The future of the left since 1884

The secrets of power

At the heart of the current presidential contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is the question of power: who will wield it and to what purpose? Politicos – both elected and otherwise – rightly obsess over this both in...


At the heart of the current presidential contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is the question of power: who will wield it and to what purpose? Politicos – both elected and otherwise – rightly obsess over this both in terms of the horserace and the legislative legacy. That’s the reason why one of President Obama’s very first dinner guests at the White House was Robert Caro.

Robert Caro has been writing the The Years of Lyndon Johnson for over four decades and now publishes roughly a thousand pages every ten years. Prior to this work it was all too common for Johnson’s triumphs to be overshadowed by Kennedy’s Camelot and for his name to be just associated with Vietnam. Caro corrects this by covering Johnson’s creation of the modern Democratic Party’s campaign apparatus, his passage of seminal legislation like Voting Rights and Civil Rights, and that’s before we get to Great Society programmes like Medicare and Medicaid or even the Vietnam war expected in volume five (or perhaps six).

Caro’s latest volume, The Passage of Power is indeed magisterial and defining. It is without question a work of both literary and political genius. But it is also too short.

Let me explain. As The Years of Lyndon Johnson go on, our protagonist’s power grows. As his powers grow, the stakes of his decisions rise. But even as the stakes are raised the window for LBJ’s decision making shortens. Thus Caro is trapped in having to explain a larger number of momentous events and decisions within shorter time periods and thus is forced to compress his epic tale.

A large part of the explanation for this change lies in the changing nature of power itself as the books go on. In the beginning, Johnson’s power – as a student, a staffer and a young Congressman – lay in his ability to influence. Come Means of Ascent his power was electoral (money, momentum, media, organising, and the like). Master of the Senate is of course the definitive exploration of legislative power and the trade-offs, compromises, rule manipulations and so on which that entails.

But The Passage of Power sees LBJ first powerless as Vice President and then, finally, possessed of executive power. That power, in contrast with legislative power is more direct, sharper and swifter. As a result decisions and outcomes often occur with a smaller cast of characters within shorter time spans. Thus for those of us who adored most the detailed, rich explorations of staff power, advisory power, electoral power and legislative power we must now accommodate ourselves to the new hard reality of executive power. It is bright, sharp and clean and if you preferred shade and shadow, obliqueness and complexity, murkiness and deal-making, then it is hard to accommodate yourself to the new reality both of Johnson’s power and its implications upon Caro’s writing.

Put quite simply, there is no longer time and room in the masterwork for as detailed an exploration of side characters like Texas Governor Coke Stevenson or FDR New Dealer Leland Olds, nor detailed studies of the passage of non-principal legislation like Hell’s Canyon’s dam. Instead it is now necessary for Caro to take us to the main action and actors more directly and succinctly then before – a literary mirroring if you will of Johnson’s own change. Where once we had 25 pages on Coke or 35 pages Hell’s Canyon, now we have the Cuban Missile Crisis – in 14 pages.

And yet Caro never fails in his self-confessed principle purpose with these books: to explore the nature of power itself. It is in this that Caro continues his masterful reveal of the secrets of power familiar no doubt to many of the illustrious reviewers of his works from Gordon Brown to Bill Clinton. For like LBJ, Caro possess a political genius.

Once again he reminds us why “counting is the first rule of politics”: in The Path to Power it was money, in Means of Ascent it was voters, in Master of the Senate it was votes on a bill and in The Passage of Power it is all of the above, as Caro reveals how ”the counting” is the true foundation of politics and policy alike.

Caro reveals some of the most private fears and motivations of politicians – as well as some of the best tricks of their trade. Johnson’s fear of electoral humiliation (a subject that President Obama himself acknowledged as the great unspoken motivation of most pols in The Audacity of Hope) serves as a brilliant guide on How Not to Run for Office as he violates his own rule of ‘Do Everything’ in his failed 1960 presidential effort by failing to raise the money, crystallise his message, secure local support and hire the key staff needed to ensure a successful run. This rule has great explanatory power for politics’ surprise losers: the frontrunners defeated by insurgents who were willing to ‘do everything’ in contrast to the heir-apparents’ self-imposed limitations. Be it LBJ, Hillary Clinton or David Miliband, all had things they just wouldn’t do – in each case their previous victories had been when they did everything and their ultimate defeats were when they didn’t.

But what is perhaps most enjoyable from a historiographer’s perspective, is the use of his own power that Caro now revels in. Where once a ‘just the facts ma’am’ tone was central to any use of a historian’s quote, now creeps in a playful but sharp use of historian’s perspective to demolish the myths and inaccuracies of all lesser accounts.

One by one the greats of LBJ lore that were once Arthur Schlesinger or Robert Dallek are taken down by Caro as he settles what feels like silent scores. Make no mistake, Robert Caro uses his Pulitzer Prize’d authority and status as top deity in the political biographers’ pantheon to settle old scores with other, mere mortal LBJ biographers. I can imagine Caro reading error-strewn accounts of the 1960 Convention and yet waiting patiently for decade after decade to right those wrongs – not with a mere rebuttal but with The Last Word on the matter. Time and again, particularly on the subject of the Kennedys’ relationship with Johnson, Caro offers us first a tour d’horizon of the historians’ view of a given matter before contradicting the settled wisdom and leaving in its place the new story as stamped with the hallmark of Caro’s ruthless prose.

Lyndon Johnson exercised political power with genius and ruthlessness. With the The Passage of Power, Robert Caro has emulated his subject of five decades and practised his own literary power with equal genius and ruthlessness. It is simply a pity that he has not done so at even greater length. After all, even President Obama, who has since listened to Caro on both healthcare and Afghanistan, would surely find the time to appreciate it.

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