The Donald and His Discontents​

Celebrity Candidate

”We” live in Trumpy times, indeed. Caricature by DonkeyHotey (CC BY-SA 2.0)


A quick note at the top: Donald Trump’s candidacy is obviously happening in the present. This essay on Thus, History! is not so much concerned with past events as it is with “historical thinking” in the sense that Jim Grossman recently explained it.


Twitter is seldom a fount of timeless wisdom, but in February it provided a nugget. Concise, as all tweets are, it was also incisive, which few tweets are.

”Most of America’s problems come down to who you regard as ‘we’” wrote Merlin Mann; podcaster, productivity geek and all around internet impresario. (Or in his own words ”Indie Writer, Speaker, and Broadcaster”). If you just want the TL;DR, stop here. You would miss a few choice morsels from the kids’ table that is this year’s election cycle, though.


Most of America’s problems, anywhere, anytime, seem to come down to this formula. It has not by far been the only thing fought over, and certainly was not the only issue ever of pressing importance. The occasional war or Cold War, for example, figured prominently as well. But even then, ”we” was a matter of record. It was ”we” who fought a ”them”, be they black-legend Spaniards, German huns or an Evil Empire. This is not just true of America, but it is true of America. It is true of Donald Trump.

There is so much writing on Trump and the world that created him that it seems unnecessary to produce even more. I will produce more. I have a very good reason: hardly anyone talks specifically about the importance of ”we.”

”We”
”We” is what makes a nation. ”We” is what makes any community. It is necessary to distinguish us from them in order to get us to believe, say and do things. ”We” is what created Donald Trump, and ”we” is how and why so many oppose him viscerally. It is easy to oppose Donald Trump, especially from a left-liberal perspective, but the explanations offered usually fall short. Yes, Barack Obama has a point when he says that racist backlash against him and against his ”socialist” policies created Trump. But it wouldn’t have been sufficient. It needed a context in which to grow. If you want to understand that context, at the American Enterprise Institute (a place not particularly known as a leftist stronghold), Norm Ornstein has a most compelling narrative to offer.1

Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich. In Oil, None the Less!
The short version is: blame Newt Gingrich. Or, the values and campaign strategy that he best represents. Following in the footsteps of the sorcerer’s apprentice, Gingrich, in order to win elections, called forth spirits he ultimately could no longer control. Considering that Trump is reportedly considering Gingrich as his running mate, it appears the strategy has perhaps not worked out all that well for the Republican Party in the long run, but it continues to work out for Newt Gingrich. Trump is tapping into a base of Republicans who may have gone along with Gingrich’s spirit pals, but may never have liked them very much, and who by now definitely have had enough. As George Packer writes in the New Yorker:

”[T]he ideology that has gripped their Party since the late nineteen-seventies—anti-government, pro-business, nominally pious—has little appeal for millions of ordinary Republicans. The base of the Party, the middle-aged white working class, has suffered at least as much as any demographic group because of globalization, low-wage immigrant labor, and free trade.”

And as they suffer (bear in mind that this is not suffering in absolute terms of who has it worst in contemporary America, but suffering in the sense of a relative decline of their position within it), they lash out and demand to be heard. A media culture in which news and entertainment have become all but inseparable, and in which the path between reality TV and politics has become well trodden, has ”made the candidacy of a celebrity proto-fascist with no impulse control not just possible but in some ways inevitable” Packer finds.2

Who Are We, Huntingon Book Cover
Who Are We?

Trump is successful with his constituency because he speaks at the intersection of all things ”we” for a large number of non-minority Americans. The ”Trump we” connects to the ”we” that Samuel Huntington used in the 1990s. ”Who are we?”3 he asked. Huntington’s battleground of ”we” was an ”American Creed” which came from England and that English influence made the US the US and not, say, Brazil. Huntington was afraid that a twofer of Hispanic immigration, in his view fundamentally different from all previous waves of immigration, and the fall of the Soviet Union which took away the common enemy that ”we” had relied on to strengthen American identity, would ”bifurcate” the United States and essentially create a second Quebec — a region different in language and culture from the rest of a country – in the American Southwest. Trump, on his vision quest to ”Make America Great Again” (which immediately raises the question what ”great” means, how ”great” is measured, and when exactly the time was when America was great that Trump wants to go back to) is playing on national identity and pride, and on a ”we” that rings true to a considerable number of Americans.

