Monthly Archives: January 2014

Worth Reading: The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

book coverThe Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. By Robert Caro. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, 712 pp., $35.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, continues to fascinate fifty years after that horrific Friday in Dallas. With the nation having just commemorated that milestone, I decided it was time to delve into the latest volume of Robert Caro’s massive-and-as-yet-unfinished biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. The Passage of Power covers the years 1958 to early 1964, including the Kennedy assassination and Johnson’s rise to power because of it, and it’s a masterful if wordy account.

In 1988, the nation marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the tragedy, and CBS broadcast its coverage of the assassination and its aftermath in a 2-hour documentary entitled “Four Days in November 1963: The Assassination of President Kennedy.” Except for the occasional Dan Rather commentary, it was simply a re-broadcast of the coverage as it originally aired from November 22-25, 1963, and it was very powerful. Watching that show marked the first time I ever saw the unedited Abraham Zapruder film, and it shocked me. You can watch the CBS documentary on You Tube.oswald's ghost

There have of course been innumerable documentaries on the Kennedy assassination and the conspiracies it has spawned, chief among the latter being Oliver Stone’s problematic film. Highly recommended, at least by me, is Robert Stone’s “Oswald’s Ghost,” originally broadcast in 2007 as an episode of PBS’s highly acclaimed “American Experience” series. There are too many others to mention but easily found—and in most cases watched—in the era of the internet.

Books and articles on the assassination abound too, of course, much of it written by amateur sleuths, would-be scholars, or outright hacks with a conspiracy theory ax to grind. It can be hard for published scholarship to keep up and compete with the overload of motion pictures, TV shows, and internet sites on the subject.

But make no mistake, the best written account of the assassination and its aftermath is here, in the pages of Caro’s fourth volume of his fascinating study.

Robert Caro’s biography is written in the grand style of the old nineteenth- and twentieth-century biographers, who spent decades and thousands of pages detailing the lives of their subjects. Who does this anymore? Dumas Malone spent nearly half a century researching and writing his 6-volume Jefferson and His Time, published in the 38 years between 1943 and 1981. Irving Brant’s 6-volume James Madison was published between 1941 and 1961, while Douglas Southall Freeman cranked out 4 volumes on Robert E. Lee, 3 more on Lee’s Lieutenants, and finished 6 books of a 7-volume biography of George Washington, all of it published in the 17 years between 1936 and Freeman’s death in 1953.

caro booksCaro is writing at a comparatively glacial pace. He began work on the LBJ project in 1976; the first volume, The Path to Power, appeared six years later in 1982, and three more volumes have been published in the intervening 30 years, averaging about 10 years between every book. Together the four tomes total about 3,300 pages and weigh more than Chris Christie’s lunch box.

great-booksAs a friend of mine once joked, all an author has to do to get me to buy a book is to put “Volume 1” on the cover. I’m a sucker for the multi-volume set and a completist at heart. My study is full of them, from all of the ones mentioned above, to the 60-volume Great Books of the Western World series (second edition), and its two companion series: the 10-volume Gateway to the Great Books,  and the 38 volumes of The Great Ideas Today (published between 1961 and 1998); the Harvard Classics (51 volumes), Gibbon’s 6-volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a complete set of the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (29 volumes), and all manner of other multi-volume histories and biographies.

As multi-volume sets go, Caro’s four volumes on LBJ don’t sound like much, but they take up practically their own shelf. As I said above, they’re weighty tomes with small print—the shortest is 500 pages–but they’re all prize winners. The first two, The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, as has the latest volume. The third volume, Master of the Senate, won the Pulitzer Prize in biography and the National Book Award.  It’s worth noting that the third installment was almost as long as the first two combined.

oath of officeThe latest volume comes in at 605 pages of text, and half of that covers the 47 days between JFK’s assassination and LBJ’s State of the Union address on January 8, 1964.  The events of November 22 get 65 pages all by themselves, and it is riveting text. For Caro, LBJ’s flawless transition to the power of the presidency was his finest hour. Having witnessed so much of Johnson at his worst—the second volume, Means of Ascent, focuses almost entirely on the corrupt 1948 Senate election that LBJ won by 87 votes—Caro believes that the passage of power found the Texan at his best.

jfk lbjOne reason the books are so big and so long is that Caro left no stone unturned in his research. He has talked to anyone and everyone associated with Johnson who would in fact talk with him (LBJ’s press secretary Bill Moyers never has). The book is filled to overflowing with insights, anecdotes, and analysis of LBJ and the Kennedy administration that make it hard to put down.

