Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Catch of the Day

Yesterday, really, but a very nice post by Alec MacGillis pointing out (1) that all the Robert Caro worship tends to promote the idea that presidential skill is all that separates LBJ from all the presidents who didn't pass as many things through Congress; (2) that Caro himself has encouraged that sort of thinking (not the Caro worship, but the Great Man view of history; (3) and that Caro actually played a small role in preserving the filibuster back in the previous decade, which is relevant because Senate rules are a big part of why Barack Obama's success has been limited.

None of which takes away from Caro's strengths (although I've only dipped into bits of the Johnson books; I'm a bit fan of the Moses book). However, exactly right. I'm one who does place quite a bit of emphasis on presidential skill as an important variable (which is why I'm constantly quoting Neustadt), but it's clearly true that context matters -- which includes the party structure, the party balance in Congress, the rules and norms in Congress, and other portions of the political situation.

The other piece of this is that with LBJ you have to ask: were the short-term gains from bullying and manipulation costly in the long run? I don't know the answer to that, but I've always suspected (following both Nelson Polsby and, I think, Neustadt) that Johnson's troubles were very much related to his style.

At any rate: Nice catch!


  1. Role. Role. Role.
    Pet peeve, sorry.

    1. ... that can be *my* catch of the day :-)

    2. Fixed, and thanks! No need to apologize; I appreciate all of that kind of catches. Just wish I made fewer stupid mistakes of that type. Or sort.

  2. Johnson and the tale of the human easel is my favorite. Obviously, politics is about the application of power within the limits of what will be tolerated by enough subjects/citizens, but Johnson was a cartoon of this. Pure thug.


  3. MacGillis's post is refreshing because it seems like so many media outlets really get a boner when it comes to Caro and his biographical project.

  4. While I agree that Caro's role, however small, in preserving the filibuster deserves scrutiny, I think MacGillis' argument is far removed from the actual content of Caro's work. No biographer I've ever read has done a better job explaining the context in which his/her subject lived. Caro doesn't just talk about how LBJ operated but the Senate in which he operated. The Master of the Senate opens with more than a hundred pages detailing the history of the Senate up to the point LBJ entered it. It also includes fifty pages on Senator Russell and his rise to power, along with shorter sketches of many other key figures in the body at the time. Caro's work is rich in that kind of context--party balance, party structure, and Senate rules and norms. What Caro argues--I think persuasively--is that LBJ managed to navigate this context in a way that can only be described as masterful, both in terms of serving his own lust for power and passing a legislative agenda.

    Caro is also clear that LBJ's ploys didn't always work. His criticism of Johnson goes beyond his ruthless tactics into the efficacy of those tactics. For example, he ends The Master of the Senate with the story of how Vice-President-elect Johnson tried to keep his hold on Senatorial power even as Veep, and how the Senate, even his closest allies, rebuffed him almost entirely. Caro doesn't ignore the way Johnson's tactics often had negative repercussions.

    I'm a really big fan and loyal reader of both this blog and MacGillis', but I think you guys missed the mark on this one. It's telling that neither of you have fully read the books in question; if you had, you'd see that lack of context was not even close to a problem with the books. The context was the reason LBJ's "genius" was so impressive, and Caro makes that point abundantly clear in the books.

    Now, there's a different context now, and I think you're right to argue that the way LBJ navigated the Senate in the '50s and '60s cannot simply be cut and pasted into the current problems with the Senate. It's plainly stupid to say that if only Obama behaved just like LBJ, then he'd have passed everything he wanted. But I think it is fair to say that it will take an act of political genius to get us out of the current mess we're in. It's not the only factor, but I think it's part of it.

  5. I like Caro's Johnson books because I think Johnson was a fascinating person and Caro's a great writer, not because of some subscription to a great man theory of history.

  6. Jonathan, thanks very much for the kind words above. Thought I'd weigh in here quickly to address Sean's comment. I tried to make clear in my post that I was not holding Caro to account for the books, per se, but rather lamenting the ways the books have been used by the "Great Man" crowd. What I was holding him to account for, briefly, was his statement in the WSJ interview that it will just take a new "political genius" to solve the Senate. That seemed a bit much.


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