”We” is a presumed unity, but who is part of it and what these partakers of ”we” are supposed to look and think like is changeable. This ”we” that provides the constant, never-thought-about background noise to much journalism (and by extension, any discourse, really) in places like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post or Fox News is typically an ill-defined thing, but it’s defined nonetheless. The ”Times we,” for example, considers itself universal, but it’s pretty much a ”we” of the upper middle class, liberal in outlook but still conservative at heart, mostly white, male, and educated – in short, the whole intersectional enchilada in reverse. Any publication has a voice, of course, but once you have picked your go-to source of news, that voice fades into the background. If you’re a Times person, the ”Times we” will be your guide to make sense of the world. If your preferred news source is Fox News, talk radio, or political satire of the brand popularized by Jon Stewart in previous election seasons, then you’ll go along with that ”we.” (I somewhat clumsily called this process of joining a ”we” club and then remaining enthralled by it ”reparticularization” of the news in the internet age back in 2008.)

”We” can also be a political statement meant overtly to divide. Lyndon Johnson’s Senate career began with a statement anti-civil rights ”We of the South” speech in 1949. (Incidentally, Johnson is presidential history’s poster child for a ”we” flip-flopper. His next prominent use of ”we” was in 1965, as part of the sentence ”we shall overcome.”)

To be clear: I am not advocating for an avoidance of ”we” because it is loaded in so many ways. I use it. I use it in this article. I am advocating for more thought to be given to when, why, and how ”we” is used, and with what consequences before deploying it.

”They”
A ”we” needs a ”they.” That ”they” is a big thing in human thinking. It creeps up everywhere; politics – yes, but also business, games, anything people bother to do in groups, essentially, and some things they don’t. It’s a given in popular culture, whether you’re watching the slightly derailed X-Files revival or reading a Thomas Pynchon novel. We posits a they. A ”they” has to exist for ”we” to be powerful. And that ”they” had ideally be sinister, threatening, foreign, not trustworthy and not understandable. Understanding breeds communion. We do not want to commune with they. We want to defeat they. If we knew why they did what they do, we might lose sight of who we are and why we are against they. That can’t happen. That is the logic of ”we” and ”they,” it’s the logic of George W. Bush’s ”you are either with us or against us” claim in the run-up to the Iraq war, and it’s also the logic behind every conspiracy theory ever.

Trump’s use of ”they” can give you a bit of a headache. As a self-confessed rich person, he at the same time points out his business acumen and money-having as a plus in the ”why I’d make a great president” column, and attacks the ”one percent” of rich people who supposedly have given regular middle class people a raw deal for the past generation. He pillories the same elite that he is proud to be a part of because being part of it proves he has what it takes to be a great president, which is why you should vote for him. It’s a kind of circular logic that probably works so well because you have to spiral around it a couple of times to figure out this is an incongruence in the first place, and frankly, who has the time?

Clinton and Trump Caricatures
Neither Well-Liked. Caricature by DonkeyHotey (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Trump’s ”they” is everyone he happens to be against at the moment, and it’s contextually changeable, though it always includes some unholy coalition of Democrats, fat cats, establishment Republicans and immigrants. That this ”they” is not exactly clear cut seems to have helped Trump in his primary campaign. But the vagueness also contains potential for an unravelling of the strategy: if there is no clear enemy but Hillary Clinton, then who are ”they” and why should Trump be any better at getting back at them than anyone else? Clinton’s weak spots in the campaign are that she is establishment (with all the usual shady dealings this status either actually or purportedly brings with it), and that she is a woman in a society much more sexist than it is ready to admit. But are those two things really going to draw enough voters away from the Democrat camp to Trump? Norm Ornstein puts the chances at 80/20 against Trump, and all the likely 538 electoral math points in the same direction. That’s not to say it is impossible for Trump to get votes that would have gone to another Democratic candidate because some people just patently dislike Clinton. Both candidates’ unfavorable numbers – whatever these mean at this point in the game – are unprecedentetly high. But it’s just as likely that many solidly Republican voters will stay home on election day because they just patently dislike Trump. His ”we” might not be their ”we,” and his ”they” might shrink to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, since a Republican presidential candidate cannot mine all that much from anti-establishment Republican feeling among Republicans when he is now their standard-bearer.

Drumpf
John Oliver, hero of all those who once watched The Daily Show and do not like the new guy, stayed out of the comic assault on Donald Trump for months. Then he jumped into the fray full-force. ”Make Donald Drumpf Again” he exclaimed in true Trump spirit in one of his signature highly researched and produced segments, ready for YouTube virality. Having found out that the Trump family name had been ”Drumpf” at some point in the 1600s, the Oliver team built a twenty-minute comedy bit that culminated in this information.