Caro is at his best in describing three things in particular: the Democratic campaign of 1960 in which LBJ’s dithering and failure to fully commit resulting in losing the nomination to JFK; the coLBJ-RFK-JFKmbustible LBJ-Bobby Kennedy relationship and the hatred on both sides; and LBJ’s masterful transition from VP to President in the minutes, hours, and days following Kennedy’s assassination.

Derided by Camelot denizens and journalists alike as Colonel Cornpone or Rufus Cornpone while he was vice president, Johnson assumed power flawlessly and tactfully before ever leaving Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Standing against a back wall in a cubicle in the Parkland Minor Medicine section, LBJ received the news of Kennedy’s death from a heart-broken Kenny O’Donnell: “He’s gone.”

In that moment, everything changed. The powerless vice president immediately became the Lyndon Johnson of old.  Insisting on taking the oath of office before leaving Dallas (and offending the Kennedys by doing so), in the next few days he retained key JFK aides, calmed and united the American people behind the new (and un-elected) president, and reassured the world that America would seamlessly continue its leadership in the Cold War.

In the 47 days following the assassination, the former Master of the Senate managed–through political savvy, flattery, and invoking the legacy of the martyred Kennedy–to skillfully maneuver key pieces of JFK’s legislative agenda through Congress that had been stalled for three years. The master stroke was getting Kennedy’s Civil Rights bill passed by both houses of Congress later in 1964, overcoming the usual southern intransigence and stonewalling.

President Lyndon B. Johnson Making His Point“Power is where power goes,” LBJ said, and as president he used it effectively as few other presidents have before or since, as great a combination of restraint and outright political arm-twisting as can be imagined.  He wooed the fiscally conservative Harry Byrd relentlessly in passing a tax cut, strong-armed his segregationist mentor Richard Russell into serving on the Warren Commission (Russell hated Earl Warren for Brown v. Board of Education) and coaxed and flattered Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy into staying on in the Cabinet after Kennedy’s death. He even persuaded long-time Kennedy stalwart Ted Sorensen that he could best serve JFK’s legacy by writing the speech LBJ delivered to a joint session of Congress just two days after Kennedy’s funeral and the State of the Union address on January 8.

The seven weeks are for Caro probably the most pivotal in American history. Johnson, Caro writes, used those seven weeks “as a platform from which to launch a crusade for social justice on a vast new scale”—the beginning of LBJ’s historic Civil Rights bills, the war on poverty, Medicare, Medicaid,  and the Great Society, all of which transformed the country.

lbj methodDuring those seven weeks, Johnson had conquered himself, held the worst of his personality in check—the insecurity, indecisiveness, paranoia, the need to dominate and control—and for Caro it was his finest hour: “In the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, this period stands out as different from the rest, as perhaps that life’s finest moment, as a moment not only masterful, but, in its way, heroic.”

The tragedy is that it wouldn’t last.  The next (and presumably last) volume will chronicle the spiral downward into the quagmire of the Vietnam War, civil unrest at home, the anti-war movement, the King and RFK assassinations of 1968, and a White House and president increasingly under siege. It all resulted, of course, in a Richard Nixon presidency and eventually Watergate. As Caro points out, the prestige of the presidency would never be the same after those 47 days.

robert-caro-smith-corona-electra-210William Manchester didn’t live to finish his 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Douglas Southall Freeman’s George Washington was one volume short of the finish line at the time of his death. Robert Caro says that he’s completed the research on the next volume already, that all he needs to do is write it.  He’s now 78. One can only hope that his writing pace picks up, because having come this far, it would be a crime if Caro didn’t journey with LBJ all the way to the end. The last line of the last volume, he says, is already written.

But if these four volumes are all we get, if the story ends here, it will be more than enough. Caro has already given us a literary monument the likes of which we are not likely to see again.

A Monumental Mistake

Dutchy's head -- Photo courtesty of the City of ElbertonOne warm August  evening, cloaked in darkness, a group of people toppled Elberton’s Confederate monument. The next day, they buried it.

Anti–Confederate activists? Politically-correct terrorists? Nope. It was August 14, 1900. Elberton, like many Southern towns in the 1890s, wanted to honor the Lost Cause. It also wanted to promote its new granite industry as part of the vibrant new South. A Confederate memorial, made from Elberton granite was the perfect way to do both.

