Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, by Robert Caro

Summary: the extraordinary first volume of Caro’s planned five volume biography of LBJ

The Path to Power is volume one of Robert Caro’s celebrated, multi-volume biography of

Lyndon Johnson – four volumes have already been published with a fifth planned. This one covers Johnson’s career from birth to the outbreak of the Second World War, including his election to Congress and his first, failed, Senate run.

Nevertheless in spite of its mammoth size this is not a book that I would ever describe as “sprawling”. For all its numerous, fascinating, digressions – into Texas social history or politics, for example, or concise biographies of Sam Johnson, Lyndon’s father, or Sam Rayburn, the powerful Speaker of the US House of Representatives and sometime patron of Lyndon – Caro never once loses sight of the central purpose of his work, which is to try to explain Lyndon Johnson. Hence any digressions that he makes are provided to establish a context from which better understanding can be derived.

Johnson was not a very nice man. But he was a fascinating one with an extraordinary impulse for power, an awesome appetite for hard work, and a fundamental grasp of political campaigning, both for himself and, as described in this book, as a leader of Democratic national election campaigning. (It’s a pity that some of the clowns leading Labour’s disastrous December 2019 election campaign did not spend some time studying this book to learn some of the basics of winning elections.)

In the course of his career he did much good and some extraordinary evil. But he never for a moment seems to have been motivated by anything other than a desire for self promotion. Despite coming from a Texas Liberal tradition – both his father and Rayburn were unequivocal men of the Left, Johnson was not by any means wedded to these ideals. Over the course of his career he shifted from Left to Right and back again depending on the prevailing political winds and which alliances he felt would most probably advance his self interest.

Such calculation was not restricted to his professional life. His marriage to Lady Bird seemed to have been wholly functional, its purpose to obtain for him a rich wife whose family might help bankroll his political campaigns. All of his relationships, with one exception, seem to have been developed with the sole consideration of how they would advance his political career.

The sole exception was his affair with Alice Glass, the wife of one of his most important political backers. Johnson simply could not resist Alice in spite of the damage that it would have caused him had Alice’s husband discovered the true nature of their relationship. Lady Bird had, of course, to live with the humiliating knowledge of the affair, conducted with no concern whatsoever for her feelings.

Alice, in fact, seems to have been the only woman Johnson ever loved. So there is a sort of Karmic justice that towards the end of her life Alice had wanted to destroy all her correspondence with Johnson. She was afraid that her children would discover not that she had an affair, but that she had one with the man most responsible for the US’s murderous involvement in Vietnam.

The Path to Power is a gripping book, elegantly written and displaying an extraordinary depth of research. It is a matter of unspeakable pleasure to know that I have at least three more volumes of this work to read.

UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concerned by Irish business involvement in rights violations

Business & Human Rights in Ireland

Ireland appeared before the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in early December in Geneva. The Committee was considering the consolidated fifth to ninth reports submitted by Ireland. As previously mentioned on the blog, several civil society submissions to the Committee had raised the issue of the potential involvement of Irish businesses in violations of human rights, including those entailing racial discrimination.

During the session, members of the Committee asked the Irish government delegation about measures being taken to address business and human rights issues, including most prominently the connections between Irish companies and the Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia:

The Irish delegation was given the opportunity to respond to the Committee on this issue, as live-tweeted by my colleagues at the Irish Centre for Human Rights:

The Concluding Observations of the Committee have now been published (in advance form). They include strong recommendations on a range…

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To Kill the Truth, by Sam Bourne

Summary: a twisty Washington thriller for our troubled times

Maggie Costello, Sam Bourne’s recurrent trouble-shooting hero, is taking some time out as a student following the events of her previous outing in To Kill The President. But she is called back into political service by a friend – the new governor of Virginia, concerned now about the murder of a Civil War historian coinciding with a trial initiated by a charlatan intent on denying that slavery ever actually existed in the United States.

It quickly transpires that these events are just the tip of a conspiratorial iceberg as a shadowy Right-Wing organisation begins attacking the great libraries of the world, intent on destroying the pesky facts that tend to undermine their Brexit-level crazy views of the world.