On first viewing, this was funny. Taking the opposing candidate down a notch by giving them a funny name or byname is a staple of electioneering. It survived hard cider for a reason. But on second thought, it’s also a bit lame and it fans the same fire Trump fans with his anti-immigrant rhetoric. That Oliver takes up the same line of argument as Trump himself and therefore happily connects to a long tradition of xenophobic depictions of ”not-we” foreigners in the media has gone almost, but not wholly unnoticed in the press. S.I. Rosenbaum, writing in The Washington Post, pointed out that ”‘Drumpf’ feels so satisfying to critics of the Republican front-runner partly because it sounds funny and foreign; it sounds funny BECAUSE it is foreign.” She elaborated that ”Drumpf, to an American ear, conjures up a dough-faced Bavarian Nazi on his stumpy way to murder all the Jews in his village. (At least, that’s what I think of, as a progressive Jew who opposes Trump.)”4

”Call Him Drumpf,” then, is just a variation on a theme that earlier in the same musical production of Election Season 2016 was chanted in the hit numbers ”I Will Build a Wall” and ”They’re Rapists.” Though, as a progressive German who is having a hard time rooting for anyone in this election, I would argue that a veiled derogatory comment on the German-ness of an unliked presidential candidate is not in the same league as promising to build a wall that will keep out Latino rapists. Still, the opposition to Trump does not do itself any favors by pulling out the same blunt tools the object of their discontent uses with gusto.

It is very hard for many people to understand that someone else being wrong does not automatically mean they themselves are right. This implicit (and sometimes quite explicit) dichotomy is at the heart of ”we” and ”they.” It’s at the heart of the current media battle as well. From its adversarial legal system to its two-party elections to its popular culture (Coke or Pepsi, Burger King or McDonald’s, boxers or briefs) Lady Liberty is a Manichee. Your choice is Kierkegaardian. You can be either – or. The middle ground is not just shaky. You’d get contemptuous looks for just trying to stand on it, as if a ”keep off the lawn” sign was posted there, and a small white picket fence surrounded it and some tulips were planted there that you can’t be trusted not to squash.

Even if someone, a presidential candidate say, tries to occupy that patch of lawn by trying to argue that complicated is not always bad, the accusation that invariably follows tends not to acknowledge that what they’re attempting is to occupy the middle ground. John Kerry in 2004 was accused of flip-flopping. He had committed the political no-no of having moved from one of the sanctioned sides to the other. There was not even room in the debate to acknowledge there may perhaps be a third, fourth, n-th side.

Pogo
A recent meme collected all the then-viable presidential candidates for 2016 and put them alongside Muppets. The resemblance is funny, of course. Because Muppets are inherently funny, which is not something you can say about either Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, or even Bernie Sanders. No trouble making that leap for Donald Trump, though. His whole look and demeanor seems muppettish, all bluster and ridiculousness. But make no mistake, Trump is not a Muppet. The Muppets, Elizabeth Hyde Stevens reminded her fellow Gen Xers in 2014, were all about coming together. If you’re of a certain age and you don’t like the Muppets, Stevens contended, many children of the 1970s will look at you with suspicion. The Muppet Show ”[…] had the implicit message that all kinds of weirdos and goofballs can work together in peace, give or take a few explosions. Underneath the screwball humor, The Muppet Show had a message of brotherhood.”5

The Muppets’ brand of happy anarchy was itself based on influences from head Muppeteer (not a term he liked) Jim Henson’s childhood. Foremost among them, according to Brian Jay Jones’ Henson biography, was Pogo.6

Walt Kelly & Pogo Earth Day Poster
We Have Met the Enemy. Via thisdayinquotes.com

Pogo, a cartoon oppossum and star of a long-running comic strip, frolicked with his own cast of ridiculous characters in the Okefenokee swamp. His creator Walt Kelly often used the parallel universe of oddball swamp animals to comment on political issues. Whatever the hot button topic of the day, Pogo had a take on it. As for the question of ”we,” Pogo had that figured out in 1970. ”We have met the enemy, and they is us,” his creator had him say, in reference to environmental pollution on an Earth Day poster published that year.

It’s a good thing to remind ourselves every now and then that ”we” might be our own worst enemy. No matter how we stand on Trump, the Muppets, or anything else, ”we” should be much more careful in using ”we” indiscriminately and without thinking. That is, if you wouldn’t rather wait out this election by dancing your cares away, or playing possum.


  1. Andrew Prokop, ”The Political Scientist Who Saw Trump’s Rise Coming,” interview with Norm Ornstein in: Vox.com. May 6, 2016.  
  2. George Packer, ”Head of the Class,” in: The New Yorker. May 16, 2016.
     
  3. Samuel Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. 
  4. S.I. Rosenbaum, ”John Oliver’s ‘Donald Drumpf’ Jokes Play on the Same Ugly Xenophobia Trump Does” in: The Washington Post, Mar. 3, 2016.  
  5. Elizabeth Hyde Stevens, ”Millennials Just Don’t Get It! How the Muppets Created Generation X” in: Salon.com, April 6, 2014.  
  6. Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson. The Biography. New York: Random House, 2013. 

The Power Conduit: Robert Caro’s LBJ

Robert Caro’s growing multivolume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson is a lesson in how to do biography as history, and one in how power works in the American political system.


