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PostPosted: Mon Nov 13, 2017 3:19 pm  |  Posted from: Australia

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LBJ Political Biography

Robert Caro the US author and journalist has written 4 volumes of his LBJ biography and is, unless he dies, about to finish his 5th. He has been at it for 42 years writing the full life – not just the political life.

Its not for the faint hearted but is near universally acclaimed as was his previous bio of Moses - the 50’s and 60’s czar of NYC planning.

He has won all the awards that anyone could aspire to and his LBJ bio. is widely regarded the best political biography in a generation.

I found it hard to put down and have looked forward to each new volume – and I’m hard to please and put a lot of emphasis on a clear/artful/accessible writing style, thorough research and a balanced view.

Its strengths are also its weaknesses – detail. Unlike most professional biographers he has a deep understanding of how real power is gained and used/abused - and its rarely about just the office you hold. Whilst Caro might admire/be fascinated by LBJ its very far from uncritical. There is a focus on the machinery, mechanics, psychology and techniques of power, the great skills required to lead and direct this and just how complex politics is. It argues that whilst he was corrupt he was also, maybe, the greatest reformer since Lincoln and with a deep compassion for the poor – something lacking in current world political leaders.

What it tries to do is to get inside his character and personality – and all its flaws, strengths, contradictions and pain and it paints a vivid portrait of this – as Cromwell demanded of his own portrait – with warts and all.

In a certain way it illustrates in one man all that is worst and best in US politics. Current popular opinion gives much attention to Kennedy’s limited social policy achievements and forgets LBJ’s towering reforms over his limited 5 years because we aren’t smart and value glamour over boring truth and this book seeks to redress this.

Its weaknesses are a focus on personality and political relationships at the expense of economics, history, the power of big business and non-political power and culture – but it’s a bio and therefore more about the man than the broader context. It can’t be everything. The last volume will deal with the Vietnam war and I doubt that one volume will be enough to deal with that horror - and there will likely be criticism.

There has been criticism, particularly from the Johnson family, but also generally about his hard judgments and colorful language – arguable strengths often lacking in scholarly bios. Lunatics and conspiracy theorists don’t much like it so its probably not widely read in the Middle East or certain parts of the USA. I don’t imagine the Kennedy family likes it much because it documents how they humiliated him and Bobby Kennedy’s uncontrollable, and arguably unbalanced, hate of him. (I think that its time for a warts and all bio of Bobby).

If you need to believe history is black and white/good and bad then it’s probably not for you nor is it for you if you believe good things are done only by good people – or its opposite. Brexiteers may not like it because it says history and people are complex, results often different from intentions and politics is compromise, maneuver as well as leadership. One of LBJ’s weakness as a politician was his lack of populist media whoredom – now exhibited by modern Borises (sic.) and Trumps – so nowadays he might not get elected to anything and ‘maybe’ this is a bio. of an extinct specimen.

Interestingly its less appreciated in the UK than elsewhere and maybe that’s because it is warts and all – rather than Oxbridge coyness and avoidance of judgment – and is exhaustively detailed which throws its peers into stark contrast for being glib, uninquiring and lazy. Lord Skidelsky comes to mind. Other countries with hero worship traditions and ideological blindness, France for example, don’t much like it and places like Italy, with its dogmatic intelligentsia and fear of the ugly truth, ignore it.

There is no tradition of truthful and balanced biography in the Islamic world let alone a widespread belief that a clear understanding of their past might make their future better. My guess is that a bio. such as this in Egypt would be regarded as unpatriotic, most probably banned and its author exiled.

Caro has been successful and writes in such an effective way academics often stare, mutter and give it casual praise. They may also be envious. Senior professional politicians in the UK and USA however sing its praises as a truthful depiction of power and Bill Clinton wrote a positive magazine book review of it.

Modern politicians must be quaking at the prospect of another Caro coming along to ‘do them over’. Luckily for them such authors arrive only once a generation so their reputations are safe – for the time being.

Its relatively cheap in actual hard copy and, oddly, only available on CD, not electronic. They are heavy books even in paperback so physical delivery from Amazon won’t be cheap.

If you want a clear and readable, albeit dated historical, view of immense power/ego, it’s in a category of its own.

Here is what the author says:
“What I'm interested in is using those lives to show how political power works. Not the textbook variety — the textbook things we learn in high school and college — but how power really works, the raw, naked reality of political power. ... We live in a democracy, so basically power at the end comes from us, from the votes that we cast at the ballot box. So the more that we know about how political power really works the better — theoretically, at least — our votes should be and the better our democracy should be."

Another quote from Caro:
"We're taught Lord Acton's axiom: all power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I believed that when I started these books, but I don't believe it's always true any more. Power doesn't always corrupt. Power can cleanse. What I believe is always true about power is that power always reveals. When you have enough power to do what you always wanted to do, then you see what the guy always wanted to do."

Pity more biographers and historians don’t think the same way. Pity more citizens aren’t interested how their votes are actually used. Pity that everyone forgot that Lord Acton never had any power, no-one who knew him who had any power ever offered him any, or many jobs - so his knowledge of power was very limited. If he had power his principles would have meant UK support of the South in the American Civil War. Therefore his view on the direction of history and his standards of morality were probably no more perceptive than his view/theory on power. Nevertheless we still stick to his ‘aphorism’ because it’s short, black and white and simple.

The last volume is likely to be out in the next 6 months but if you are interested I suggest you start at the beginning. Second hand copies might be available on Amazon, eBay or Abe.

Some references/reviews: ... etnam.html ... 0679729453 ... obert-caro ... eview.html

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 14, 2017 1:51 pm  |  Posted from: United Kingdom

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Hafiz wrote:
They are heavy books even in paperback so physical delivery from Amazon won’t be cheap.

Spend more than a tenner on books and Amazon offer free postage. Doesn't matter how heavy they are.
Hafiz wrote:
Interestingly its less appreciated in the UK than elsewhere

Do you have any evidence for this faintly bizarre claim?

The UK Amazon site, for example, has 28 five-star reviews and 4 four-star reviews for the first volume (and nothing lower).

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