Leland Olds is a name lost to history. He, however, stands as an example of one of the extreme ends of the behavior of our 36th President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Olds, who had led the Federal Power Commission from 1940 to 1949, was not reappointed to the position in 1950 when Johnson led a smear campaign against him as a Communist sympathizer. Why did he do this? It was not out of any great feeling of dislike toward Olds, and certainly not because he was a Communist, it was simply that Johnson’s backers in the Texas oil and gas industry wanted a more pliable commissioner. Thus asked Johnson completed his mission.
Since the early 1980’s Robert Caro has been writing books in his biography series on LBJ. Last year the fourth of these books, The Passage of Power, which covered the period from 1958 through his election to the office of the Presidency in his own right in 1964, was released. The detail in these biographies, the depth of the reportage, is remarkable. I, myself, have been reading these books for the last few years. A week ago when I finished Book Four I could finally call myself current on this series. Caro, who researches and writes at what could only be called a deliberate pace, promises that the final book in the series will be published in the next five years. Having made the chronicling of Johnson his life’s work he is determined to finish this incredible biography series.
Having read all of these books I can agree with the author that it is impossible to have just one opinion of Johnson. He is one of the most conflicted and conflicting people in our history. Johnson was the greatest politician of his lifetime. Throughout his lifetime his personality never really changed. He was a pragmatic politician, a man who did not wish to be bothered with idealism but was more interested in what could be done. I remember when reading the earlier book in the series that detailed the destruction of Olds mentioned above I was so disgusted that I had to put the book down for a period of time. Reading the details of how Johnson stole his Senate seat in the 1948 election, the details mirror the Bush v Gore election of 2000, leaves one with the question of how history would have changed had not future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, appointed by Johnson to the court in 1965, intervened on his behalf.
Still, reading this incredible series of books, just when you are ready to write Johnson off as a crass, shallow man, we see him in 1964 being told that advancing the cost of civil rights and bettering education and the lives of the poor was not politically feasible. Being told that wasting his political capital and Presidential popularity on such an issue was a bad idea Johnson retorted ” What better use is there, what is the Presidency for?” There is no pureness in Johnson, good or bad, it is impossible to have just one opinion of him.
Caro repeatedly shows us the pattern of Johnson’s life. Namely when the passion of a cause and the thirst for power are in conflict it is the desire for power that always won, hence the destruction of Olds. Only late in his political career, after the death of John Kennedy, was Johnson in a position to give freedom to his passion to help those who had been given the short stick in life. It was in this period, after Kennedy’s death and before the United States became fully engulfed in Vietnam, when the intersection of passion and power occurred for Johnson, thus allowing the series of bills he shepherded through Congress to build his Great Society,
Johnson was a brilliant legislator and politician. Future President’s, including our current one, could learn a great deal from his ability to get his legislation passed. For Johnson it was always about winning, it was never about being liked, or being seen as bipartisan. Johnson understood that in politics if you have the power you must use it, if you display weakness you will lose. It certainly would not be false to say that, like them or not, we have not had a President since Johnson, and later Richard Nixon, who accomplished so much in the way of legislation through their use and understanding of legislative power.
Reading this series is an investment in time, four books in and well over 2000 pages thus far, and as my wife says it is a limited group that will read these books. Upon each publication however, Caro is revered further as a Master Biographer and the books inevitably top the non fiction charts. There is a select group who wish to know the history of our country. For those nothing tops the work of this great author.
If you are one of those people and have not done so I encourage you to start this series now. The good news is, at the pace with which Mr. Caro writes, you should be able to just about read all four books before the final one is published. In years ahead this will be considered not only the definitive history of Johnson, but a great examination of that time period between the Second World War through the Vietnam War in which he was on the public stage.