Once what is likely to be the last volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, number five, is unpacked in bookstores and pushed out to Kindles and iPads everywhere, Robert Caro will have been at it for over four decades. When exactly that will be is still unclear, and I am not holding my breath. In 2012, Caro predicted it would take another two or three years. (“But why would you believe me,” he joked in a Guardian interview that year).1 It’s now 2016 and there hasn’t been an announcement. Caro’s ever-expanding research has turned what he once predicted to be three volumes into a now expected five, and made the third book, 1992’s Master of the Senate alone easily three books’ worth in size. Book reviews through the decades are thick with words like “magisterial,” “definitive,” “sweeping,” “masterful,” even “majestic” when they describe volumes of Caro’s Years. Less favorably, a Salon.com review of volume four called Caro’s biography “bloated.”2

Robert_caro_2012
Robert Caro in 2012. By Larry D. Moore (CC BY-SA 3.0)

If you’re only a little bit interested in power and the American political system, today and during the twentieth century, you should read the books. They are engrossing, and they are helpful reminders that deadlock in the US Congress and pandering political manipulation are nothing new. They are also, however, nothing eternal and unchanging. They are tied to historical contexts and historical actors. Institutions matter, but people matter as well. People who can shape, change, and dominate these institutions. Reading or re-reading Caro’s Johnson is an exercise in reminding oneself that history is never just about one thing. It’s not about academic arguments alone, or just about the political uses of the past. It’s messy, and fascinating, and alive.

The Books So Far
The series consists, in mostly chronological order as far as the “Years of” are concerned, and in order of publication, of The Path to Power (1982), The Means of Ascent (1990), Master of the Senate (2002), and The Passage of Power (2012). It’s worth listing them here. Despite Caro’s considerable craft with words, and a publisher who has preserved the integrity of the series throughout, the titles only really speak to the place of each book in the whole story after you’ve read them all.

804px-Lyndon_B._Johnson_-_15-13-2_-_ca._1915
Johnson at seven years old in 1915

The Path to Power is the origin story. Caro vividly depicts the hardscrabble life of generations of Buntons and Johnsons, the two families of LBJ’s forebears, in the Texas Hill Country. He describes the emergence of Johnson’s deepest fears and most destructive personality traits, the less than idyllic country boy life, and the barely adequate education Johnson received. The shame he felt when his family, driven by Johnson’s father Sam’s romantic imagination, lost everything and had to live on the charity of townspeople. The Johnsons of Johnson City had once been respected, but as Lyndon Johnson grew into a man, they no longer were. Caro stresses the contrast between young Lyndon and his father, an idealist who Lyndon had once sought to emulate. No more. This all adds up to the making of a maker. Of a liar and abuser, for sure, but an occasional and effective advocate for the downtrodden all the same. There’s ample foreshadowing here for Johnson’s eventual turn as the last great reform president of the twentieth century. Ample as well is the back story to the situation in the Hill Country, a “hard land” that broke dreams, a place which Lyndon Johnson’s brother Sam Houston Johnson describes as “lonely” and where entertainment of any sort was hard to come by. “On the rare occasions on which a movie was shown, there was as much suspense in the audience over whether the electricity would hold out to the end of the film as there was in the film itself,” Caro writes.

On the many changes that electrification and the building of better roads brought to rural America, the book presents little new information. Yet, Caro’s evocative prose detailing the drudgery of Hill Country housewives on wash day and, the worst day of them all, ironing day, may just amount to a reader finally, for the first time, actually empathizing with what the change meant for the people it affected. Emotions are Caro’s trade, and he spends long pages detailing the process of heating and re-heating the “sad irons” over a sooty fireplace, and the sweat and disappointment this work brought with it. Canning and the preservation of fruits and vegetables, practices tinged today with hippie-hipstery faux nostalgia for a pastoral never-neverland, are described painstakingly as the survival necessities they were. Path follows Johnson through his college years and his early career as a Congressional secretary, and ends with him ensconced safely but unhappily in the House of Representatives after losing out on his first bid for the Senate.

611px-Portrait_of_Lyndon_B._Johnson_in_Navy_Uniform_-_42-3-7_-_03-1942
Hollywood glamour. Johnson in uniform

The Means of Ascent is the book about money, though the “means” here is clearly employed in both senses. It is the shortest book to date, at a “mere” 506 pages (first edition). It is here that Caro shows how Johnson, through smart and borderline ­– if not downright – illegal, maneuvering involving inside connections to the FCC, turned an also-ran radio station into a powerhouse. His media empire (on paper his wife’s) would eventually encompass a television station as well. Buying advertising time on a Johnson station was the surest way of making sure political favors would follow.

