Monday, 14 May 2012

An Never Ending Story


Robert Caro, an American author, has not long published The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson.  It’s an exhaustive biography of the former president, but it’s also exhausting; for this is volume four and it’s not finished yet.  It may, in the end, take Caro longer to write the life than Johnson to live it.  For goodness sake, The Passage to Power just takes him over the threshold of the Whitehouse! 

I love biography, the more detailed the better but there seems to be a certain lack of authorial or editorial discipline here.  It’s now ten years since The Master of the Senate, the previous volume, was published and thirty since the project began.  According to an interview I read in Prospect, a political monthly, Caro “writes fast”; it’s the research that takes up the time.  He is to be commended for his thoroughness, but there are limits, even to the most meticulous research.  Is this, I ask myself, the real-life Book of Sand, a candidate for inclusion in Jorge Luis Borges Library of Babel

Writing in Prospect, Sam Tanenhaus says;

Caro is not prolific, but he is prodigious.  The books keep coming, heavy volumes, densely written and meticulously sourced.  The latest, at just over 700 pages, is of medium length for him.  It explores, or excavates, six years in Johnson’s life, 1958-1964 – covering his exit from the Senate, his miserable, deflating years as vice president, and his sudden elevation to the presidency, following the assassination of John F Kennedy.  During five of those years Johnson did, more or less, nothing.

What; does the author take 700 pages to tell us that his subject, more or less, did nothing?!  I’m beginning to feel a little guilty as I write.  I have no desire to talk down this work, a work that I have not read, a work that is unlikely ever to be surpassed, assuming its ever finished (my goodness, Vietnam, the Great Society, race, riots and rebellion are still to come!) but I simply could not resist passing comment on the observation about five years of, more or less, nothing! 

Even Tanenhaus, who clearly admires Caro for his industry, is aware of an inflationary tendency – “Had he written Waiting for Godot it would be longer than Wagner’s Ring, yet with its own idiosyncratic magnificence.”  Just imagine waiting for Godot for hour after hour after hour after hour.  There is only so much the human spirit can stand, even when there is idiosyncratic magnificence! 

Will I ever approach this monument?  Possibly not; there are too many other things to engage me and reading is for life, not life for reading.  Besides, I’m not sure I want to follow the Book of the Life of Johnson, at least in such detail, idiosyncratic magnificence or not.  There is a tragic quality to a man more controlled by events than controlling, a man who inherited a war and lost it; a man who launched massive welfare programmes which had a lasting and negative impact on American society.  But when it comes to tragedy I’m far more intrigued by Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon than Lyndon Johnson, the wheeler, dealer and failure from Texas.  

8 comments:

  1. When Johnson quit the Whitehouse in 1969, the Vietnam War was not won, but it was certainly not lost. In fact, the NVA had been so smashed and exhausted by the U. S. response to the Tet Offensive,that Hanoi's leaders were forced to sue for 'peace talks' while the USSR and China worked frantically to resupply them with enough war material to continue fighting. They dragged out those faux discussions in Paris while Red propaganda worked its insidious magic. Poisonous misinformation destroyed the determination of US politicians to continue either to prosecute the war with US personnel or to provide sufficient material to the South Vietnamese forces to offset the support given by China and the USSR to the North. That is how the conflict ended. Both Johnson and Nixon were very ill-advised.

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    1. Quite right, Calvin; I'm being disingenuous. I actually believe that the war was effectively won militarily with the failure of the communist Tet Offensive. It was lost politically, something I've written about before. If I can just remind you of The greater honour, a piece I published here on 31 January of last year. I think this the most pertinent passage;

      The simple truth is that the Americans won all of the major battles; that after the Tet Offensive of 1968 the Vietcong, the southern communist guerrillas, were a broken force and the North Vietnamese Army badly bruised. It was, in a sense, their Dien Bien Phu, a reverse of the defeat inflicted on the French in 1954.

      If the war was ‘lost’ it was not lost by the soldiers but the politicians, by those who mismanaged the affair so dreadfully. There was also the dolchstoss - for once a meaningful expression -, the stab in the back, administered by much of the national press, ill-informed at one moment, lying at the next. Many of the reports verged on a form of treason, doing so much to undermine the morale of the nation, acting little better than a kind of communist fifth-column.

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  2. Johnson had a lot of damage control to do in the subsequent cover up of the Kennedy assassination; war is big business.

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    1. Anthony, for him it was bad business.

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  3. I would like to post on the behalf of the Johnson family and the American Democratic Party, they find this blog offensive.

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  4. I saw LBJ as the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle that JFK needed to win the 1960 election. Kennedy had God on his side, but he must have TEXAS! After that JFK en RFK kept Lyndon pretty much on the sidelines. At the moment I am reading Battle Cry of Freedom. Lincoln towers above many presidents. He intrigues me b/c of his shrewd judgement and his writing/speaking skills!

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    1. Ipso, I read that at high school. I thought it a brilliant historical narrative.

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