We Shall Overcome

While I’ve been sick this week, I’ve taken the chance to do some recreational reading, although it also builds on some ideas I’m developing in my thesis. I’ve been rereading Robert A. Caro’s Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, also a favourite of Zoe’s. It’s a great narrative – Caro as well as being a fine historian is an excellent storyteller. One interesting observation is that no-one quite knows whether LBJ was racist or not in the 1950s. There’s evidence on both sides. But his role in enacting the first Civil Rights Act of 1957 was a pathbreaking moment in the legislative response to the Civil Rights movement. He probably had mixed motives – ambition being prominent among them. But Caro makes it clear that he was a political master – finding compromise where there was no space for compromise, and being able to foresee the long term results of seemingly small and symbolic change. One of the fascinating things about politics is that motivations are often unimportant. Indeed, Kantian “beautiful souls” often do more harm than good in politics, or are simply ineffective. That’s why the great politicians like FDR or LBJ are so fascinating as studies from the human as well as from the political perspective.


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20 responses to “We Shall Overcome”

  1. Zoe

    Jealous! I am waiting for me mum to bring that one down next week. Been waiting for A G E S.

  2. Zoe

    Jealous! I am waiting for me mum to bring that one down next week. Been waiting for A G E S.

  3. C.L.

    I loved Robert Dallek’s brilliant two-volume biography of LBJ. There’s no doubt Johnson was one of the greatest – if not the greatest – machinist in modern Congressional history. Was he racist? Not in the deep-seated red-necked way, based on some nutty Darwinian notion of superiority. In a modern sense, probably. That is, he was fairly paternalistic.

    Dallek’s description of the ‘Johnson Treatment’ was also a hoot. If he was trying to persuade someone or win their backing on something he’d sit close, get right in their face – quite literally – and bring to bear his formidable physicality. Few could refuse what he was ever-so ‘politely’ requesting. He was one intimidating SOB.

    He was an innovator in many ways. He pioneered the use of helicopters in campaigning, often hovering above the share-crop of a constituent and hollering something like “Cletus, this is LYNDON JOHNSON.. you and Mrs Beauchamp be sure and vote for me Tueday now.” Said constutuents were usually stunned. And I doubt anyone has had national security discussions from the bog since Johnson.

    His work ethic, beginning as a teacher trainee and continuing on through his youth work for FDR in the 30s, was simply phenomenal. Destroyed his health of course. Was he corrupt? No doubt about it. Even by the early 50s he was exceptionally well off – more so than a professional politician coud possibly have had a right to be. He was an egotist – embossing his cowboy boots with ‘LBJ’ and calling his dog ‘Little Beagle Johnson.’

    A Lyndon Baines Johnson couldn’t be elected these days. With his exit, the old muscular Democrats came to an end. They’ve never recovered. Their next President was Jimmy Carter – a man less potent and decisive it would be hard to imagine.

  4. C.L.

    I loved Robert Dallek’s brilliant two-volume biography of LBJ. There’s no doubt Johnson was one of the greatest – if not the greatest – machinist in modern Congressional history. Was he racist? Not in the deep-seated red-necked way, based on some nutty Darwinian notion of superiority. In a modern sense, probably. That is, he was fairly paternalistic.

    Dallek’s description of the ‘Johnson Treatment’ was also a hoot. If he was trying to persuade someone or win their backing on something he’d sit close, get right in their face – quite literally – and bring to bear his formidable physicality. Few could refuse what he was ever-so ‘politely’ requesting. He was one intimidating SOB.

    He was an innovator in many ways. He pioneered the use of helicopters in campaigning, often hovering above the share-crop of a constituent and hollering something like “Cletus, this is LYNDON JOHNSON.. you and Mrs Beauchamp be sure and vote for me Tueday now.” Said constutuents were usually stunned. And I doubt anyone has had national security discussions from the bog since Johnson.

    His work ethic, beginning as a teacher trainee and continuing on through his youth work for FDR in the 30s, was simply phenomenal. Destroyed his health of course. Was he corrupt? No doubt about it. Even by the early 50s he was exceptionally well off – more so than a professional politician coud possibly have had a right to be. He was an egotist – embossing his cowboy boots with ‘LBJ’ and calling his dog ‘Little Beagle Johnson.’

    A Lyndon Baines Johnson couldn’t be elected these days. With his exit, the old muscular Democrats came to an end. They’ve never recovered. Their next President was Jimmy Carter – a man less potent and decisive it would be hard to imagine.

  5. Mark

    Yep, C.L. Dallek is great too – I also liked his more recent biography of JFK.

    Zoe, I thought you’d read it! I know you read Path to Power – you’ll enjoy it – I’ve got a few chapters to go which I shall probably finish tonight.