It’s a book about morality and about amorality, and it usually finds Johnson on the side of the latter. The main showdown is between Coke Stevenson, beloved Texas governor and shoe-in senatorial candidate, and Lyndon Johnson, unlikely challenger, three-term Congressman from an almost inconsequential district in the remote Hill Country. The story is how Johnson takes down Stevenson with all the dirtiest tricks, and then goes to Washington on only 87 very clearly faked votes. “Landslide Lyndon” prevails through the following legal tribulations with only the thinnest margin for error, but prevail he does.

Means is the volume in which Caro starts really putting “vignette biographies” – notably of “Pappy” O’Daniel and Coke Stevenson – to good use. These chapter-sized excurses could easily be taken out of the books whole and stand on their own, as likely the only thing you’ll ever need to read on the person concerned. (Later books contain such vignettes on Richard Brevard Russell, and both John F. and Robert Kennedy. Some reviewers have panned these as unnecessary and unoriginal, but Caro is a completist, and these tangents always branch back into the ongoing narrative, like tributaries to a river.)

Means of Ascent is the book in the series that has been most controversially reviewed. Caro pretty obviously sides with Coke Stevenson on the senatorial race and ensuing legal battle. Stevenson, we are made to believe, clearly had the law on his side. The wide angle isn’t quite so clear cut, however. Stevenson was also a rabid segregationist, and was not entirely above the wheeling-dealing of Texas politics himself. Caro restates again and again that, even following the loose standards of morality then prevalent in Texas politics, Johnson went too far. But when does a difference in degree become a difference in kind? And, this is a question which he treats only cursorily but which touches on the heart of Caro’s project, what of the greater good? Would America have been better off without Lyndon Johnson in the Senate? And, consequently, without Lyndon Johnson as president, shepherding the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act to eventual passage? Once again, it is a question of means and ends. Any answer can only be uncomfortable, but that is, precisely, the ground on which politics thrives.

Master of the Senate is the centerpiece, both of LBJ’s life and the series. Not for nothing for a man whose official presidential portrait shows him, all wistful cunning, backdropped by a luminant sky and the US Capitol, not the White House.

Lyndon_B._Johnson
Johnson’s official portrait

It is the book that, according to Caro, explains his interest in LBJ. Not his presidency, not a stolen election or other amoral dealings in politics and business, Johnson’s years in the Senate are what brought the author to his man. It is also the book with the clearest message and the most convincing array of arguments. Caro does not do this by throwing up mountains of evidence that point in one direction, but instead by, incident for incident, crawling through the corridors of power with Johnson. The thesis is clear: The Senate was dysfunctional, and only because Johnson grasped for every bit of power that he could, did it become a mover in American politics, and not remain an immovable object. LBJ – he himself wanted to be known by his initials, making clear a connection and a hoped for equality of stature with FDR – played his connections to Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and to Old South racist and strategist for the Southern Democrats Richard Russell in order not only to gain to power, but also to get things done. Richard Brevard Russell (“of Georgia” one unwittingly adds in one’s head when hearing or seeing that name after reading Master of the Senate) also gets the Caro vignette biography treatment. Impressively racist for any age, Russell is the perfect foil for LBJ in this episode. After Johnson haltingly enters the big fight over the 1957 Civil Rights Act at the end of Master, Russell still holds the power to derail him. That he does not is due to a combination of Johnson’s knack for reading people, of tactics, and of his relationship with Russell. Russell, who likes Johnson, and still thinks of him as the Southern senator with the solid segregationist voting record who began his senate career with a fervently anti-civil rights “We of the South” speech. Johnson didn’t throw himself into that fight immediately, but when he did, he moved the levers that needed to be moved. Implausibly, he also got the first civil rights bill in three generations passed while still standing in relatively good stead with Southern Democrats, lead by Russell.

1280px-Lyndon_Johnson_and_Richard_Russell
Johnson and Russell in 1963

The Passage of Power is a bit of an odd duck in the lineup. Still, it’s the book you’re most likely to reach for if forced to pick only one: it contains the most important moments of LBJ’s journey to the presidency. It details the transition following Kennedy’s assassination (a part that was also spun off into a much slimmer book), when Johnson took power in a most decisive way. Before that moment, however, we are treated to Johnson’s indecisiveness about entering the 1960 presidential campaign. When he finally decided to jump in, it was much too late; all he could do was grab hold of the number two spot on the Kennedy ticket. Vice President Johnson appears to have been useful to Kennedy only for winning in the South. After that, “Rufus Cornpone,” as Kennedy staffers called Johnson, was put out to pasture, buried under the ceremonial blanket of representative duties at home and abroad. His attempts to hold on to power in the Senate having failed, and utterly despised by Robert Kennedy, Johnson in this part of the story is almost to be pitied. The transformation after Kennedy’s death, however, is complete. Johnson holds on to the reins of government, and, in passing civil rights legislation and the Great Society, accomplishes what he always wanted. “Power reveals” is the mantra. Johnson apparently always wanted to help out the little people. That’s a bit of an odd statement for Caro to make: Johnson as president finally can do and does what Johnson in no other role even attempted. In his telling, it’s as if the dam has finally broken. But, we are left to wonder, what if Johnson never had become president – a long shot goal for a rural Texas boy if ever there was one – but still tried desperately to gain power? Would he have gone on maneuvering in the background, helping himself to money and maybe, just maybe, some of the little people to a bit more dignity along the way? Would any of his maneuvering have mattered?

