To immerse oneself in Robert Caro's heroic biographies is to come face to face with a shocking but unavoidable realization: Much of what we think we know about money, power and politics is a fairy tale. Our newspapers, magazines, broadcast and cable newscasts are filled with comforting fictions. We embrace them because the truth is too messy, too frightening, simply too much.
In a 1997 speech on the topic, Ben Bradlee attributes our problem to official lying. "Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face. No editor would dare print.... 'The Watergate break-in involved matters of national security, President Nixon told a national TV audience last night.... That is a lie.'"
But the problem is much larger than Bradlee allows. Caro demonstrates how this colossal structure of deceit clouds the historical record. The unelected Robert Moses exercised a dictatorial power over the lives of millions of New Yorkers for nearly half a century. He uprooted communities and destroyed neighborhoods using privately run but publicly funded entities called "public authorities," whose charters he personally wrote. Before the publication of The Power Broker in 1974 (1,246 pages, after having been cut by 40 percent to fit into a single volume), no book or major magazine article existed on the topic. Caro's obsessive exhumation of Moses's career transformed our understanding of the mechanics of urban politics. And yet even today the media proceed as if it's simply a matter of campaigns, elections and legislation.
The true face of our money-driven political system is buried so far beneath the surface of our public discourse that almost nobody has any incentive to uncover it. With a meager $2,500 advance to sustain him, Caro sold his house and nearly bankrupted his family; his wife, Ina--a medieval historian--went to work as his full-time researcher. When I asked why he did it, he got a little choked up about the sacrifice of Ina's career and how much she had loved their old house. Finally he said he had no idea. The Caros' combination of intellectual independence and professional dedication inspires comparisons with another great marital partnership: that of the late, great Izzy and Esther Stone. (Can anyone imagine what Izzy would have come up with if he had committed virtually his entire career to smoking out the truth about just two powerful men?)
Caro's new book, Master of the Senate, volume three of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, forces us not only to rewrite our national political history but to rethink it as well. What Caro is doing here is something we rarely see attempted in any medium: His aim, as he once explained to Kurt Vonnegut, "is to show not only how power works but the effect of power on those without power. How political power affects all our lives, every single day in ways we never think about."
Caro's been burrowing beneath the shadows of the substance of our politics for more than twenty-eight years, and what he finds is both fascinating and surprising. In many ways Johnson's personality--so outsized and contradictory as to be cognitively uncontainable--gets in the way of this compulsively readable story, which is about how power is exercised in this country.
Lyndon Johnson did not invent the form of legislative power he exercised through the Senate in the 1950s, but Caro has almost had to invent a new history to describe it. People have told pieces of it here and there, but who's got the time, the motivation or the patience to really nail down not only what happened but what it meant to the nation? Here's a tiny example, of which this new book has almost one a page. Listen to longtime Senate staffer Howard Shuman: "William S. White, [whom Caro terms the Senate's "most prominent chronicler"] wrote that the way to get into the Club was to be courteous and courtly. Well, that's nonsense." Johnson mocked and humiliated liberal New York Senator Herbert Lehman at every opportunity: "It didn't have anything to do with courtly. It had to do with how you voted--with whether or not you voted as Lyndon Johnson wanted you to vote." Neil MacNeil, veteran Time correspondent adds, "The Senate was run by courtesy, all right--like a longshoreman's union."
Now don't go looking in old Time magazines for any hint of this. Caro spends more than 300 of his 1,167 pages on the incredible story of Johnson's navigation of the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress, something that hardly anyone thought possible until he pulled it off. With the singular exception of Tom Wicker, then a green (and largely ignored) young reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, no one covering the story had an inkling of how it happened.
One indisputable conclusion that Caro offers is pretty tough to swallow. The advances in civil rights legislation that helped end centuries of legal apartheid in this country could never have occurred had they not been planned and executed by a man who turns out to have been a thoroughgoing racist. Caro was much criticized for downplaying Johnson's 1948 support for Truman, considering the fact that his lionized opponent, Coke Stevenson, stood with the racist Strom Thurmond Dixiecrat campaign. But Johnson, it turns out, attacked Truman's civil rights policies no less virulently. He gave a campaign speech in May 1948 in which he compared civil rights legislation to the creation of "a police state in the guise of liberty." Caro found the speech in a White House file with the following admonition stapled on top. "DO NOT RELEASE THIS SPEECH-speech--not even to staff...this is not EVER TO BE RELEASED." Thanks to Caro, this story, and with it a big chunk of our history, has been released as well.