The problem was the monument itself. The Italian sculptor hired for the project had clearly never seen a Confederate soldier—the statue was wearing the wrong uniform. TElberton new statuehe squatty figure with bulging eyes was lampooned as “a cross between a Pennsylvania Dutchman and a hippopotamus,” earning it the unaffectionate nickname “Dutchy.” So down came Dutchy, replaced by a new Confederate monument. Elbertonians felt that the existing statue was offensive and didn’t represent the values of those in the community. They replaced it with something they felt was more in keeping with who they were.

Some state lawmakers don’t believe the people of Georgia should have that right, at least as regards state-owned monuments.  Reacting to the removal of Tom Watson’s statue from the State Capitol grounds, there is a movement afoot in the Georgia state legislature to prohibit by law the destruction or relocation of Georgia state-owned public monuments.

Tom-Watson-StatueOne of the bills’ supporters,  a current state legislator and retired history teacher, reacting to the transfer of the Tom Watson statue off the Capitol grounds, says that “current and future generations should not be given the right to re-write history based on the political correctness of the day.  Generations to come can benefit from history and knowing where we have been is a necessary element in judging where we are and where we need to go. Arm chair second guessing has no place in the preservation of history. “

Hmm. Current and future generations shouldn’t be given the right to re-write history, but he apparently believes, because of his own political agenda, that a current state representative does have the right to enforce a very limited version of the past on the rest of us for all eternity. This is legislation one would expect to find in a totalitarian regime, not in a self-governing democratic republic.

He’s certainly right that we can all benefit from the study of history. But there are several things wrong with this statement. First, “history” is re-written every day and has been since the dawn of time, as nTrumanew evidence about the past comes to light. The very act of writing history is historical revisionism.

Just two examples: When President Harry Truman left office in 1949 he was universally considered one of the worst presidents in our history. By 1992, when David McCullough’s magisterial biography appeared, he had been re-evaluated as one of the best. Nothing in the past had changed.  Calvin Coolidge is going through a similar revival on the political right at this very moment, from hapless bumbler to “Great Refrainer” who championed small government, thanks in part to Amity Shlaes’ new biography.

coolidgeHistory isn’t some sort of static rock that never changes. There’s a huge difference between the past and history. History is what we say about the past, and it changes all the time.

If you believe that removing names off landmarks is re-writing history, then we have a long and honored tradition of that in America, and in Georgia. Under the proposed legislation, it seems highly unlikely that Georgians in the aftermath of the American Revolution would have been able to remove statues of King George III or to change the names of streets with royal names like King Street  and Queen Street to Congress, President, and State streets, as Savannah did in the 1780s. Those names no longer represented who they were as heirs of the Revolution. Freedom meant having the right to choose who you honored and who you didn’t, and no one can accuse the Revolutionary generation of being slaves to political correctness.

George IIISpeaking of political correctness: When Georgia seceded from the United States in 1861, the secession convention published a “Declaration of Causes” that explained to the world why the delegates believed the extraordinary step was necessary. I urge you to read it–it is widely available online. From the second sentence in the document, Georgia makes it clear that preserving the institution of slavery was the primary and most important reason for leaving the Union.  Georgia’s secession delegates were not ashamed of that reason and didn’t shy away from it in 1861. Indeed, they expected that their support for that cause would rally most of their fellow white Southerners to their banner. In the document’s 3,300 words, the phrase “states rights” appears nowhere.

Nevertheless, after the war, in one of the most blatant acts of “political correctness” ever undertaken, Lost Causers and other former Confederates obliterated and repeatedly denied any link between the Confederacy and the preservation of slavery, as they do to this day. Why? Because it was no longer politically (or racially) correct after the war to have attempted to destroy the United States over such a thing as the preservation of slavery, so they simply did a lot of “arm-chair second guessing” as to their reasons for secession. Most pro-Confederate groups continue to do it to this day. The idea that history isn’t re-written is ludicrous.

The proposed bill’s supporters also insist that statues and monuments are themselves “history” and that keeping them intact and in place is part of the “preservation of history.”