1280px-Martin_Luther_King2C_Jr._and_Lyndon_Johnson_2
LBJ, MLK, 1966

For Volume 5, as of yet no title is known. If we follow some tease-ahead remarks in The Passage of Power, however, it’s clear it will mostly deal with the rest of the Johnson administration. We should expect a detailed account of Johnson’s election, in his own right, to the presidency, and musings on his eventual downfall, the Vietnam War – also already foreshadowed in Caro’s description of Johnson’s war hawk stance on the Cuban Missile Crisis. (The telling of which Caro, as Fred Kaplan complains on Slate, gets woefully wrong.)3

This will likely be capped by a final chapter on Johnson’s retirement years on his Texas ranch, a period which always evokes a certain sadness: Johnson, with long hair that utterly reshapes his face, burying the once so dominant ears, as if burying his powerful persona as well, pottering about in the garden. A man who failed both at holding on to power, and at finishing the work he started in his Great Society program. Brought down, in both cases, by his need to appear strong, and his contention that America, too, needed to appear strong in Vietnam. What Caro will make of the end of the man he has followed for so long will certainly be worth reading.

It’s About Power
Power. The word comes up frequently throughout the series, so let’s talk about it. Power, for Caro is essential. In a 1990 Vanity Fair interview, he pointed out “History… isn’t history unless you show the effects of power.” Power is not, however, a top-down thing, not a club you wield, not a shower of influence you can just point and things will happen. His conception of power is almost Foucauldian, though there’s no reference to Foucault, and likely the French über-theorist had no influence on Caro. After all, Caro began his inquiry into how power actually works in a democracy, as opposed to the school chalkboard fairytale that it all ends with you, the voter and citizen as sovereign, when he began researching his first Pulitzer prize win, The Power Broker, in the 1960s. That book dissected the influence of Robert Moses on city planning in New York.

976px-Robert_Moses_with_Battery_Bridge_model
Robert Moses, subject of Caro’s first book

Karl Wolff, in a 2012 review of The Passage of Power calls Caro “a kind of Pop Foucault.”4 This would be essentially correct if Foucault himself wasn’t already the Pop Foucault (a Google search for each has Foucault’s name beat out Caro’s by a factor of more than 30), and if their conceptions of power matched more closely. Although their ideas are often parallel, the differences are important. Caro’s concept sees power as something a person can get and use, can amass and then apply and direct. It is what you eventually have when you, like Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson, have a knack for finding it in hidden knowledge, in an innate understanding of specific people or general human nature, or tucked away in arcane rules. For Foucault, in the oft-repeated phrase “power is everywhere: not that it engulfs everything, but that it comes from everywhere.”5 That’s not to say there are not similarities. For Caro, as well as for Foucault, power does not originate as a top-down force, but instead is dispersed. In Caro, single actors come about and find such dispersed power, then they orchestrate and use it. In Foucault, power is constantly in a process of being negotiated, through pulls and pushes and parries and patinandos. Despite the differences, from a Foucauldian point of view, you could do a lot worse than read Robert Caro’s books: his understanding of power may not be the same as Foucault’s, but they are, up to a point, compatible.

And Language
No description of Caro’s Johnson would be complete without reference to the language in which the author puts his books. Caro cites Francis Parkman, the popular nineteenth century historian, bestselling author of The Oregon Trail, when he talks about how he needed to establish a “sense of place” for his book. In a larger sense, though, Caro’s whole oeuvre is a project to Parkmanize political biography.6 Like Parkman, Caro has lived in places he writes about, including the Hill Country. Even more so than Parkman’s, Caro’s cadences are musical. The sentences might often be run-on, but they want to be read. Need to be read. If you’re from the “only simple sentences are good” school, Caro may well make you re-think that assessment. His constructions are masterful, and you soon forget that the page you’ve finished has been scarcely more than one sentence. Caro strings together words in garlands, decorates them, repeats them, dotes on them, and finally lets them conclude at the point where they have been headed all along. Repetition is his favorite tool, and for the most part, he wields it well. So well, in fact, that soon you become engrossed in the story – in the detailed, meticulously researched accounts and psychologizing speculations – and would miss the saccadic rhythm that is its constant soundtrack if it wasn’t there.

