Robert A. Caro (1982) Lyndon Johnson volume 1 The Path To Power.

History doesn’t run in straight lines. Robert A. Caro has focussed on a fixed point to talk about power. What it is? How it comes about. Who wields it? And how do they use that power? And in his biography of Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), in this first of four volumes, we follow not only the tale of LBJ, who becomes 36th President of the United States, but the story of the United States, a modern history.

Novels begin with flawed characters that need or want something. LBJ was born 28th August 1908 in the Lone Star State of Texas. His grandparents had fought against the Indians and the Mexicans and this was the frontier in which nothing grew but farms. Land was cheap, farmers with little water and poor soils were literally dirt poor. His father Sam Johnson great dream was that his son would be a lawyer. His mother Rebakah’s was a college graduate and her father was a prominent attorney. Mr Sam Johnson was something, he strutted rather than walked:

‘You can tell a man by his boots and his hat and the horse he rides.’

Mr Sam Johnson was an elected official, people liked him. He had the best and his first son had more and better than most. LBJ had a baseball to play with, but would only play when he got to bat. His rules or nobody plays was a rule he lived by then and in later life.

In novels flawed characters get their comeuppance. Mr Sam Johnson was a romantic. He tried to live in the past when his forefathers had their own ranches in the Hill County and run cattle hundreds of mile to the railway line and brought home bucketfuls of dollars that would last more than a lifetime.  Mr Sam Johnson gambled his all to buy land and invest in cotton, which was on the up and up after the First World War. He borrowed from the banks, and from neighbours. The price of cotton crashed. Mr Sam Johnson, his wife and four children has to retire from public life, move from Johnson City back to live in a dog run in the Hill Country.  

People have long memories. Locals loved nothing more than chewing over when Sam Johnson thought he was something and now couldn’t pay his store bills in town. Women mulled over how Rebekah didn’t know how to keep a clean house. She wasn’t thrifty. She didn’t know how to bottle and can pears for later so her children wouldn’t go hungry. Nothing had prepared her for life in the Hill Country.

One of the strength of Cato’s biography is not only that he should turn over the pages of every of the tens of millions of government documents concerning LBJ, which took seven years,  and talk to local people who remembered him as a boy and young man, but also that he went to live in the Hill Country to find out what it was really like. There are frequent markers about rural poverty. A farmer’s son, for example, rides for twelve miles clutching twelve eggs to sell them for fifteen cents. Kids not being able to go to school in winter when it snowed because they’d no shoes. But only until chapter 27 of 37 chapters when LBJ as a congressman tries to break the monopoly of the utilities companies and get electricity to farms on the Hill Countries—prior to the Second World War—does how hard these women’s live were become apparent. Monday was washing day and Tuesday was ironing day. In dog runs with metal roofs above their heads,  working in temperatures over 100 degrees Celsius, women had to chop wood, carry and boil buckets of water to heat the irons in them to work with the crumpled washing they’d cleaned on Monday. Irons were lumps of metal with metal handles, because handles with wood coverings cost a few cents more. This was in addition to all other chores, like feeding the animals and a large family.  Farmer’s wives were round shouldered and old by the time they were thirty. They couldn’t afford doctoring so the perinatal tears most of them suffered from frequent childbirths went untreated. In the Twentieth Century they lived in the Middle Ages.  

Sam Johnson frequently whipped LBJ for not doing his chores, for refusing to carry wood or water for the mother he so much loved he wrote to her every day when he went to college and demanded letters by return post. An escape route for the poor was education.   LBJ baulked at it, but he went. He was never more than an average student, but a pattern emerges here that was to follow him all the way to Washington. He was known as ‘Bull’ (shit) Johnson to most other students. Garrulous as a manic depressive on an upcycle, his one subject and fascination was with himself. Later, when at parties and the subject wasn’t himself or his achievements, he had the ability to fall instantly asleep.   He was always ready to take the next step before others realised there was another step. To get ahead he was ready to sacrifice everyone and anyone. To paraphrase what others in the dormitory he shared in Washington with other secretaries of Congressmen and up-and-coming talent. Whatever way the (political) wind blows that’s the way Johnson goes.  His great talent, his ‘very unusual ability’ was secrecy and jumping before he was pushed.

Apart from getting others to do what he demanded, LBJ’s other ‘very unusual ability’ was hooking onto older men as mentors to smooth his path. ‘A professional son’ they never had, and asslicker of the highest order. LBJ had a preternatural talent for saying exactly what they were thinking. President Cecil E. Evans of the little Redbook college which ‘Bull’ attended, for example, paid Johnson four times in a semester to re-paint his garage because he was out of money. Similarly, Sam Rayburn a principled and laconic Speaker of the House of Congress treated LBJ as a son, even after finding out about his betrayal. President Roosevelt never did find out about LBJ’s volte-face on his Keynesian, New Deal policies, because the latter was a distant speck in his orbit and the face he was presented was always deferential, smiling and joking. Roosevelt put a stop on investigations into tax fraud involving LBJ’s backers that involved millions of dollars.   LBJ could read a man and read a room in the same way most folk can read a familiar book. He was a professional politician of the first degree.

