§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: July 2012

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro

Over 1000 pages long, this one doesn't even mention Johnson until about 200 pages in. That early part of the book is a history of the US Senate, from its heyday as a chamber for learned debate with orators like Webster, Clay,and Calhoun to the rule-bound naysayer it became, particularly as it was when Johnson showed up in 1949. The Senate then was run by the Southern senators, lead by Richard Russell of GA, and the name of the game was protecting "the southern way of life" --code for discrimination against blacks. They not only blocked civil rights legislation but even blocked anti-lynching laws. While they didn't always have the votes to stop legislation they had the filibuster and the infamous Rule 22--cloture (ending the filibuster by a 2/3 vote). And the threat of filibuster.

Johnson understood power all his life and knew how to go about getting it. He became Russell's protégée, even his toady and everything he did focused on increasing his power. He learned how to pass legislation. He already knew how to influence people. He did a lot of unsavory things, one of the worst of which was to engineer a negative confirmation vote for Leland Olds as head of the Federal Power Commission. It was Olds' third confirmation. Johnson had even benefitted from Olds' policies when he was helping the Texas Hill Country get power when he first entered the House. But the Texas oil men wanted Olds gone because they didn't want natural gas prices regulated like electricity had been. Johnson went to extreme lengths to bring out Olds' early liberal  ideas and  writings (we're talking about Communism here, this was the McCarthy era after all). Despite the fact that Olds had always rejected the Communist Party and written about it early on, Johnson assembled a book of everything he'd ever written and Olds was quizzed on sentences taken out of context from his own writings of 20 years before. Unprepared (because he'd been lead to believe his reconfirmation was only a formality), Olds stumbled because he'd forgotten. Johnson led him down the path to destruction. He was not confirmed because of his "Communist leanings". His life work was not only interrupted but over. But Johnson won the support of the Texas oilmen that he needed to sustain his own power base.

But Johnson was not your typical Southern senator. His family was poor, had fallen on hard times , farming on inhospitable land in a remote and relatively poor area. He'd started his working life teaching school in a small town of Mexican immigrants who were dreadfully discriminated against. He helped them when he could and remembered their plight.

He also wanted to be President and knew as things stood that a Southerner could never be elected.

Needless to say, the book is fascinating, partly because Johnson is fascinating and full of contradictions, but also because Caro has researched not only Johnson's life and work, but the entire milieu in which he operated. He devoted 2 of 43 chapters to the Leland Olds story, for instance, to hit the reader over this head with Johnson's energy, thoroughness, and ruthlessness. And feel the great injustice done to Olds. And that same energy, thoroughness,and ruthlessness eventually gets directed toward causes that LBJ really believed in, like Civil Rights.