ROBERT CARO’S PASSAGE OF POWER-HISTORICALLY IMPECCABLE-RELEVANT TODAY

My immediate take-away after completing all 605 pages of Robert Caro’s The Years of  Lyndon Johnson The Passage of Power  is both awe and marvel at Lyndon Johnson’s  accidental presence at the pinnacle of power from November, 1963 through 1965.  If Lyndon Johnson was president or senate majority leader in today’s political environment, for better or worse, there would likely be no gridlock in Washington D.C.  Never in the modern presidency has more of significance been accomplished in such short period then what transpired in the year and a half  of the Lyndon Johnson  presidency following the assassination of President  John F. Kennedy.

This incomparable work by Caro illuminates, for both the student of history and the observer, that regardless of a like or dislike of his tactics or the man himself, Lyndon Johnson’s accomplishment in moving historic legislation through a gridlocked congress is beyond comparison.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 turned years of political rhetoric and decades of delay into law, and Lyndon Johnson made that happen during a most improbable time in  American history.  LBJ with all of his ruthlessness,  cajoling, bravado, insecurity, impatience and meanness did what no other president had done.  Deeply seeded in the memory of the poverty of his youth, LBJ’s empathy for the poor and underprivileged surfaced, often with a vengeance, to overcome the impossible obstacles standing before these two pieces of landmark legislation. For this reader, understanding how the  aforementioned was accomplished became the centerpiece of this Pulitzer destined work.  But, there is so much more.

The mutual hatred that existed between Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy and the inordinate effect that it had upon a functioning government is made manifest throughout the book. Robert Kennedy’s unsuccessful multiple efforts to convince Johnson to withdraw from  his brother’s selection of Johnson as the vice-presidential candidate in 1960 depicts a near maniacal RFK. The relegation of LBJ’s vice-presidency to a meaningless and often humiliating position often punctuated by RFK’s ” corn pone vice-president” references are almost unimaginable and would normally be thought relegated to a school-yard bully.  While LBJ is often lionized in Caro’s pages, Robert Kennedy is given faint if any praise at all in this carefully researched book.

Caro details the brilliance with which Johnson handled the passage of power upon Kennedy’s assassination . How LBJ managed the emotional devastation of the Kennedy team  is a remarkable story in itself. He convinced the great majority of them to stay on because , ” I need you , the country needs you and John  Kennedy’s legacy needs you.”  The overnight transformation of the ruthless master of the senate and insignificant, irrelevant  vice-president to become the nation’s hope, healer and steady hand is so magnificently detailed by Caro, so real, that it places the reader in the midst of a current event, not a bygone era!

You will learn from Caro’s research sources that  it was widely speculated that Robert Kennedy’s inability to move beyond the grief over his brother’s death may have been tied to a feeling of self guilt; that he and the president’s pursuit of  the assassination of Fidel Castro ( Operation Moongose) and the Mafia  may have in  fact been  a direct retaliation that killed President Kennedy.  Caro, despite the Warren Commission report, raises that speculation to the level of plausibility.

The Passage of Power  at times elevates Johnson to the heroic level but the narrative is equally balanced with the reality of the often brutal, threatening and unforgiving methods by which LBJ accomplished his goals.  From Johnson’s euphoric highs and the compassion demonstrated for minorities and the downtrodden surrounding of the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Caro, concludes Passage of Power with bombs dropping upon helpless villagers in Vietnam.  That era is left for another telling.

This is the fourth in Caro’s  The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The Passage of Power will have even greater meaning if you have already consumed The Path to Power ( 1982), Means of Ascent ( 1990) and Master of the Senate ( 2002).  However, Caro does such a good job in placing The Passage of Power in the context of Johnson’s lifetime that it is easily stand-alone read.  Throughout the book, Caro makes numerous references to another great work on Lyndon Johnson which I wholeheartedly commend to you, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I also recommend This Time,This Place, by Johnson aid and confidant Jack Valenti, who later left government for a distinguished career as the president on the Motion Picture Association of America. ( Check Gordon’s Good Reads Archives).

A  Robert Caro book of equal substance and a Pulitzer honoree  is his The Power Broker, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.   Use of power to accomplish common good or abuse of power for personal gain; both books in a different time and place tell a significantly similar story.

