It is the time of the year once more when I publish my pick from some of the books that came my way since my last ‘Good Reads’ listing. These are not book reviews in the classical and rigorous sense of the word, for which you should turn to our Book Review section. I do not attempt to analyse or critique, but rather to explain why the books appealed to me and why I think you, too, may find them well worth reading. They are listed in no particular order, except for the first one which is definitely my choice for the year.
Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, 4 Volumes (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982-2012)
I have a certain passion for political biography and like to think of myself as something of a connoisseur. Why it has taken me so long to finally sit down and read this much acclaimed treatment of Johnson might be because of its daunting length. A fifth and final volume covering his post-elections years in the Vietnam White House is eagerly awaited and apparently imminent. I am not going to prevaricate with the ‘one of the most’ formula. This is undoubtedly the finest of this genre that I have ever read. For those who might wonder why they should spend precious reading time on Johnson I would like to say that the “years” in the title are not just his years but a political and social history of the USA over half a century. Not many would be willing to set aside time to plough through all four volumes, though they amply repay the effort. But I most strongly recommend, as a second best, to read just Volume 4 (The Passage of Power). It essentially covers the period from Kennedy’s assassination to Johnson’s first year in office. It becomes a microcosm of the Johnson phenomenon. On the one hand, he was undoubtedly, and this is meticulously documented, entirely ruthless and politically (and in some measure financially) corrupt from his early days as a student through his days in Congress until his accidental ascent to the presidency. From those early days one gets the impression of a person interested in power (and winning, winning, winning) for almost its own sake. He understood the power of procedural command from his early elections in college politics until his commanding mastery as Majority Leader in the Senate. And the lessons we as readers learn about congressional politics remain illuminating, even essential, 60 years later, in understanding the tortured relations of, say, Obama and Trump with Congress. I would say an indispensable lesson. You don’t know what you don’t know until you have read such. And, of course, in our minds there is always the Johnson of ‘Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today’.
Now comes the ‘On the other hand’ which makes both the personality of Johnson so intriguingly complex and our judgment of him so difficult. He grew up in abject poverty – no exaggeration. He pined for the ham sandwich at school but could only afford the cheese one. He and his family literally scratched a living out of the barren soil on which they lived. Like Clinton decades later, he grew up with and alongside a black and Hispanic population in the most natural way. The result was, his greed for power and avarice notwithstanding, a person with a huge and genuine commitment to social justice and, miracle of miracles for a son of Texas, bereft of that visceral racism, not mere disdain for but real disgust towards blacks, which was so present in the South (and not only the South) of that era and indeed has not been fully eradicated today. In his deep feeling for the poor, he made no distinction between black and white. Read the rest of this entry…