Bourne, otherwise known as the Guardian’s former Washington correspondent Jonathan Freedland, is highly adept at crafting a satisfying, twisty thriller. But To Kill the Truth is more than that. It is an engaging meditation on the uses and abuses of history, the tension in conflicted societies between justice and peace, and how facts no longer “mark out the public square for honest debate” but are themselves the subject of partisan dispute. These are timely topics given how buffoons like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump wear their contempt for the truth as a badge of pride.

With Maggie Costello, Bourne has created an engaging hero for these troubled times – not just a woman of action, but a woman of principle too and an intellectual who thinks her way through problems when others are in thrall to emotion. She’s a reminder of what the world could be, if passions were more often tamed by reason, and humanity prized more than prejudice.

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy”: on Where Eagles Dare, by Geoff Dyer

This is a book that is so silly in its concept that it’s actually brilliant. It is a scene by scene discussion of the movie Where Eagles Dare, a movie that has somehow come to occupy a “unique place in the consciousness” of the author.

The book reminded me in a strange way of another film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. That film pretended to be a whimsical farce, but ended up touching quite profoundly upon life and history. In this book, Where Eagles Dare allows the author to entertainingly digress on all manner of subjects, from Richard Burton’s drinking, to Mary Ure’s pioneering work as action heroine – a proto-Buffy, if you will – to Clint Eastwood character’s disturbingly sadistic preference for killing with a knife when in possession of a perfectly good silencer. In the course of this the author also touches upon youthful hope, life, and war.

I’m never going to be 15 again watching this for the first time with my family at Christmas. But this book brought back the memory of that pleasure, if only for a fleeting moment.

The Pigeon Tunnel, by John le Carre

The Pigeon Tunnel is a memoir presented in the form of short stories and vignettes from the author’s life. Some are extremely funny. Some, such as his brief appreciation of his friendship with the late ITN newsreader Reggie Bosinquat, or his disclosure of how he came upon the character of Issa in A Most Wanted Man, are very moving. Some shine an unexpected light on aspects of world affairs in forlorn and forgotten places over the past 40 years. All are exquisitely written.

I cannot recall enjoying many books as much in recent years. And yet I am not sure I know David Cornwell, John le Carre’s alter ego, any better having just finished this book. Le Carre tells us much about the things he has done and seen, including, towards the end, a beautifully written chapter on his relationships with his parents, in particular his con-man father, Reggie.

John le Carre, aka David Cornwell

But there is always a sense that le Carre is only prepared to disclose so much and is wholly in control of those portions of his biography that he is prepared to be known. He is substantially silent, of course, on much of his work as an MI6 officer. But he is also very silent on his love and family life: siblings and offspring are referred to with much affection but little information; the ending of his first marriage is referred to only obliquely, as is his finding love with his second wife, Jane.

In truth le Carre’s subject in The Pigeon Tunnel, is not David Cornwell, but the books that Cornwell wrote under this nom de plume – their points of origin, the research undertaken to bring them to publication, and, occasionally the adventures involved in transposing them to film.

It’s a lovely and frequently fascinating excursion with one of the finest living writers of English. Treat yourself and read it!

Muhammed Ali

When We Were Kings, by Leon Gast
The Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, by Mark Kram
The Tao of Muhammed Ali, by Davis Miller 

img_0912My first proper memory of Muhammed Ali was waking up to the news of his victory over George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974. I watched the BBC Sports film of the fight the next evening. It was  awe-inspiring.

This fight is the principle subject of Leon Gast’s electrifying documentary When We Were Kings. The bloody, thieving, murderous dictator of Zaire, Mobuto, had decided that the world heavyweight title fight would help put Zaire on the world stage. Gast’s movie is an account of the extraordinary circus that resulted. It intercuts documentary and news footage from the time with illuminating interviews with, among others,  George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, on the bizarre circumstances surrounding the fight, and on the phenomenal fight itself.

When We Were Kings is a great introduction to Ali, both as a cultural and political figure and as a boxer. His victory is beautifully explained as one not just of his technical fighting skills, but of his strategic thinking skills.