NEW FROM ROBERT CARO- GREAT NEW YORK TIMES PREVIEW PERSPECTIVE

I am an unabashed fan of Pulitzer Prize winning historian Robert Caro.  Ever since first reading The Path to Power, the beginning of his epic study of the life of Lyndon Johnson. My second and equally enlightening exposure to Caro’s work was The Power Broker his Pulitzer prize-winning biography of Robert Moses. Next month the fourth book in Caro’s study of Johnson , The Path to Power will be published, in a process that began in 1976. Caro’s other Johnson volumes are in order of publication are Means of Ascent and Master of the Senate.

I commend to all Robert Caro fans a marvelous article by Charles McGrath published in The New York Times on April 14 putting all of Caro’s works in an insightful perspective.  A most worthwhile article for those of us anticipating The Path to Power.

Income Inequality Threatens Capitalism- Who Said That- Surprise!

You might be surprised but here is the direct quote from non other than Andrew Carnegie who was one of the first capitalists, along with John D. Rockefeller Sr, to become American billionaires.  Here is Carnegie’s exact quote from 1889. 

” The gulf between rich and poor threatened the very survival of capitalism.” 

You might not think that view was espoused by the self-made bobbin boy who came to America and worked his way into the founding of U.S.  Steel!  Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Sr.  competed daily to see who would become the wealthiest magnate in America! Rockefeller with Standard Oil may have edged out Carnegie for the title but the great irony is that both men  became two of the world’s greatest philanthropists benefiting nearly every conceivable worthwhile socially important endeavor. However, as both biographies clearly reveal, it was not pretty along the way. Just ask Ida Tarbell!

I write this post today after reading  in the New York Times the latest government figures on the distribution of wealth in America . It ties in perfectly with my Occupy Wall Street post of earlier this week.  In that post I commended to you Gretchen Morgenson’s Reckless Endangerment and Tom Friedman’s  That Used To Be Us.

Why Carnegie and Rockefeller?  If you want a solid historical perspective on the accumulation of wealth by two of America’s richest men , Ron Chernow’s TITAN The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Peter Krass’s  CARNEGIE offer the reader tremendous insight. 

Never before in the  American capitalistic system had so much wealth been accumulated by just two industrialists.  Both books are complete in their historical perspective of the personal lives of Carnegie and Rockefeller and admirably translate their personas into their business and later their philanthropic philosophy. 

As  I have read the daily accounts of Occupy Wall Street my memory clicked upon these two most worthy biographies.  They provide a meaningful and  necessary historical backdrop to the discourse of today. Chernow’s book was published in 1998 and Krass’s work  in 2002. 

If you have the time, these are wonderful back to back reads.  By chance , I read TITAN first and having done so would recommend that order. Each is of course deserving of a stand alone read.

UNBROKEN-LAURA HILLENBRAND-ASTONISHING!

There is little wonder why Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand has been atop the New York Times Best Seller List since its publication last year.

The epic story  of the survival, resilience and redemption of  Lieutenant Louis Zamperini is a triumphant accomplishment . It is a literary and historical work by Hillenbrand worthy of the highest accolades. Unbroken equals and in its research even surpasses the excellence of Hillenbrand’s wonderful  Seabiscuit . Warning, it is a disturbing read

Hillenbrand traces the life of Louis Zamperini from delinquent teen to local track hero and Olympian to a World War Two  B-24 bombardier shot down with his crew over the Pacific. Forty seven days in a raft first with three fellow crew members, then  only two. The horror of that ordeal is trumped by his capture and incarceration for two and a half years as a  Japanese POW under the most sadistic circumstances imaginable. Zamperini’s story of human survival defies belief. Hillenbrand’s  research and writing misses no detail, including the story of Louie’s Post Traumatic Syndrome long before anyone had diagnosed the tragedy of post combat emotional illness.

Unbroken’s historical perspective on the war in the Pacific ranks Hillenbrand’s writing in a league with  Stephen Ambrose (D-Day) and ( Citizen Soldiers), James Bradley ( Flyboys),  Jeff Shaara ( The Final Storm), and Doug Stanton ( In Harms Way-The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis).

