, jesus.  And two, the system of the old south was not just melting away, they fought like bloody hell to keep it (to keep the children of different races from mingling and, horror, intermarrying). As long as the south had the filibuster, no civil rights legislation with any teeth could go anywhere.

Richard Brevard "Dick" Russell.  A Russell of the Russells of Georgia.  Implacable supporter of the southern life, i.e. Jim Crow. But always the gentleman, downplays the virulently racist arguments coming from his southern allies, sticks to the high road (relatively high anyway).  Separation is good for both sides. Sure there are abuses and injustices in the south, but are there not abuses and injustices in the north?

And of course that catch-all, states’ rights. States rights was generally speaking code for racism, i.e. an excuse to justify not forcing local governments to enforce the law of the land. But it is also a little more than that, because there are many cases in which opponents of segregation/racism come down on the side of states rights (legalization being a current example).  So states’ rights arguments resonated outside the south, and could provide along with the southern bloc enough votes to kill any civil rights legislation.

So. When LBJ gets to the Senate (by a fraudulent election btw), he sees that the south controls the senate and the power flows from its leader, Dick Russell.  If he wants power in the senate he needs Russell’s backing – and he works relentlessly to get it (pretending interest in baseball and civil war battles to hang around Russell).  If he wants to be prez someday he needs the backing of the south; but he can’t be seen as only the candidate of the south, he needs the backing of northern liberals.  Northern liberals are demanding civil rights legislation.  The southerners absolutely oppose this.  LBJ needs the backing of both sides.  How the hell is this gonna work. 

The answer is that LBJ stood with the southerners and stopped civil rights legislation every previous year up to and including 1956; then in '57, he kinda persuades Russell we gotta let something through or we’ll lose the filibuster but we can totally declaw what gets passed so it won’t matter anyway while telling the liberal side this is not perfect but it’s the best you’re gonna get right now, take this as a first step that you need to get the ball rolling. And in his defense, even as he saw enforcement weakened if not practically neutered for many of the bill's key provisions he stuck a little firmer on the voting rights aspect, believing that if they could at least enforce the right to vote then government would inevitably become more representative.

So, he gets this 1957 Civil Rights Bill through, it's watered down to be sure but it's the first such legislation in generations.  And it's the way he does it, arm-twisting and begging, literally horse-trading to bring key votes onboard.  He sees a way to get the votes of some states-rights westerners because it supports their positions on owning the dams in their states.  The thing appears to be on the verge of death many times, but in the end he comes through.  Certainly plenty of material here for a feature film or 24 episode netflix thing.  Fantastic reading.  Knowledge, with entertainment.  Four stars out of a possible four (stars).    Conclusion of review.

TL;DR: He was such a fucking bastard vs. He led the passage of historic civil rights legislation.  Amazing read. Hosts friendly and towels clean.


*This particular nutshell, it hardly need be added, is proverbial. 

**Not literally but you know, like, totally.

1 comment:

  1. There is so much more in the book that is not represented in this so-called "review". About LBJ's ticking clock factor, history of heart problems slash early death in his family plus his own big heart attack somewhere in there. About the raw power of his presidential ambition, it comes through in the book but this reviewer fails to capture it in this meager screed, the walking of the line between being the candidate of the south and earning the support of the northern liberals (shout out to Hubert Humphrey), how he bridged the two groups by talking out of both sides of his mouth, taking on completely different personas as he interacted with different people. I know nothing about the Kennedy assassination but the ticking clock factor plus the raw ambition certainly points to LBJ as at least a suspect in the case.

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