The LBJ Saga Continues

The Passage of Power is the fourth volume in Robert A.Caro’s epic work on the The Years of Lyndon Johnson. There’s at least one more to come, and despite having consumed well over 2000 pages, I can’t wait for what’s coming next.

Caro has phrased his subtitle to express the notion that he’s writing not just a life of one man, but the history of an era in American social and political life. LBJ’s life spans the years from the New Deal through Vietnam, years which saw the emergence of some of America’s greatest triumphs and greatest shames, and this Texas poor boy-cum-power-broker was right in the middle of it all.

Caro has extensively recounted in his previous books how the intense and humiliating poverty of Johnson’s childhood planted in his psyche both a determination to succeed and a haunting fear of failure, how those elements combined with the natural inclinations of his personality and talents to make him perhaps the most hated, feared, and successful political figure of the American 20th century–matched or surpassed only by FDR. Except FDR never inspired the scope–intensity yes, but scope, no–of hatred that LBJ had accrued by the time Vietnam got into full swing.

From his takeover of the political life of West Texas State Teacher’s College (the place never had a political life till LBJ arrived) to his shadowy election to the house in 1931 (Kellogg, Brown, and Root, the predecessors to today’s Halliburton corp were crucial here.) to his unquestionably stolen election to the Senate in 1948 to his probably corrupt ascension to the vice-presidency in 1960 (JFK’s victory owed at least as much to Johnson’s stranglehold on Texas vote-counting as to Richard Daly’s on Chicago’s) LBJ engineered his rise to power with deft thuggery. His years in congress were spent learning and exercising every rule and trick of procedure, spotting and manipulating the strengths and weaknesses of his colleagues, bowing and scraping to those in power, bullying and demeaning those who weren’t. By the time of the 1960 elections, he had become as the Senate Majority Leader, the arbiter of all legislation foreign and domestic, the second most powerful man in Washington. Some called him more powerful than the president himself.

In doing so, he allied himself with his southern colleagues in the senate to block every attempt to advance the cause of civil rights for decades. It took the supreme court to invoke school desegregation in 1954, but by 1960, little had been done to implement the decision. Jim Crow was still the way of life not only in the south, but to a somewhat lesser degree countrywide.

Suddenly, Johnson was vice-president. He’d always wanted to be president, but he was on the ticket only because JFK needed Texas to win, and he decided that one step closer to power was better than the Senate. As it turned out, he gave up any power he had. The Harvard-dominated cliques despised him, mocked him, called him Rufus Cornpone. Kennedy did not consult him. In power-hungry Washington, he was instantly i.d.’d as a man with none. He tried to retain some of his influence by engineering his constitutional role as president of the Senate into leading the Democratic caucus in the Senate, but that body was way too jealous of its role to allow an executive intruder into its legislative midst no matter how powerful he had once been.

Most of this, I more of less knew. What I didn’t know is how much LBJ and RFK hated–really, really hated–one another. I also didn’t realize how wise and strong JFK had been during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had to hold off not only the Russians, but the cabinet hawks around him–LBJ included–who were convinced that the only way to handle the problem was to bomb the bases and invade the island. Makes you wonder what he would have done with the Vietnam crisis.

Then, in the midst of depression and despair over his nobodyness, came the assassination. Suddenly, it’s president LBJ. And he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for what happened in the first years in office.

I had no idea what an accomplishment it was to maintain the continuity of Kennedy’s staff and cabinet. They had followed JFK and his ideas into office. They were in no mood to serve under a countrified buffoon. But he persuaded them to stick around, most of them, appealing not only to their patriotism, but to their personal inclinations. One-on-one, he could sell anything to anyone, it was said of him. He knew what you wanted and how to assure you you’d get it without exactly promising. He knew where you were weak, knew how to threaten to exploit or promise to help you shore up that vulnerability. And nearly everyone stayed on for that first crucial year, when the country needed to know the government wasn’t going to fall apart.

Finally, most important came JFK’s legislative agenda. I’d always assumed that the civil rights bill and the war on poverty passed because of the post-assassination sympathy for JFK. Not so. JFK and even the tough-as-nails RFK were babes in the woods when it came to legislation. They didn’t know the rules, the men in charge, or how to maneuver their way through the legislative thickets. LBJ had made his life about all this. He was the protege of Senate “bulls” like Harry Byrd and Richard Russell. It was only his tutelage of inexperienced liberals like Hubert Humphrey, his combination of fawning and threatening the powers that were in both houses, and his expert strategizing that brought forth the most astounding civil rights legislation since emancipation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments 100 years earlier. Accomplishments it’s almost certain that Kennedy, given his inexperience in the congress and his refusal to consult his cornpone vice-president, would not have achieved. It’s worth reading this book for this story alone. Gives great insight, in my opinion, into Obama’s difficulties with congress. Make no mistake, LBJ’s sympathy for the legislation was real. He had an historic sympathy for the underdog, for equality, but it had always taken a back seat to his yearning for power. Now it was the source of his power, and he made the most of it.