It is not easy to  digest Hillenbrand’s  descriptions of the horror’s faced by Louie Zamperini and thousands of other POW’s but the outcome is triumphant for the author, the reader and Louie Zamperini! 

There are many months ahead for this great book on top of best seller lists, and it is most deserving of a place in your personal library.

Thank you Laura Hillendrand.

Midnight in Paris, Hemingway, Hadley, The Paris Wife

Several months ago on this blog I posted a review of Hadley by Gioia Diliberto. ( Biography blog archives February 11)  Hadley is a wonderful biography of Hemingway’s first wife and their early life together including their move to Paris in 1921.  Woody Allen may well have read the book before writing Midnight in Paris the newly released movie receiving rave reviews, including mine! I saw it this week and it is a wonderful movie, even better having read Hadley first!  The irony is that Hadley Hemingway does not appear in the film but the scenario set by Deliberto in her book makes the movie all the more impactful. All the  characters are there, Ernest , LuTrec, Gertrude Stein, Picasso , T.S. Eliot, et al!  

Another book on Hadley Hemingway which I have not read as yet, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, is also appearing on best seller lists and receiving good reviews.  Hadley Hemingway is receiving much attention from both the new book by McLain and from Midnight in Paris . In the past week it has topped all hits on this blog! Not bad for a book published in 1992!

Personally, I am delighted to have read Hadley before seeing Midnight in Paris because it set the scene  for the movie’s Moveable Feast,  in a sense reincarnated in the Woody Allen film. I am sure that reading The Paris Wife  would work in the same manner.   It is a Hemingway renaissance! Enjoy the new but if you have not already done so, please go back to the originals! There lies the prose including a wonderful lines by Hemingway in the movie that begs you to read or re-read The Sun Also Rises and For Whom The Bell Tolls!

American Lion/ Andrew Jackson/ President’s Week Continues

Jon Meacham is back on my blog today with another great book on the American Presidency, American Lion a biography of  Andrew Jackson, the eighth President of the United States ( 1829-1837).   Reviewers  generally agree that American Lion is a definitive work on the Jackson presidency. I will readily admit that I knew little detail about Jackson before picking up this Pulitzer winner and I remain thrilled that it was recommended to me. 

” Old Hickory” was one of the more incredible characters  to ever inhabit the White House.  He was a zealot in his beliefs and in particular hated the Bank of United States which be believed was the basis of past, present and future corruption in America and a threat to the Federal Government itself.  He was a staunch  states rights advocate, believed in the sovereignty of the individual but at the same time believed that the Federal Government was essential!

There was no contradiction in the zealotry of his Indian removal policy. In 1830, just a year after taking office, Jackson pushed a new piece of legislation called the “Indian Removal Act” through both houses of Congress. It gave the president power to negotiate removal treaties with Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi. Under these treaties, the Indians were to give up their lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for lands to the west leading to the black-mark on his presidency and the nation itself,  “The Trail of Tears.”

Despite all of the controversy that surrounds the Jackson presidency he in reality created the foundation of the modern-day Democratic Party.  He is considered by historians to be the first ‘populist” president.

American Lion is a marvelous journey for the reader and once again Meacham exhibits excellence!  No matter how much material Meacham covers, his work is always manageable.

David McCullough/John Adams/ A Gift to all Americans

David McCullough’s  biography  John Adams can be credited with introducing 20th and 21st century Americans to the enormous impact John Admas, from patriot to president, had on early American History including The Revolution, The Presidency and the U.S. Constitution.

This magnificent work, incredibly well researched  is also a beautifully written story.  As one would expect from McCullough, all of the facts are in place, but the story of Adams the person and his relationship with his wife Abigail  is truly moving.  You will come to understand just how difficult it was to be President of the United States in 18th Century America.   You will read quotes from the trove of Adam’s letters both personal and public that are so enlightening about how critical decisions were made.  You will learn that the fact that America was born was itself a miracle!

Within the pages of John Adams, McCullough  portrays beautifully the love story between John  and Abigail.   He also captures the ruptured relationship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the reader is thrilled to learn of the two coming together as friends  in the later years of their lives.

