By Chet Yarbrough
The Passage of Power
Narrated by: Grover Gardner
Though Robert Caro’s advancing years may make him seem like a ghost writer for Plutarch, he continues to turn out the best biographies being written in the 21st century. After reading “The Power Broker” (published in 1974 about Robert Moses and land planning in New York), one becomes witness to the power of Caro’s research and dramatic skill in reporting on post-20th-century American’ movers and shakers. His next project, after “The Power Broker” became Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States.
What makes “The Passage of Power” compelling is the completeness of Caro’s portrayal of Johnson. Johnson is a bully, He is accused of being bribed and being a bribing politician, but he is also a Great Society’ visionary.
Johnson becomes a multi-millionaire as a public servant who Caro suggests is only saved from scandal by the assassination of President Kennedy. Caro notes that Don Reynolds, a former colleague, is providing evidence of bribery to a congressional committee in Washington, D.C. as President Kennedy is being chauffeured in a Lincoln Continental limousine, in Dallas, Texas.
“The Passage of Power” carries a message to today’s American President and its leaders. The message is big sticks and big ideas are an integral part of the political process in American government. And, whether one is a liberal or a conservative, the process of political change in American is not elegant, swift, or satisfying to the public.
Like John F. Kennedy, President Barack Obama dramatically represents big ideas for social change. Kennedy, in his 3 years in office, presses for civil rights as Obama, in his 5th year in office, presses for a wider social safety net and implementation of national health insurance. Both Presidents meet congressional opposition with intransigence that cannot be overcome without compromise. However, Kennedy is assassinated before he learns that lesson.
Caro explains that maneuvering by congressional conservatives like Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. and Senator Russell Long (majority whip) actively obstructed any advance in civil rights legislation because of their political beliefs. These two senators denied all legislative action in order to bring pressure on Kennedy to abandon his Civil Rights initiative.
As shown in Caro’s earlier biography of Lyndon Johnson– “Master of the Senate”, Johnson knew how to compromise and when he became President, he successfully maneuvered congress to pass the 1964 Civil Rights legislation.
Caro explains how incredibly perceptive Johnson could be in understanding people’s strengths and weaknesses. Johnson knew how to manipulate others. This is a quality that can bode ill or well for democratic government. It can do great good and great harm.
Caro shows Johnson’s success in the face of political opposition. Johnson succeeded in getting legislation passed because he played a political end-game. He traded on his understanding of others strengths and weaknesses to get what he believed to be in the best interest of all. Some call this compromise; others call it manipulation.
In contrast to Johnson, President Trump has little knowledge; seemingly no interest in people’s strengths and weaknesses, and a contemptuousness that eschews compromise.
Trump’s hubris and ineptitude mitigate damage that can be done to American democracy. His character flaws and government checks and balances will protect the public from irreversible disaster.
Trump is a figurative reincarnation of Andrew Jackson, “spoils system” creator known for victimizing American Indians in the infamous tale of :Trail of Tears”. In stead of Indians, Trump’s target is immigrants.
A left-wing liberal says Obama compromises too much while a right-wing conservative says Obama does not compromise at all; neither is correct. Extreme positions are rarely correct. The life and times of Lyndon Johnson are not unlike the life and times of Barrack Obama. The concern is that President Obama, though extremely persuasive, does not have the congressional’ experience that gave Lyndon Johnson the wisdom, and a “stick”, that could make Congress act.
Robert Caro’s book, “The Passage of Power”, is a lesson in history that offers insight to governing America today.