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Hard Core - an Historians History
on 16 October 2012
If you are into "hard core" American politics and events some 60 years ago, then invest the time and enjoy this book. My reservation was with the 'passage of time' so much detail diminishes, not enhances, an understanding of the man and his times. And it is part of a massive biography; with three preceding volumes totalling over 2,500 pages! Here the period 1958 to 1964 is covered when Johnson was aged 50/56. A final volume is planned.
I found the book absorbing, at times a drama of Shakespearean intensity. But there was no "dramatis personae" at the beginning. That I have not read the previous books did not diminish this work but more background would have helped. Most of us will turn to Wikipedia for clarification. For example even Americans may not be familiar with George Berham Parr - the Duke of Duval - whose electoral fraud put [may have] JFK in the Whitehouse (page 154). Mr Caro describes in detail the 22 November 1963. Johnson was being exposed for corruption and he had become an electoral liability, politically dead he was about to be buried. Then two hours took him from Parkland Hospital to the Presidency.
Robert Caro provides a forensic account of a small period of time. Johnson had a fear of failure and sat on his backside assuming the presidential nomination would find him. He totally underestimated and ignored the Kennedy's professionalism and hard work. In the first 100 pages Caro tell us this, but it could have been done well in 10 pages. There was a time when such immense detail might have been relevant, when people who were around were alive! But those people are long gone and even their grandchildren are getting old. Here is a political biography that often fades into "Newsweek" reportage. An editor could have lost a couple of hundred pages and sharpened the book.
By way of illustration, Chapter Four (The Back Stairs) is the day LBJ was offered the Vice Presidency by JFK. It almost reads as a film script replete with stage direction between hotel floors and suites. Robert Kennedy - a man none would want as an enemy - was strident in his opposition. Caro details minute by hour the events of the day. But - sins of omission - he never mentions who was an alternative vice president. Bobby, Organized Labor and Civil Rights interests hated LBJ and felt betrayed by JFKs offer. After Dallas where might America have gone if LBJ had not got the job? Caro is a master of detail, not of analysis.
Caro's portrait of LBJ shows a political dinosaur, a back office bully living on aggression, cunning and immense vanity wrapped up in heavy drinking and smoking. He was also sordidly corrupt, on a modest $35,000 pa salary he became a multi millionaire (p 286 & Chapter 10). Their day was done, JFK and his generation of the "best and the brightest" saw them off....yes. Chapter Eight shows LBJ to be a hard line hawk over the Cuban missile crisis advocating direct confrontation with Russia. By then the Vice President had become isolated and irrelevant, moping about looking for someone - anyone - to talk to. Cuba confirmed that dinosaurs did have very small brains with a bellicose LBJ dangerously out of his depth. What Caro illustrates is that LBJ could talk but not that he could think. If LBJ had been in charge, add in Curtis LeMay et al, would the missiles have stayed in their silos?
For me a great biography is about what you leave out rather than what you include. Mr Caro has left nothing out. He also takes a somewhat adoring view of the Kennedy's (especially RFK p227-43), a distortion not shared by all of us. When finished the books will be a gift for a good narrative historian to produce a single volume biography of genius. Mr Caro's work is excellent but unrefined. If you have the enthusiasm and stamina read this - I will be buying the final volume. It is an exceptional history of the man, less so of his times.