The image of the conductor that Caro uses several times in reference to Johnson in the Senate is apt, too, to the author arranging his materials. The Senate, to Johnson was “the right size” as he is quoted in a memorable scene, taking in the view of the Senate floor for the first time. At 96 members at the moment of the future president’s 1956 accession to it (thanks to that famously stolen election), the Senate, Caro contends, offered a limited number of “texts” for Johnson, the “reader of men” to study. This Johnson did, and emerged during his first term as the single most able operator of that body for a century, and quite likely ever since.

1280px-Webb-Kennedy-Johnson-Gilruth-S62-5628
Kennedy and Johnson in 1962

Reviews of single volumes have remarked on either how negatively or positively Johnson is portrayed in one book or another. In The Path to Power he is a sniveling, repulsive powerseeker, a compulsive liar and a ruthless political manipulator, always intent on improving his position and berating his inferiors. “Almost without exception his [Caro’s] judgments on Johnson are not merely negative but hostile,” writes David Herbert Donald in his 1982 review for the New York Times.7 In The Means of Ascent once again all the worst of Johnson’s qualities, and seemingly only these, are on display. Master of the Senate is more even-handed. If “power is where power goes,” as Johnson himself was fond of saying, then it surely went to the Senate with Johnson.

In The Passage of Power the bad parts of Johnson’s personality are subdued, though not entirely excised from the narrative. The LBJ of the post-Kennedy transition is a careful, helpful man. A “hagiography of sorts” reviewer Karl Wolff calls Passage. But when you read the books in quick succession, the similarities in tone and judgment are much more striking than the differences. This similarity of treatment is, however, also both the strong suit and the greatest failure of all volumes of the series. In all books, Johnson is a veritable Jekyll and Hyde, and then some. But he isn’t his worst self and his best self and any gradation in between at the same time. Narratively, these Johnsons inhabit different worlds inside the books.

The Man and the Age
Caro sees Johnson as both a fascinating figure in his own right, but even more as a cipher for America in the twentieth century. LBJ is the face of “modern” politics – campaigning in Texas with a helicopter, making sure he gets the best Hollywood headshot photographer to take his portrait – and the “watershed” president, according to Caro, the presidency when the liberal belief that government had a role to play in bettering American and people’s lives, in a hop, skip and jump over the credibility gap found itself demonized, first by Nixon, and then for good by Reagan and by his epigones.

What makes Caro’s LBJ so compelling is his dumbfounding complexity. Caro, this too is reiterated in interview after interview, doesn’t particularly like his subject. But that does not mean he is not fascinated by Johnson. (Although he protests being “obsessed” by him.) As much as The Years of Lyndon Johnson is about the years, the period in which the man grew up and in which he exercised power, it is, of course also about the man. A towering figure, this Lyndon Johnson is. That he stood 6 foot 4 is repeated at strategic moments throughout the series. Johnson had, Caro tells us “the Bunton eye” or “the Bunton strain,” physical characteristics of the Bunton family from which he came, known across the Texas Hill Country towns of LBJ’s youth. Johnson was a person who used his size to intimidate and cajole, his overwhelming personality to charm and abuse.

The other man in the book is, of course, its author. Caro is interested in a very specific interpretation of power, and he enters into the record every last morsel that can help this end. His presence in the books is felt throughout. Reflective of changing academic style, the vague “a researcher” and the somewhat clearer “this researcher” or “this author” of the earlier volumes only give way to a tentative “I” in The Passage of Power, four books and more than thirty years into the project. The fact that this changes is interesting, but perhaps even more fascinating is that so little else does. Yet, the things that make Caro’s work over the decades consistent also make it less than inventive when it comes to any analytical category other than “power.” Despite LBJ’s major role in civil rights, Caro’s description of Johnson’s early years in the National Youth Administration during the New Deal, for example, is treated without any reference to race – though this is somewhat rectified in Master of the Senate, which also contains a stomach-turningly direct and effective description of the Emmett Till murder.

1280px-Visit_of_President_Johnson_in_Vietnam
Johnson in Vietnam, 1966

LBJ’s knack for pushing and prodding politicians to move, if just millimeters, their beliefs or their votes, at least, Caro holds as absolutely essential to the success of 1960s civil rights legislation, and to the Great Society program. These domestic successes changed the United States for the better, and Johnson deserves credit. But he also deserves blame for miring the US ever deeper in Vietnam. It is hard to imagine the United States in the late twentieth century, and even today, without either part of Johnson’s legacy. Civil rights on the one hand, the scars of disillusion that the Vietnam War left, on the other. It is impossible to imagine America as it is without acknowledging Lyndon Johnson’s impact. Even if Caro had done nothing more than point this out, it might be enough to justify spending over half a life and almost all of a career researching and writing about Lyndon Baines Johnson. The 36th president has been Caro’s conduit to show us the workings of American politics during an era when these workings mattered immensely. More power to Robert Caro.