  6. Mark

    Yep, C.L. Dallek is great too – I also liked his more recent biography of JFK.

    Zoe, I thought you’d read it! I know you read Path to Power – you’ll enjoy it – I’ve got a few chapters to go which I shall probably finish tonight.

  7. Zoe

    Have you read the Caro, CL? He talks a lot about the helicopter in Vol 2, and the pilot’s stuff is really interesting. It was generally very scary and dangerous, but Johnson was just without fear. Too busy.

  8. Zoe

    Have you read the Caro, CL? He talks a lot about the helicopter in Vol 2, and the pilot’s stuff is really interesting. It was generally very scary and dangerous, but Johnson was just without fear. Too busy.

  9. Mark

    Agreed, Zoe – there are so many contradictions in Johnson’s character – frightened of dying yet extremely brave in the face of severe illness – corrupt and self-serving yet dedicated to ending poverty and injustice. Somehow though his biographers give us a picture of how one man could combine these seeming opposites. A very big personality indeed – C.L.’s quite right that the whitebread Demos of the present are in his shadow. I couldn’t imagine a biography of Al Gore being a page turner, for instance.

  10. Mark

    Agreed, Zoe – there are so many contradictions in Johnson’s character – frightened of dying yet extremely brave in the face of severe illness – corrupt and self-serving yet dedicated to ending poverty and injustice. Somehow though his biographers give us a picture of how one man could combine these seeming opposites. A very big personality indeed – C.L.’s quite right that the whitebread Demos of the present are in his shadow. I couldn’t imagine a biography of Al Gore being a page turner, for instance.

  11. C.L.

    No Zoe, haven’t read it yet. Must get my hands on it.

  12. C.L.

    No Zoe, haven’t read it yet. Must get my hands on it.

  13. Zoe

    And I’ll get my hands on the Dallek. The three of us can be complete LBJ nerds together.

  14. Zoe

    And I’ll get my hands on the Dallek. The three of us can be complete LBJ nerds together.

  15. Mark

    Sounds good, Zoe :)

  16. Mark

    Sounds good, Zoe :)

  17. C.L.

    Yay!

    Er, I mean that’d be fine ma’am.

    Some quotes:

    “I seldom think of politics more than eighteen hours a day.”

    “The fact that a man is a newspaper reporter is evidence of some flaw of character.”

    “No member of our generation who wasn’t a Communist or a dropout in the thirties is worth a damn.”

    “When things haven’t gone well for you, call in a secretary or a staff man and chew him out. You will sleep better and they will appreciate the attention. ”

    “Only two things are necessary to keep one’s wife happy. One is to let her think she is having her own way, and the other is to let her have it.”

  18. C.L.

    Yay!

    Er, I mean that’d be fine ma’am.

    Some quotes:

    “I seldom think of politics more than eighteen hours a day.”

    “The fact that a man is a newspaper reporter is evidence of some flaw of character.”

    “No member of our generation who wasn’t a Communist or a dropout in the thirties is worth a damn.”

    “When things haven’t gone well for you, call in a secretary or a staff man and chew him out. You will sleep better and they will appreciate the attention. ”

    “Only two things are necessary to keep one’s wife happy. One is to let her think she is having her own way, and the other is to let her have it.”

  19. Mark

    Are the quotes from Dallek’s book, C.L.

    Here’s one I like from old Abe Lincoln:

    “it was like a soup made from the shadow of a crow which had starved to death”.

    One other interesting thing that Caro brings out in his biog is LBJ’s habit of holding court while he was naked, defecating or urinating, and ostentatiously scratching his groin in public. Caro claims this was one way that Johnson expressed his power over others – through total disregard of social norms and through humiliation.

    Similarly, Huey P. Long used to eat off other people’s plates at dinner and appeared dressed in a ludicrous outfit in a formal setting and often received visitors in his pyjamas.

    Long and LBJ both also had the habit of calling people at 2 or 3 or 4am.

    And according to Bill Hayden, Hawkey used also to receive supplicants nude.

  20. Mark

    Are the quotes from Dallek’s book, C.L.

    Here’s one I like from old Abe Lincoln:

    “it was like a soup made from the shadow of a crow which had starved to death”.

    One other interesting thing that Caro brings out in his biog is LBJ’s habit of holding court while he was naked, defecating or urinating, and ostentatiously scratching his groin in public. Caro claims this was one way that Johnson expressed his power over others – through total disregard of social norms and through humiliation.

    Similarly, Huey P. Long used to eat off other people’s plates at dinner and appeared dressed in a ludicrous outfit in a formal setting and often received visitors in his pyjamas.

    Long and LBJ both also had the habit of calling people at 2 or 3 or 4am.

    And according to Bill Hayden, Hawkey used also to receive supplicants nude.