There’s irony in LBJ’s defeat when he ran for Senate representing Texas in 1941 to a cartoon figure ‘Pass the Biscuits Pappy’ O’Daniel, a wildly popular radio talk-show host who didn’t have a policy, but embraced the flag, the Star Spangled Banner, talked about Jesus and how every farmer’s son loved their mom. This was an election LBJ had bought for him, he was already celebrating victory, when he was gazumped by other business cartels that simply bought more votes than LBJ and handed them to Pappy O’Daniel. Common electoral practice that was to spring up again when Texas interests demanded a recount of the chads in Florida after Al Gore had won the election to be President in 2009. Oh, dear, a mistake was made, business interests said it should have read George W C Bush. LBJ knew how the electoral system worked, inside out and upside down. We know how LBJ was later able to rig his next bid for a seat in the Senate and steal enough votes (volume 2). Bush had to be told and told who he was working for and why because he was so dumb. That’s power for you. I never thought we’d have a President dumber than Bush. Now we’ve got the moron’s moron going for re-election before he starts the Third World War, Pass the Biscuits Pappy and reach for the sick bag.  Now we’ve got Bull Johnson as British Prime Minister whose only policy was economic self-mutilation and getting it done quickly.  History isn’t meant to be funny.    

The Problem with Donald J Trump is Donald J Trump.

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Donald J Trump’s mother, Mary came from the Isle of Lewis. There’s more than one Scottish word for her son. Bawbag is a good Scottish word to start with.

Perhaps Robert Burns, our national bard,  put it better in The Cotter’s Saturday Night, the kind of dwelling his mother Mary came from:

An honest man’s the noblest work of God;

And certes in fair virtue’s heavenly road;

What is a lording’s pomp? a cumbrous load,

Disguising oft the wretch of human kind,

Studied in arts of hell, in wickedness refin’d

Here’s Donald J’s take on intelligence. He holds up his first-born son for the camera and tells his audience he wants his son to be ‘strong, tough and vicious and I hope intelligent.’ Intelligence is an afterthought, and add on. Being vicious that’s the thing. Be a killer.

Donald is his father, Fred’s son. Freddy’s first born wasn’t smart. He did dumb things like when he was put in charge of a housing project he gave the tenants new window. Donald’s take on that was he was soft, a great guy, very, very intelligent, everybody liked him, but they took advantage of him.

I’m not as dumb as George W Bush and its worth remembering when it came to counting the chads in 2000, an election he lost, asked for a recount because he’d ran out of fingers and toes, but the numbers came up right and he won, even though he didn’t know who or what a chad was. Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife’s narrator is a bookish girl that grows into a woman that marries somebody like George W Bush, who can’t be trusted to run the family firm and becomes United States President to keep him out of harm’s way. Lionel Shriver asks much the same question of Donald J Trump, that most writers do, ‘Faced with current reality, how can fiction compete?’

Donald J Trump cheerfully admits he is a cartoon character and yet he is the forty-fifth President of the United States. I’d like to say I predicted that. And I did, I did, but I’ve a tendency to say when playing The Chase on telly when the correct answer is read out, and out of three options I’ve got some part of it wrong, most part of it wrong, but I’m right because that’s the one I meant. Lining up reality and opinion is not always that easy, but fantasy always figures and finds the shortest route and in a post-factual society finds its way to the truth, by not being the truth, or a neologism in the Oxford dictionary, but a simulacrum. Who really cares about that stuff?  I like to quote Socrates, ‘Speak so I can see you,’ so that I can seem more intelligent. If we tried that experiment with Trump taking away his orange face, shiny suit and swept back blond mop and left the screen blank and simply listened to him, you’d laugh, because he lisps  and not like an eight-year old girl, but not Liza Simpson, and that’s a fact that’s been tested. You’d be saying grow up. Read a book. Something else Donald J admits he never does. Only dumb smucks have the time to read. But he’s published an international bestseller. The Art of the Deal. He didn’t write it, of course, but it’s his, because it’s got his name on the cover. Tony Schwatz who wrote the book shadowed Trump. He liked that, people following him about, disciples. A kid showing you his toys. Matt Damon mentioned it in a recent interview. Trump’s propensity to pop up when they were filming on his property and sneak into shot.  You see a snapshot of it in Anthony Bartlett’s Dispatches programme entitled President Trump’s Dirty Secrets. In truth his connection to big oil and his disdain for little people isn’t much of a secret. Any dolt with an internet connection can spend five minutes and find out everything that you need to know about Trump and even Putin’s not-so-secret dossier of Trump cavorting with two prostitutes in a hotel room and them peeing on a bed. Look more closely at the images outside the hotel room and you’ll see him squeezing the flesh of contestants at the Miss Universe contest, a project which he bought and owns. Perhaps he plans to buy a contestant and bring her home and put on the mantlepiece to replace Melanina. Before he buys he likes to try them, not that he’d know what droit de seigneur means, but he understand enough to know that the people that buy the land owns the people in the land and that give him the right to push up against them and feel them up. He’s admitted as much, boy’s stuff, locker-room chat. Not rape, of course, because the women were gagging for it. His lawyers say so.  And his toys are irresistible. Trump is happy hosting. See as an example Bartlett schmoozing in his car, Trump’s telling him how much the car cost and how the seat-belts are gold, yeh, real gold.

