Tag: presidents

Some Notes on The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro

I am fascinated by presidential biographies. Part of the fascination stems from a love of history, and part from an interest in the mechanics of a job that no one is ever qualified for, until they’ve held it. I’m particularly fond of in-depth, multivolume biographies. I thoroughly enjoyed Edmund Morris’s 3-volumes on Theodore Roosevelt. And I was also impressed by Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and His Time. In 2019 I began tackling Robert A. Caro’s mutltivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson, and today, I finsihed reading the fourth and most recent volume, The Passage of Power.

This book was the best of the lot so far, and it was so good, I could hardly bear to put it down. That says a lot when it comes to Caro, not because his books are so long, but because his subjects frequently infuriate me to such an extent that I sometimes have to set the books aside for a time to allow me to cool off. This happened to me in 2018 when I read The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. It happened to me again while reading volume 3 of his Johnson bio, Master of the Senate. Johnson (and Moses) are complex characters (Johnson seems more complex than Moses) and I found myself cheering for Johnson at times and furious with him at other times while reading Master of the Senate.

The Passage of Power covers the time period beginning with the 1960 election campaign, where Johnson runs-but-doesn’t-run for president and is ultimately picked as Kennedy’s vice president, and continues through the assassination to the beginning of the 1964 election campaign, a period of about four years. In that time, Johnson is completely taken down and then built up again, and it made for a fascinating read.

I appreciate how deep Caro goes in these biographies. They not just about Johnson but about his times and those around him. There was a mini-biography of Richard Russel in an earlier volume that could have been a stand-alone. In this latest volume, there was a similar dive into John F. Kennedy, and to a lesser extent, Bobby Kennedy. You can’t understand Johnson’s presidency without understand those two men, and it made for fascinating reading.

I finished the book wanting more, and therein lies the rub. Because as I write this, Caro is 86 years old and still deep into the research of the 5th and final book, which won’t be just a biography of Johnson, but also a history of the Vietnam War. In several placs in the present volume Caro mentions a subject that will be covered in the final volume–an investigation into Johnson’s finances; Johnson’s reelection campaign; his term from 1964-68, and Vietnam are just some examples. But I worry: will he finish in time?

It is not unprecedented for an author not to finish such a vast work. William Mancheter died before completing the final volume of his biography of Winston Churchill and had picked someone to finish it for him. I hope Caro has this kind of succession planning in mind because I really want to read that second volume now. When I first started reading the Johnson biography, he was among the presidents I was least interested in. Caro’s four volumes have changed that and I can’t wait to read more.

Written on February 7, 2022.

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Gathering in the Hall of Presidents

abraham lincolcn statue
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One afternoon during our recent trip to Disney World, we stopped into the Hall of Presidents. This is a frequent rest stop after a long day of walking around in the heat, when we need time off our feet to cool off and relax. The Hall has changed over the years, adding new Presidents, changing the story of the presidency that is told over the years. For some reason, this time, I was particularly moved by the final part of the show, where the curtains reveal all of the past (and current) presidents sitting or standing before you, being introduced and acknowledging their introduction.

Perhaps it is because I have read a lot of U.S. history and especially presidential biographies, but the scene sort of took my breath away. There on that stage were the 451 people to ever hold the office of the President of the United States. Of course, they weren’t the real people, but they appeared lifelike, and they were all there on the stage. Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of criticism of this person or that not being qualified to be President. Based on my reading of U.S. and presidential history, no one has ever been qualified for the job. It is an impossible job to begin with. Consider, there are only 45 people ever to have held this job. That doesn’t make it unique, but it comes awfully close. Sitting there in the air conditioned auditorium, facing those 46 simulacrums of U.S. presidents, I suddenly realized just how few people have ever known the burdens of that job.

My mind began to wander, and I began to wonder: what if all 45 U.S. presidents could appear together on a single stage. I imagined them wandering onto a stage, perfectly content in their surroundings, in the way that the players from the White Sox wander into the Iowa cornfield to place baseball. Instead of tossing a ball around, they toss around thoughts and ideas. They discuss the problems of the job with the only other people who have known those burdens. t would be fascinating to listen in on this gathering in the Hall of Presidents. What would Adams and Jefferson think of the party system that emerged out of their presidencies and what it has become? What would Truman have to say about the responsibility of the President and where the buck seems to stop today? What would Theodore Roosevelt think of the sound-bite? What would John Quincy Adams think of the House today? Would he even recognize it as a body for the people?

I could imagine Barack Obama asking Adams (the first) about the development of the Constitution–get it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. I could imagine Jefferson (shyly) asking about modern farming and modern technology. I could imagine Lyndon Johnson glad-handing everyone, especially FDR. I could imagine Ronald Reagan telling Kennedy about the moon landings, and later, the space shuttle.

Except, none of that would happen–not at first. There would be an odd divide and a kind of two-tiered clustering of Presidents. All those who came after Abraham Lincoln would rush to him to greet him, they would shake his hand, they would surround him. There would be tears in their eyes. Those who came before Lincoln would wonder what this deference was all about. Eventually, the Civil War would emerge in the discussion, and the fears of the founders will be confirmed. And yet, the nation remains (so far) in tact and soon, Washington and Adams and Jefferson and Madison and Monroe and the ten additional presidents who came before Lincoln would understand his role and his sacrifice.

If they were smart, the current leaders would consult with those who came before them, not because they can solve the problems we have today, but because they are the only ones who can understand the weight of responsibility for those problem.