Add to all this, Johnson’s sudden and monumental imposition of self-discipline to suppress the temper tantrums, the staff-bullying, the arm-waving expostulations that had made him such a lousy boss and ineffective public speaker all his public life, and you get an historic transformation of American society and a powerful man, both accomplished in an amazingly short period of time.

None of this remarkable record, however, canceled the history of venality, corruption, and cronyism that had been at the center of his existence all those years. he continued to manage his “blind” trust over unmonitored phone lines from the white house bedroom; he arranged and denied mergers to assure friendly newspaper, TV, and radio coverage; he dealt out favors and punishments in ways that were not simply power politics but plainly illegal.

So it is that this basically immoral man became the vehicle for creating the greatest legislative instruments for morality in the whole 20th century. And so it is that Robert Caro has given us not only one of the landmark works of American history, but delivered it in a style and structure that reads like one of the most exciting novels you’ll ever pick up.

Jumping out of chair

The First Coming of a Sirenshaper

Alexandra Pelaez’s novella, Wax Under Flame, is the precursor to a full novel of what is apparently a new genre–literature of dystopia (as opposed to utopia, of course.) Never knew it was a separate thing, but there you are. I would have called this a work of post-apocalyptic science fiction/fantasy, but that’s cumbersome compared to “dystopia” so if simplicity is better, maybe the term is an improvement. At any rate, I must grant that her Twitter handle “sirenshaper” fits this book nicely.

Where we are in this elegantly titled work is in a world dominated by such folks as rape gangs and toughsluts and cryptkeepers. Of special note here is the language. She plays a lot with words and in intriguing ways. “There’s something very spiral about this guy.” “It was thrill, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted. . .more.” Nicely done.

Our protagonist is a singularly combative psychic named Dane, whose main preoccupation is survival in an environment where everyone is out to get you. Thing is, most people have a gang to protect them. Dane has only herself, and the strain is beginning to tell.

We love her toughness and her stamina. As she goes through a slough of crises, we get to know a little about her life, about the history and mythology of this world, and of her special place in it. A place hidden even from her until near the end of the book. What she’s going to do with her new knowledge is a matter for the larger work that Pelaez has promised is coming next year, and we look forward to it.

Sitting up and clapping

A Chin Wag on Evil — Inspired by Les and Richard

I read one of the most potent interviews re life and literature ever recently. Take a look yourself at

In that interview, we’re back with my Writer buddy/mentor Noir Master Les Edgerton holding forth on a wide range of matters, and he got me thinking (He’s always getting me thinking.) about evil.

If you’re talking about Les these days, you’re talking Noir, and if you’re talking Noir, you’re talking evil. Actually, without evil, there’s no story of any kind anywhere, but in Noir, it has a special place. Part of the interview concerns Cormac McCarthy’s instant classic No Country for Old Men and the nature of its villain, Anton Chigurh. Les says that analyzing Chigurh or any criminal comes down to one element: control. There’s more to the discussion than that of course, and Les knows what he’s talking about when it comes to describing the root of criminal behavior, but when it comes to the concept of evil in literature and western society, I think there’s another perspective to consider.

Vast forests have been clear-cut–especially post-Freud–parsing the motives of nasty literary characters from Iago and Richard III to Anton Chiguire. But consider this: Maybe these people/characters are bad because they are bad.

In the Medieval morality play, which tradition informed Shakespeare’s writing and that of his audiences, the devil wore a mask or horns or carried a pitchfork, and you knew right away that he was going to do something bad. Why? Because he was the the devil, and devils do evil. So Iago didn’t need a psychological reason to mess with Othello or use Amelia to do it. He was just bent that way from the beginning. Go back to the Old Testament, to that conversation between God and Beelzebub. “Whence comest thou?” says God. “From going too and fro upon the earth and walking up and down in it,” answers the Devil. And they prepare a little drama to test Job’s faith. Why does the devil agree? Well, partly to best the Master, of course, but mostly because it’s his nature. If it wasn’t Job, he’d be doing somebody else. Like the serpent says to the lady in that song:

“You knew I was a snake before you let me in.”