But Trump knows about discipline. He was sent to a military school when he went too far and his father, Fred, found he’d bought a flick knife. One of his classmates remembered him as being, and I’m thinking how to paraphrase this, an empty jacket. Someone that is hanging on the peg but isn’t all there. Psychopath, devoid of compassion, all human feelings, apart from vanity. Schwartz tells how Trump liked to start the day with what was in the news about him. Narcissus looking into a stream of photo feeds. Now he’s won the biggest beauty contest in the world, the American Presidency it will be a full-time job. The worry is he’ll not like what he sees or hears. A multiple bankrupt that has never been poor. A groper and potential rapist that has never been called to account or arrested. A non-tax payer whose father’s business was based on scamming the federal dollar to build houses for ex-servicemen. A Manhattan businessman that broke Federal laws and refused to sell or lease apartments to blacks and explained to young persecuting attorney, Elyse Goldweather, in an aside she admitted she couldn’t quite belief she was hearing, ‘Now, Elyse, you don’t want to live with them either.’ Black lives matter, but only to black people. The Ku Klux Khan represented in office. Right-wing feeds triumphant and showing Melanina replacing an image of a First Lady taken from the Planet of the Apes. Trump a boy that went to military academy but avoided the draft to serve in the military, but denigrates those that did has become Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces. You couldn’t make it up.

The FBI and CIA accuse him of being Putin’s dupe. Donald will sort it. He’ll win the war by tweets. Ewan McMullin, a former CIA officer tweeted: ‘While you avoided the draft, John Lewis risked his life for equality in America. You’ll never dream of such selfless patriotism.’

Donald J Trump settled his hash, he became President and boasted about how many Twitter followers he had in comparison to crooked Hillary. Fake news  such as ‘thousands and thousands’ of Muslims in Jersey City cheered as The World Trade Center crashed can be viewed on YouTube, alongside his pledges to build a wall along the Mexican border and make the Mexican government pay for it. The sting in the tail here is every comma in every sentence, every shady deal Trump has ever made will be uncovered. There is no hiding place when you are the American President. He asked to see Obama’s birth certificate. His detractors in a divided America will be asking to see a lot more than that.

Twitter feed, that’s where you’ll find the American President. 140 character tweets of what Trump’s policy is going to be, telling you what he and America is going to do next. There is a conflation here that Walt Disney might recognise, what is good for Donald J Trump is good for America and what it good for America is good for Donald J Trump. American Presidents are supposed to set up a blind trust, transparent so that they have no interests which conflict with that of running government and they should not directly, or indirectly, profit from the office of government. Nepotism and public office should also be divorced. The ethics committee set up to look into Trump’s financial arrangements for when he moves from becoming President elect to President started laughing. Cartoon characters are always funny, even when they’re trying to be serious. You love them or hate them and that is why Trump’s inauguration will not be a smooth transition from the outgoing President to the President elect, but the biggest protest since the Vietnam War divided America. Then again, I could be wrong on this. The business as usual model is stronger than any ideologue. Al Gore won more votes than George W Bush in 2000 Hillary Clinton gained 2.9 million more votes in 2016, both Democrats lost. To the winners the spoils. The casino President gambled and won. The billionaire daddy that says he’s too rich to care about money appoints his chum Ben Carson as housing tsar. Expect tens of millions or billions of US federal dollars to flow into the Trump real-estate coffers. Expect Trumps portfolio and investment in fossil fuels to grow exponentially. Oil is once more king. Alaska, with the help of global warming, a fish bowl open to being mined. One of his advisers – Paris Treaty on Global Warming, joke. Let’s laugh and end with that joke for a cartoon President.

Burt Reynolds summed Trump up as a fun guy, ‘but he might just start a war’.   He is the most powerful man in the world and could end the world in a tweet. And that’s no joke, but a worry. The world’s big worry, even greater than the backlash of the persecution of the poor, more worrying than the rise and rise of the super rich and the inevitable rise in global warming and pollution of our blue planet in a death march of rising acidic seas and failing crops and tens of millions on the move.  Inconceivable, as it seems, the question must be asked, like Bush, can Trump serve two terms as President? Is he despite his dimness, crafty enough, vicious enough? Or will the world end in a ball of fire first. I’m repeating myself, as Trump does. Listen to him. He says the same thing again and again and again and again, until you believe him. Funny, eh?