Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A politician with no redeeming features

Robert A. Caro characterizes the big man who is the subject of his monumental multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson as possessed of a character woven of "bright threads" of accomplishment in service of citizens needing government help and "dark threads" of ruthlessness, deceit, and deception in service of personal ambition. Means of Ascent, the second volume, describes the years between Johnson's defeat in a Texas Senate run in 1941 and his successful theft of a Senate seat in 1948.

The two threads do not run side by side in this volume.

Here Caro chronicles how Johnson made himself a rich man in the radio (and later television) business by selling his influence with the FCC; how Johnson escaped any hazardous service beyond one brief visit to a combat zone during the World War, a national crisis he seems to have viewed as an irritating interruption of his ambitions; and how he stole the Senate seat he lusted after through voting buying, ballot box stuffing, a campaign of lies, and contempt for law in 1948. This Lyndon Johnson had no discernible redeeming features.

Elections junkie that I am, I found the description of Johnson's successful Senate campaign quite fascinating. He pioneered a new kind of politics: a big money politics (his construction and oil backers gave their all, legally and illegally), a technological politics, a media politics. His mantra was what anyone who works for a candidate wants to hear: "Do absolutely everything and you win." He drove himself into a hospital bed; if anything he drove his abused staffers even harder. This is the sort of mindset that an election campaign requires. And yes, it also is what leads to staff and candidates crossing all sorts of legal and ethical lines. We can hope that legal restraints constrain to this form of semi-civilized warfare; sometimes the boundaries don't hold and Lyndon Johnson's crimes against honest democracy were egregious.

As well, reading about this campaign, I ended up glad that Johnson's opponent Coke Stevenson did not occupy a Senate seat for 18 or even 24 mid-20th century years. Stevenson was an honest rock-ribbed conservative, an admirable human being, and a man who was not going to grow with the world around him. He would have been a boulder implanted in the Senate, an impediment to racial progress and to all change, to any new ways of thinking and doing. Johnson was a political opportunist as well as sociopathically ambitious. He was complicated. Stevenson was not. We the people were almost certainly better served by the convoluted character of the power-hungry Texas Senator than we could have been by the good man.
This will be my last crack at Caro's Johnson biography for awhile. I've read all four of the currently extant volumes. For anyone curious about Caro's project, I recommend particularly Master of the Senate, still a useful description of that exclusive club for the all the changes since.

Whether there will be more on Caro's project here will depend on whether he manages to carry the story of Lyndon Johnson's contradictions through the Voting Rights Act, on to Vietnam, and a through a shortened presidency. When this part comes out, it will be fascinating. I hope Caro lives to finish it.

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