Eventually, the curtain descended and my reverie was broken, but ever since, I was left with that image of those 46 men standing on that stage and wondered what they would think of one another and the bond that they share across more than two centuries.

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  1. There are 46 numbered Presidencies because of Grover Cleveland’s non-consecutive terms, but 45 people have held the office. Hat tip to reader Mark for pointing out this error in my counting.

Thoughts on Travels With George by Nathaniel Philbrick

One subset of travel books that I enjoy are those that mix travel with some theme of discovery. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley is the model from which many of these books have taken their example, and Nathaniel Philbrick is quick to admit that Steinbeck served as a model for his entry in this sub-genre, Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy. I like books like these because they mix history with travelogue in a way that often makes a stark comparison between then and now.

Books in this sub-genre are often attempts at taking the temperature of the general public on some topic. In his wonderful book The Longest Road, Philip Caputo was asking the question: what held the country together? In their book Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America (my favorite book of 2020) James and Deborah Fallows travel the country by air in a single-engine plane learning how, despite problems, people are finding solutions.

Nathaniel Philbrick sets out to follow the route George Washington took just before and after his inauguration, when he visited each of the new states to get a sense of the country for which he had just fought for independence, and for which he has just been elected President. This captured my interest in colonial history, in presidential history, and in travel, and I enjoyed the book. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author and it was a delight.

Up to this point, I’d only read one full biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. What Philbrick was doing in Travels with George was not writing a biography, but following Washington’s path through the states, and along with way, separating myth from history, and coming face-to-face with the paradox that Washington, in addition to being the first president of a republican democracy founded on the principle that all men are created equal, was also a slave owner.

Where Philbrick delves into separating the myth from the history was among my favorite parts of the book. How many places claim the label “Washington slept here”? Through careful study of source material, Philbrick was able to identify several such claims as impossible. Washington was clearly somewhere else at the time. I was also moved by Washington’s affection for his soldiers, even years afterward. Still, an important thread throughout the book is the struggle to understand Washington the slave-holder versus Washington the defender of liberty.

Philbrick makes much of his journey with his wife, and their dog, meeting interesting people along the way, and occasionally getting snarled in traffic; the routes they take avoid the interstates since those roads didn’t exist when Washington made his grand tour.

This was an enjoyable read that gave additional insight into parts of Washington’s life I hadn’t been acquainted with. But perhaps the most valuable thing I took from the book was Philbrick himself. I enjoyed his writing, his style, and his narration. He’s another writer, like Philip Caputo and James and Deborah Fallows that I can look forward to reading more from. Already, I’m eager to delve into his history of Nantucket Island, Away Offshore, as well as his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Sometimes, nothing is more valuable than finding a reliable writer you enjoy reading.

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Practical politics?

Walking home from the metro station this evening, I thought of an interesting question. I don’t know the answer to the question, but perhaps someone does. My question is:

In this day and age, is it a practical possibility that a middle class person, making the average income for a family in the U.S. run for and win the presidency?

The best figure I could find for average family income in the United States is about $70,000 per year. I ask this question because to me it seems nearly impossible. Everyone who runs for president either comes from wealth or has substantial self-made wealth. But they also seem very disconnected from reality. They don’t know the cost of a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. Besides, it seems that you need lots of money even to run a campaign. In much the way that real estate in some parts of the country are out of the reach of people who reside in those areas, I wonder if there is a practical minimum income that would give someone a fair chance at winning the presidency. It would be an interesting study I think, in part because it would narrow the types of professions one could have. Doctors might make enough money (Howard Dean); lawyers make enough (Bill Clinton); businessmen make enough (the Georges’ Bush); actors make enough (Ronald Reagan). But could, say, a stevedore make it? Could teacher? Or an administrative assistant?

Given my knowledge of presidential history, the last president to come from nothing and to run for president while still having very little was Abraham Lincoln. Subsequent to Lincoln, a case may be made for Ulysses S. Grant. But that was then. If they were alive today, I’m not sure they would have made it. I think that the dream that anyone can be president is just that: a dream; and the first hurdle that must be overcome is having the money to do it.

I’m just curious what that income threshold is.

Gerald Ford

Of the 7 U.S. Presidents that have been in office since I was born, Gerald Ford is the one about which I know the least. He was the first President to come into office after my birth (Nixon was President when I was born.) I have read biographies of Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Clinton. I am familiar with both Bush’s as I have had the opportunity to vote against each of them. That leaves Gerald Ford as the one mystery. I don’t know if he was a good President, or if he was a less exaggerated version of how Chevy Chase portrayed him on Saturday Night Live. I know that he pardoned Nixon, something with which I have philosophical problems, but which I also am told helped to “heal” the nation and put Watergate into the past. If nothing else, he was a life-long public servant, and that has to count for something.

The one piece of trivia that sticks most in my mind with regards to Gerald Ford is that he is the answer to the following trivia question: “Who is the only person to serve as both Vice President and President, and yet was never elected by the people?”

Utter humiliation

Browsing blogs this evening, I came across one of those quizzes. This time, it was “Which president are you most like?” I tried to answer the questions honestly, and I don’t know how this could possibly have happened, but I ended up as, well, see for yourself…

You Are Most Like George W. Bush

So what if you’re not exactly popular? You still rule the free world.
And while you may be quite conservative now, you knew how to party back in the day!

If anything, I was trying for John Adams, Jimmy Carter, or Theodore Roosevelt, three of my favorite presidents.

I think this is the last time I am ever taking an online quiz again. I feel dirty.