MLK-Monument_But here’s the thing: statues aren’t history. They’re pieces of artwork that reveal more about the cultural values of the people who erected the statue than about the person portrayed in the statue or monument. The very act of designing a statue or monument is an act of historical revisionism itself, because designers and supporters of the statue are very selective about what they put on the marble. Anyone who puts up a statue chooses very selectively from the accomplishments and writings of the person they are honoring and how they want that person portrayed, and what is chosen is one interpretation among many of the person or event being honored. But it’s just that, an interpretation.

For example, the Tom Watson statue at the State Capitol has none of his writings about Jews or African-Americans, which were as controversial in his day as in ours. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington doesn’t list the number of slaves he owned, nor does it say anything about Sally Hemings. And the MLK monument in Washington has nothing about King’s adultery or plagiarism.

Jefferson_Memorial_These three men, like all human beings, had moments of greatness but they were also flawed and fallible. We all are. But the flaws never make it onto the monuments or statues and therefore should never be confused with the balanced, full interpretations that real historians and the real study of the past strives to achieve. Moving statues from this street to that one or even removing them altogether does nothing to prevent us from studying the achievements or the multi-faceted aspects of the lives they represent, warts and all.  That study takes place in the primary documents of history and the secondary sources written from those documents, not from statues or monuments. When those primary documents themselves face obliteration, then we should be alarmed.

The idea that the state can virtually chain all of the people of Georgia in perpetuity to a narrow slanted interpretation of the past is a ridiculous notion, and one quite frankly that should be rejected by all Georgians as being one of ideological correctness run amok. Professional historians constantly re-evaluate people and events in the past as new evidence comes to light, just as doctors re-evaluate treatment for diseases based on new medical research, and we shouldn’t be opposed to changing our minds about what we think about something or someone. Revising our views about the past isn’t “political correctness,” it’s sounds and professional scholarship.

Suppose a community erected a statue to a person and then evidence came to light 20 years later that that person was a child molester. Would anyone suggest that the people living in that community 20 years later don’t have the right to take that statue down? That the person being honored no longer represents their values? Of course not. But under the proposed legislation, if it was a state-owned monument they would be forbidden to do so.

Lenin statueThis is a strange piece of legislation indeed for opponents of big government to propose. Using the power of the state to enforce one version of events or values is a dangerous thing, and strikes me as being worthy of Orwell’s 1984. It sounds like something the Soviets would have done. After all, when the Soviet Union fell, exuberant Russians were quick to take down statues of Lenin and Stalin because they no longer felt those figures represented who they were and they had been forbidden to take them down under totalitarianism. Freedom means having the right to honor who you choose.

The proposed monuments bill would have made such a thing illegal, as nothing more than “arm-chair second-guessing” by latter day enthusiasts of “political correctness.”   Binding the people of the future to the values of the past that are enshrined in marble is nothing more than enforcing a narrow and one-sided interpretation of the past that all Georgians should be wary of. It’s as if Governor Eugene Talmadge had proposed legislation in the 1930s forbidding Georgians in the future from believing in the equality of the races.

talmadgeBefore anyone accuses me of trying to censor the past, let’s be clear: moving or taking down statues in no way prevents anyone from learning about a figure in history. In fact, I would argue that far from removing figures like Tom Watson and Eugene Talmadge from our history, we should study them and their words and deeds in depth—and in their totality, not just the parts that make us feel good about them. If they wrote racist things about Jews and African-Americans, let’s read those words, not to condemn but to try to understand how deeply those words created their identities and shaped the world they lived in. Watson and Talmadge were very popular in large part because of what they thought and said publicly about blacks and Jews, and we need to understand that and not hide from it. We need to understand how accomplished and educated people like Talmadge and Watson could have ever thought what they believed, and how their beliefs shaped the society in which they lived and influenced those who came after them.

StalinStatueBut it’s nonsense to enforce by law the notion that because our ancestors 100 years ago revered Tom Watson we therefore should too.

Taking down or removing their statues in no way keeps us from studying these people. When anyone begins proposing that we burn their letters, diaries, and public correspondence, then we should indeed get alarmed, because destroying primary source documents will in fact prevent our gaining a greater understanding of historical events and figures. But a statue of a person put up days or years after that person’s death is nothing more than a marble representation of what people at a certain time wanted you to know about that person–an interpretation, and nothing more. There’s nothing sacred about them.