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Rope-a-dope

Years later George Foreman described the devastation of having been beaten by someone so “braggadocio”. This is but a hint of the darkness that is frequently ignored in discussions of Ali. This comes much more to the fore in the Ghosts of Manila, an account of the rivalry between Ali and the great Joe Frazier. Frazier had been a supporter of Ali in the wilderness years when Ali had been stripped of his licence to box because of his courageous refusal to fight in Vietnam: “I ain’t got not quarrel with the Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me nigger!” he said by way of explanation.

However this was no protection to Frazier from Ali’s often cruel and lacerating invective. Frazier came to detest Ali and their brutal fight in Manila in 1975 has become a thing of legend.

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Manila

Both fighters inflicted incredible damage on each other in dreadful heat, displaying incredible levels of endurance and courage just to keep up with each other. However by Kram’s account Frazier had effectively won the fight by rendering Ali unable to take the ring for the 15th and final round. All Frazier needed to do was to stand up. Then his manager, without consulting Frazier, threw in the towel, appalled at the damage that Frazier himself had already sustained in the fight. Frazier never forgave his manager and this extraordinary stroke of luck for Ali became a fundamental element in his legend.

But brutal fights such as Manila and the necessity to fight on almost to middle age that resulted from the loss of his license in his peak years, took their toll on Ali’s body and resulted in the Parkinson’s Disease that afflicted his final years. Davis Miller had met Ali at the peak of his career but became friends with him in these years. The Tao of Mohammed Ali is about a number of things including this friendship, writing, boxing, and perhaps most poignantly about Miller’s relationship with his own father. It is a fine and moving book that describes beautifully what Ali meant to ordinary fans, millions of who are today bereft at the news of his death.

The world is a duller, smaller place with Ali gone. But in many ways it is a better one in part because of what he did and what he stood up for. We will never see his like again.

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Ali delivers the coup de grace on Foreman (Plimpton and Mailer look on – bottom right)

 

The Dark Side of the Force: Human agency and human belief

 Much of the Star Wars universe is brilliantly executed fantasy. Some of it – think ewoks and bleeding Jar Jar fecking Binks – is execrable. But in the midst of all of this there is at least one important philosophical point: Obi Wan and Vader follow the same religion. The only difference is that Vader’s path is on the “Dark Side”.

Many belief systems have similar “Dark” and “Light” sides. An atheist, for example, can follow the “Light Side” by viewing life as something she had better do right because she will only get one shot at this. Or she can decide that she can do what she likes, given that there are no immortal consequences for even the worst of actions.

Similarly a Christian could follow the “Light” by seeing each of us a human beings in the image of God in spite of our flaws and differences. Or he could take to judging how poorly everyone else appears against his subjective standards and inflicting his notion of righteous vengeance at every opportunity.

Martha Nussbaum, in The Fragility of Goodness, argues that humans often do evil not because they transgress a moral system, but because they privilege one moral system, or perhaps a particular interpretation of a moral system, over another. Christopher Browning demonstrates the depth of depravity that can emerge from such thinking when one group of “Ordinary Men” in Eastern Poland during the Second World War decided to uphold their perceived duties to their Furher over their more fundamental human duties not to butcher unarmed children, women and men in cold blood.

But, in spite of the power of well demonstrated social pressures in such circumstances, human agency, the choices we make based on our beliefs and values, is still at the core of human action. A person can still choose to be a decent person in spite of the social pressures to the contrary. Or, indeed in spite of their underlying belief system: two of the great “rescuers” of the Second World War, Oskar Schindler and John Rabe, were both card-carrying Nazis. So decency, even heroism, does not depend simply on the belief system that we choose. It also depends on how we choose to interpret it.

I have known great and humane atheists. I have known great and humane Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Buddists. I have also known one person who used their noisy public commitment to vital human rights issues as a cloak to disguise the immense depth of their moral cowardice and venality. And then there are the murderous Crusaders of history, the Nazis, the Maoists and Stalinists, the Klan and their ideological cousins in Islamic State – those who use their beliefs as excuses to choose the darkest and bloodiest paths through life.

the light side

The “Light Side”

Richard Dawkins and his fellow travellers like to blame religion for so many of the world’s ills. But the sprawling silliness of Star Wars, and the mythical universe that it has created, has hit upon a much wiser understanding of human nature. As Shakespeare, the great chronicler of human folly and human evil, also understood: the faults are in ourselves.