You need not be a student of history to enjoy every page of John Adams.  It is a story about an incredibly gifted man’s love for his country, his wife and family.

David McCullough is a national treasure and his generosity in creativity is a gift to all Americans.

IF YOU ARE A LATE COMER TO HEMINGWAY READ HADLEY FIRST!

For many of us getting to the classics was a long journey, first developing  the zeal and then at last the time!  I discovered the works of Ernest Hemingway later in life, long after the corporate mountains were climbed and descended and children raised and sent off to college. Looking back, I am glad that my sojourn  arrived then because I think my mind was much more receptive , and appreciative.

Life experience  elevates the enjoyment of so many great writers, broadening perspective and understanding.  Now at the right time and place I was ready to consume For Whom the Bell Tolls, Death in the Afternoon, A Moveable Feast, The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Farewell to Arms.

Now, what does Hadley by  Gioia Diliberto have to do with this?  I wish I had read it first! Hadley is a marvelous biography of Hemingwey’s first wife Hadley Richardson . For those who are reading  Hemingway for the first time, Hadley is an excellent introduction and a must read. It is Diliberto’s gift to the Hemingway reader offering  deep insight into his  mind, personality, relationships and lifestyle.  In the pages of Hadley you will see  The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast evolving in Hadley and Hemingway’s  love story and their life together and apart. If you have not already begun your Hemingway journey take my suggestion and read Hadley first then move quickly on to the main course!

Yes, Colonel Roosevelt is a Page-Turner!

He is sitting just above a cowcatcher railroading out of Mombasa, hunting White Rhino in the Dark Continent, receiving a triumphant hero’s royal welcome in the palaces of Europe. A spoiler in an election campaign, living on the edge of death exploring an unknown Brazilian River, the presidency yet again within reach, a passionate advocate of the war and duty loses a son in battle.

The epic image of Theodore Roosevelt reaches another crescendo in Edmund Morris’ new biography Colonel Roosevelt (2010 Random House). Morris’ two previous historical masterpieces The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex received critical acclaim including the former receiving the Pulitzer Prize. Colonel Roosevelt completes the trilogy and is worthy of the praise which will undoubtedly be forthcoming.    

Colonel Roosevelt continues Morris’ biographical work after Roosevelt leaves the presidency following the election of William Howard Taft in 1908. It ends with Roosevelt’s death in 1919.

 Roosevelt embarks upon a lifelong dream of an African big game safari. He follows that with a heroic post presidential tour of the capitols of Europe.  Morris’s detail is so vivid it is as though the author were present. Roosevelt returns home to find the Republican Party in disarray. He is greatly disappointed in President Taft, his friend and chosen successor. He sees his Republican Progressivism platform in shambles.

 Morris’ study of Roosevelt Progressivism and the resulting split in the Republican Party is telling in its relevance to the divide that exists in the modern day GOP. A century ago, the ultra conservatives were the Taft Republicans and the more moderate Republicans became Roosevelt’s Progressives. The split resulted in Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and his failed election bid in 1912 that saw the GOP divided between Taft and Roosevelt with the resulting election of Woodrow Wilson. It raises an interesting comparison to the Tea Party split within the current GOP.

Morris’ treatment of the Roosevelt-Wilson acrimony through the conclusion of the First World War is riveting. It is so well written that for the non-historian it becomes an insightful overview of the political momentum of the entire tragedy and the tremendous divide it created in what was then an isolationist America.

 Morris deserves his just accolades as a historian. His research is impeccable. Best of all he is also a great storyteller.  His style in all three Roosevelt books presents personalities and huge volumes of historical facts in a flowing, manageable and memorable landscape.

 The term Page-Turner is most often used in reference to fast-paced novels, not a biography. However, Edmund Morris consistently writes monumental Page-Turners combining facts and clear interpretation with artistry to bring history and personalities vividly into focus. Start by turning the pages of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, hit the campaign trail to the presidency with Theodore Rex, and then be a witness to Roosevelt’s incredible later life as so beautifully detailed in Colonel Roosevelt. During the many hours of pleasure it will take to absorb all three, Edmund Morris will personally place you amidst the Roosevelt memorabilia in the great room at Sagamore Hill.