1984I’m not proposing that Georgians or anyone else should be moving or taking down statues. But I am saying they should have that right if they or their elected representatives so choose. And no one is suggesting that the Watson statue be destroyed, it was simply moved. Even the U.S. Constitution allowed for changes through amendments, freeing future generations from the icy grip of the past. The proposed bill would freeze our collective grip forever on people and prejudices that we long since would have otherwise cast off as representing who we are. Making it illegal for future generations to remove or replace statues is a form of thought control that even Orwell didn’t envision.  It should never be illegal to change our collective minds.

A Real Professor

Russell JohnsonRussell Johnson, the actor who played the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island,” died on January 16, 2014, at the age of 89. He only played Professor Roy Hinkley for three of his 89 years, but he will be forever known as the handsome fellow in the white shirt and khakis, with the blue boat shoes, who seemingly knew something about everything.

Professor: “That glue is permanent! There’s nothing on the island to dissolve it. Why, do you know what it would take? It would take a polyester derivative of an organic hydroxide molecule.” Mr. Howell: “Watch your language! You’re in the presence of a lady!”

A silly show, yes, but the Professor always made learning and being smart seem cool. He had a B.A. from U.S.C., a B.S. from U.C.L.A., an M.A. from S.M.U. and a Ph.D. from T.C.U. I always loved his character. Gilligan-s-Island-gilligans-island-20712324-640-480Level-headed in any crisis, scientific in the face of fear and superstition, but always possessing a warm heart, Russell Johnson created, without really trying to, a timeless, classic television character that, to my mind at least, rivals the all-time greats like Barney Fife, Ted Baxter, and Cosmo Kramer.

I say that he created the memorable Professor “without really trying to” because Johnson always thought the role was just another job in what he hoped would be a long and fruitful acting career. Had you told him in 1964, when the show began, that when he died 50 years later the role on “Gilligan’s Island” would be the lead in his obituary and the thing he would be most famous for, he would have been appalled and dumbfounded.

As he wrote in his memoir, Here on Gilligan’s Isle, “none of us thought the show would last. Some of us thought it wouldn’t last a full season. I certainly never thought we were doing work that would someday, years down the line, be dissected by fans. We had no idea we would become so much a part of the public’s consciousness, so why save momentos? Why sock away scripts?”

RJ militaryRussell Johnson the man was a decorated World War II soldier, a veteran of the Army Air Corps who was shot down over the Philippines in 1945 and received the Purple Heart, the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of War ribbon with four battle stars, and the Philippian Liberation medal. He went to school at the Actor’s Lab in Hollywood on the G.I. Bill after the war and remained justly proud of his military service all his life.

Russell Johnson the man was also a father, and after his son David died from complications of AIDS in 1994, Johnson devoted much of his time volunteering to help raise money for AIDS research.

twilight zoneRussell Johnson the actor never possessed a very wide range but he played a number of interesting roles before landing on that island. He was in two very memorable—at least for a historian—episodes of “Twilight Zone” that both involved time travel. In the episode “Back There” Johnson journeys back to 1865 and tries to prevent the Lincoln assassination, while in “Execution” he brought a condemned killer from 1880 into modern-day New York via a time machine.  He played U.S. Marshal Gib Scott on the show “Black Saddle” (1959-60) and was always proud of the fact that he shot Ronald Reagan in the movie Law and Order (1953). He was also in the 1957 Roger Corman film Rock All Night and the sci-fi classics It Came From Outer Space (1953) and Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957).  

RJ-ReaganThe sad part, of course, isn’t so much that Johnson and all the other actors on “Gilligan’s Island” became typecast. It’s that despite the show’s never having gone off the air after its original three-year run of 98 episodes from 1964-67, none of the actors received a penny for their work on that show after 1969. Not a cent. They made money at fan conventions and personal appearances, but two years after the show ended, the cast had been paid in full under the contract the show’s owners offered them when it was cancelled. As Johnson said, “If only I had a dollar for every time the show had aired somewhere.”

My 7-year-old daughter asked me recently as we watched an episode of “Gilligan’s Island” if they ever got off that island. No, I said, they never did (at least not in the show’s original run). “I’m glad,” she replied,” it looks like a lot of fun. I wish I could be there with them.” I remember thinking the same thing when I watched it at her The_Professor_(Gilligan's_Island)age. For all of us who grew up—and are still growing up—with those seven stranded castaways, Russell Johnson—decorated war hero, actor, devoted father—and the brainy, lovable and timeless character he created will always be a cherished and welcome companion.

Russell Johnson may be gone, but here’s to hoping that the three-hour tour will happily never end.