Addendum: George W. Bush's Executive Order 13233, which effectively eviscerates the Presidential Records Act of 1978 by fiat, is designed to insure that no historian can ever provide this kind of public service again. Twenty Democrats and three Republicans are co-sponsors of a bill to restore it. Write your representatives and tell them to get on board.
Israel and Palestine will not find peace until both have security and sovereignty.
Recent calamitous events—9/11, the recession, Enron's collapse—haven't affected the Bush administration's aims: tax cuts, drilling and Social Security 'reform.'
September 11 showed us true American heroes. Now let's build on their strength.
I want to vote for Bill Clinton for President again, but that not
being possible I had resigned myself to Al Gore. Surely, I thought, he
would defend the Clinton Administration's record of the past eight years,
and voters would recognize it as obviously preferable to the debt and
divisiveness the Republicans had wrought.
Indeed, the only reason to favor Gore over Bill Bradley in the
primaries, which I regrettably did, was that Gore had on-the-job training
in the most productive administration in decades. That's what the vice
President brought to the table, certainly not his deer-in-the headlights
stage presence, and yet he sits dumbfounded for lack of a ready reply
when George W. Bush rails on about the failed opportunities of the
"Hey, buddy," I keep waiting for Gore to say, "I wasn't going to bring
up your daddy's wreckage of the economy but you leave me no choice. Are
Americans better off now than they were eight years ago? You bet they
are. Crime, unemployment and poverty are all down, and the economy is
still on an unprecedented roll. Under Bush senior, the Japanese were
thought to be entrepreneurally invincible, and now it is US know-how
the world seeks to emulate."
Instead of a celebration of what he and the President accomplished
despite reactionary Republican control of the Congress, Gore offers only
the most mealy-mouthed rejoinders when Bush slanders the record of the
Unfortunately, Al Gore has spent most of the election trying to prove
that he is not Bill Clinton. He needn't have bothered. No one could ever
confuse the two. Gore is by temperament, and apparently conviction, the
un-Clinton--it's like comparing a fresh out-of-the-bottle swig of Coke
with a 7-Up gone flat.
The President is a compelling advocate for his vision of progressive
government, so much so that even his lousy ideas, like welfare reform,
have a sizzle of optimism. But in the main, Clinton deserves a great deal
of credit for demonstrating that a concerned activist government also can
balance the books while lifting the US economy from the doldrums.
Whether it is a matter of personal chemistry or absence of genuine
commitment, Gore lacks Clinton's ability to convince us that deep down
he's on our side--whoever we are. Gore has made doing even the obviously
right thing, like saving Social Security and Medicare, seem partisan and
His best moment was that acceptance speech at the Democratic
convention when he sounded the alarm that George W. Bush could actually
do serious harm to this country. But since then his campaign has become
nothing more than an awkward attempt to keep up with Bush at Texas
line-dancing as a form of governance. They move together in a dreary
drumbeat of support for the death penalty and huge military expenditures,
and Gore has even muffled his criticism of Bush on guns and abortion.
Gore has come out of that contest so disoriented that he has even managed
to make Ralph Nader seem like a sexy dancer.
Which is why what could prove to be a critical 4 percent of the electorate,
composed of largely thoughtful and well-intentioned people, are willing
to risk Republican control of the White House. No small risk, given that
right-wing Republicans likely will continue to run Congress, and with
Bush as President, the third branch of government--the federal judiciary
from the Supreme Court on down--will be shaped in the image of Jesse
Helms. There is no reason to expect otherwise from a Bush presidency,
since he has warned us that Clarence Thomas and Anthony Scalia, two of
the most reactionary judges in the history of the Court, are his judicial
Nader has been less than honest in tarring the major parties with the
same brush. He surely must know that the Democrats are better, far
better, at protecting consumers and the environment, supporting labor,
including raising the minimum wage, and advancing the rights of women,
minorities and gays.
However, there is an argument for having Nader in the race and even
for telling pollsters that you intend to vote for the man. It's to force
Gore to distinguish himself from the Bush campaign in order to win back
those Nader votes.
Yet, on Election Day, Gore, for all his faults, still deserves the
votes of those who care about the frightening damage that a Republican
sweep of the White House and Congress portends for this country.
Behind that smug Bush smile lies the calculations of Trent Lott and
the heart of Jesse Helms. There even might be room for the ghost of Newt
Gingrich in a Bush Cabinet. It's Halloween time.
The front-loaded primary regime produced its expected result by the first week in March: George W. Bush and Al Gore wrapped up the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations.
The spectacle of human beings acting out mindless violence through pack behavior instills more terror in the heart than perhaps any other event in the natural world.
He's not dead yet, but the spirit of Ronald Reagan is omnipresent these days, and nowhere is it more damnably profane than in politicians' relentless invocations of the Almighty.