Posts Tagged ‘JFK’

The Sunday review: The years of Lyndon Johnson: the passage of power by Robert A Caro

22/07/2012, 08:00:33 AM

by Anthony Painter

The latest volume of Robert A Caro’s genre re-defining biography of Lyndon Johnson is structured around the mortal battle of two political foes. This conflict comprises both dependence and an antipathy that will define their historical legacy. They can never rid themselves of one another. For all their qualities, their weaknesses are plain and revealed in their fraught interaction. Each would love to be free but their fates have become entwined. It consumes the final decades of both men’s lives. The men to which I refer are, of course, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Robert A Caro.

Whilst the real story lies beneath, the narrative of the book itself is centred on two main characters whose destinies swing around the pivot of John F Kennedy’s assassination. That is Johnson and Robert F Kennedy. Their mutual loathing is seemingly without bound. From the humiliation of the vice-presidency, Johnson emerges, in this volume at least, as a dominant President with a legislative agenda the like of which hadn’t been seen since the New Deal nor since. JFK’s domestic programme was log-jammed and going nowhere. Johnson, the re-emerging master that we saw in volume three, reprises his capacity for institutional transformation and turns the presidency in an active direction. He palpably fails to do the same whilst in vice-presidential office.

John Adams once referred to his position as Vice-President thus, “I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” This is the basic premise of the new Armando Iannucci created HBO drama, Veep. Moments of Johnson’s vice-presidency such as when he collapses in a heap while dancing with one of JFK’s mistresses at a socialite-laden Georgetown party might be comedic if they weren’t so painfully tragic. A dominant theme of Caro’s four volumes is the capacity for Johnson to find power in any situation – yet he fails to do this as Vice-President. He physically and emotionally crumbles as a result as he had a tendency to do from time to time.

Johnson’s plight is made all the worse on account of the social clash of cultures as the entitled Kennedys condescend and belittle the man from the Hill Country; JFK refers to him as a bumpkin-esque “Rufus Corpone”. In this, Johnson is frighteningly similar to Richard Nixon – forever burdened by a harsh upbringing, their fathers’ failures, with ferocious energy and drive filling the vacuum where status stood for the New England Harvard crowd. When Johnson and Bobby Kennedy have the opportunity deploy power against the other that is what they do without hesitation while all the time consumed by hate, contempt and fear. At the end of this volume, it is RFK who lies emotionally, physically and politically defeated, drenched in grief. We know he is to rise again – but not yet.

Caro seems clear where his allegiances lie – he’s a JFK man. While wanting to settle the odd historical score with President Kennedy’s biographer, Arthur Schlesinger, he basically appears to be bought into the Kennedy as lost great President narrative. It is the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis later this year and we are likely to hear a great deal about Kennedy’s diplomatic genius. We certainly get a flood of it in the passage of power. Actually, it was Krushchev who achieved far more in strategic terms through the crisis – the protection of Cuba and the removal of Jupiter air missiles from Turkey.


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What would JFK have made of the Tories’ duplicitous weakness on 28 days detention?

19/01/2011, 10:30:27 AM

by Tom Watson

Tomorrow marks 50 years since John F Kennedy’s inaugural presidential address. When David Cameron attends the Nordic conference on behalf of the nation later in the week, his handlers will no doubt try to mark the anniversary by enveloping him in Kennedy stardust. My hunch is that he will want to talk tough, as JFK sometimes did: “let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill”.

Cameron is still looking for international recognition equivalent to that of Blair and Brown and Thatcher. Those television images of statesmen shaking hands in exotic places are the particles of political legacies that politicians crave. In all of Cameron’s grasping hunt for glory, he can only dream of a legacy as enduring as JFK’s. Yet there is a grim reality for our prime minister, one that is only now beginning to reveal itself to him. If you want to leave a positive political legacy in the age of the internet, you probably have to be shot or spend 30 years in jail for a crime you didn’t commit.

And if you don’t believe me, think about the nearest thing the Labour party has to JFK, Tony Blair. That man used to walk on water. The day after tomorrow he will be at the Chilcot enquiry for the second time, wading through misery, as the detail of his decision to take us into Iraq is surgically examined. It wasn’t meant to be this way.

It’s probably an understatement to say that I’ve had disagreements with Mr Blair, but his humiliating second appearance before the committee in some way seems an unworthy way to treat a former prime minister. (more…)

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