 


  1. Chris McGreal, “Robert Caro: A Life With LBJ and the Pursuit of Power” in: The Guardian, June 10, 2012. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jun/10/lyndon-b-johnson-robert-caro-biography> 
  2. Erik Nelson, “Robert Caro’s Bloated LBJ Biography” in: Salon.com, May 7, 2012. <http://www.salon.com/2012/05/07/robert_caros_bloated_lbj_biography> 
  3. Fred Kaplan, “What Robert Caro Got Wrong” in: Slate, May 31, 2012. <http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/war_stories/2012/05/robert_caro_s_new_history_of_lbj_offers_a_mistaken_account_of_the_cuban_missile_crisis.html> 
  4. Karl Wolff, “Book Review: ‘Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power,’ by Robert Caro,” CCLaP, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography website, October 5, 2012. <http://www.cclapcenter.com/2012/10/book_review_the_passage_of_pow.html> 
  5. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon, 1978. 93. 
  6. To use Albert Hurtado’s fitting term. Albert L. Hurtado, “Parkmanizing the Spanish Borderlands: Bolton, Turner, and the Historians’ World” in: Western Historical Quarterly 26:2 (Summer 1995), 149-167. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/970186> 
  7. David Herbert Donald, “Up from Texas” in: New York Times, November 21, 1982. <http://www.nytimes.com/1982/11/21/books/up-from-texas.html?pagewanted=all> 

Pilot

History is forever written with a pencil. Revision lurks behind its vision by necessity. Like chalk on a blackboard, sponge at the ready for after the bell rings, it is not simply malleable, its malle-must. When historians adduce evidence into their stories, it comes from the places they look, and sometimes from the places they purposely don’t look. There is a strategy to it, a logic that cannot escape its own heritage and context. So what is written down is layering sediment – to be swept away or built upon by those who in the future will add their own interpretations.

This new site is me putting down some silt. I am trying to see whether when I step on it, I will leave a footprint and press it further into the ground to make a good foundation, or if the wind blows it away immediately after. Thus, History! is, as so many things that turn out to be somewhat more serious than originally conceived, named in honor of a joke. It self-consciously parodies many researchers’ propensity to apply a simple view of the world, one theory, one key to everything to, well, everything, and then to run with it. “Thus, history!” is the facetious exclamation of the historian who amasses facts and factoids, pushes them through the meat grinder of well trodden explanatory filters, and calls it a slice of world, a piece of reality.

“Thus, history!” is perhaps the exasperated last attempt you would make to convince the heretofore unconvinced of what you believe strongly in but do not yet have enough evidence for. The thing you would say if you were still a big thought short of an explanation and the coffee stopped working a week and a half ago. It is, in the worst case, a self-aggrandizing way of throwing in the towel. In the best case, however, it is a proving ground, with its interrobang inflected ever so slighty upward, giving way to a question mark: “Thus, history?” read as “Is that what happened?” Or, as historians once were fond of saying, what really happened. A discredited really, but not a forgotten one. After all, when things are obvious, they are obvious, right? When you have the upper hand, the better system of thought, the all-important argument, you must advance it. You must convince. You must. There’s never anything wrong with making good arguments, at least when it is in the service of obtaining more knowledge. But when you have convinced yourself, you can sometimes forget why others have not yet shown up to your party even though you bought cake and all the balloons. And that forgetfulness, in a true O. Henry twist, will make you less convincing.

This blog is where I don’t always try to convince. It’s a place for things half baked or still mostly raw. A quarry and at the same time a place where I can store materials unearthed along the way. It’s a public space in which I can try out thoughts and hypotheses, collect ideas and theory and inspiration. A hill where I can stake a flag. It’s a log of sorts, too, that can continue to hold opinions I held at one point and might no longer. It’s where I can come back to check against what I will believe in the future. It’s a direct link to others who may be working on the same problems and issues, or working with similar methods. It should be, in short, a place to document and help along research. Yours and mine, academic or otherwise. In that, despite the tongue-in-cheek grandiosity of its title, it should be useful in small but important ways. Useful like a chest of drawers or a memory palace.

I call this first post “Pilot” in reference to the Hollywood term because it is the first in a series of which no one yet knows how long it will continue, and where it will go; who will write and who will be recast and what storylines can be expected. Much like the pilot for a television show, this post is a marker, a how-to, and a suggestion: “This is what the whole can be. It’s going to change, but the mission statement, in some form, is here.”

There may be others joining along the way, but for now it’s me, and I will simply start producing. Thus… history.