And back to more modern times. Les talks about Faulkner as a Noir writer. I’ve thought of him for a long time as an extremely moral tale-teller, and my central example is the Snopes family. They keep turning up, and every time they do, they kill, exploit, ruin, or just plain trash whatever territory they occupy of people they relate to. If you want to do a symbolic analysis, you could tag them as emblematic of evil in Southern Society or in any society. But if you want to be moral, be pre-Freudian about it, you can look at them as original sin incarnate. Nothing complicated about it. Some people are just plain that way. Like maybe Jake Mayes in a couple of Les’s Novels–Just Like That, and The Bitch. They may want to go straight, but it’s just not in them. What’s in them is the other thing, and there’s nothing therapy or literary criticism or even the blood of the lamb can do about it. And to me, that’s who Anton Chigurh is. And it’s him in comparison with that splendid speech that closes No Country For Old Men that makes humanity possible even in the presence of Iago and Richard III and Beelzebub and Anton Chigure.

I had two dreams about him after he died. I dont remember the first one all that well but it was about meetin him in town somewheres and he give me some money and I think I lost it. But the second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothin. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.

Who Left That Gate Open?

Tryan’s Thirst is my first expedition into Paranormal Romance, a genre I didn’t even know existed till I joined the Solstice Publishing Authors group recently. My contact with paranormal literature has been pretty much confined to a couple of Anne Rice novels a while back, and she has a way of making the back and forth into imaginary worlds not so abnormal. Of course, there’s C.S. Lewis, and there’s Lewis Carroll, and there’s all that sci-fi I consumed in earlier years, but believe me, this is something quite different.

The novel opens with an overweight, lonely young lady (Kat/Kathryn) getting fired from her job in a supermarket. Author Lindsen lets us know her problems up front, but she also lets us know she has spunk because she’s dismissed for throwing a pack of batteries at a rude customer. Thus, soon after, when the gates of hell open in her neighborhood, allowing vampires, zombies, and furies out for their every-century-or-so romp and feast among the human population, we can tell she has a chance. Sure enough, guts and ingenuity get her through the first few hours, and it looks as if she’ll survive.

Fast forward a couple of years. Kat has shrunk from a 16 to a 2 and is in great shape, though her life is in peril every moment of every day. Then comes Tryan and…well, it would be unfair to reveal more of this thrill-a-minute story. Suffice it to say there’s enough blood, sex, and violence to keep you mightily entertained through the whole novella. Despite some shortcomings in prose and plot, the characters are strong and interesting (have to be. Gore and semen is never enough by itself.), and the ending is one of those…well, once again, read it for yourself and find out. It was my first venture into paranormal romance, and I’m betting it won’t be my last.

Sitting up

Paranormal Romance – What is it and why?

When I found out Erika was available for blogosphere appearances, I jumped at the chance to host her because this genre is something I’ve never read, barely heard of, and thought this would be a great opportunity to find out more. So, thanks, Erika for agreeing to enlighten us on what energizes you to spend all those keyboard hours creating these extraordinary stories. No more intro necessary. Take over, Erika.

First I would like to thank Carl for allowing me to stop by his blog today.

Second, what is the genre of paranormal romance? Many people here of it and instantly think novels/movies like Twilight. But the genre has so much more to offer. Vampires had a huge bang a few years back. Then were-animals, such as wolves and cougars took over. Angels, especially fallen ones, had a good run. So what’s next? Running on the steam of my paranormal romance Soul, I’m hoping demons hit it big.

So why write about demons, the darkest form, next to Satan, mankind has ever encountered? Let’s just say I’m a sucker for a bad boy and the badder the better. What could be sexier than a demon sent to kill but falls in love with the lady of his mission? This very thing is the premise of Soul. Many women, the main readers of paranormal romance, also love bad boys. Just look at the success of actors like Colin Farrell.

Writing about a demon is more fun than reading about one. I get the pleasure to think about what makes him tick. Sure, he has his loyalties to the devil, but there has to be more. Does he enjoy what he does? Is something being held over his head to force him into a life of evil? I sit and try to examine how it all works. That’s how I created a demon race called Takers, which are demons sent to Earth to entice people into suicide in order to give their lost souls to Satan. Once I had that idea, I thought about what could change a demon from his bad ways to make him good? Hey, it’s romance, so of course love had to do it.

Many people are turned onto the vampire world, which I must admit I have a serious soft spot for them. Just look at my novella Tyran’s Thirst. A bad vampire, a killing machine that falls for the kick-butt heroine. Some people hear “paranormal” and think ghosts and horror. Not true. Paranormal romance simply means romance between a human and some kind of creature; angels, demons, vampires, werewolves…you get the drill.

If you haven’t checked out a good paranormal romance story, try a novella. They’re cheaper, mine is currently $0.99 on Kindle. That way you haven’t invested too much time into something new.

Basically, don’t be afraid on a sub-genre. At first I was a bit nervous, but you may be surprised how sexy those bad boys or girls can really be.

Thanks much for joining Writer Working today, Erika. Fascinating.

And if you found Erika’s piece as intriguing as I did, you can click on the image of one or both of the book covers above–just as I did. You’ll go straight to Amazon, and you know the rest of the drill.