Robert A.Caro (2012) The Years of Lyndon Johnson, volume 4, The Passage of Power.

We’re all aware that with great power comes great responsibility, after all these were the lines mouthed by Batman with the pointy ears before he jumped off a tall building. The moron’s moron, who anybody with any sense would like to see jumping from a tall building, reaches new lows in grasping one and abdicating the other. But that’s another story unless the moron’s moron stumbles into an Armageddon strategy to remain power, a historical aside.  Cato charts for the reader the Cuban Missile Crisis and Armageddon obverted.  

Here we have two heavyweights Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ) and John F Kennedy (JFK) (chants of let’s make America great again would be met with a snort of derision). The United States was at its peak and entering a ten-year period of post-war prosperity. The Soviet Union was in decline and to feed its citizens having to purchase wheat at lock-bottom prices from the American surplus. The plan to place Chiang Kai-shek a sympathetic and Congress backed Protestant-Christian nationalist ruler in China had backfired, but the largely agricultural country was experiencing famine and lockdown under Chairman Mao (with the odd breakout of one million soldiers to challenge American might in Korea in the early 1950s).   America was the only game in town and the most powerful man on the planet was by some way, the American President. Robert A.Caro goes with the maxim, power corrupts, but twists it a little, in adding, power also reveals.

Here in the penultimate volume is  he sets out of show what it reveals about LBJ,  (seven years later we’re still waiting on the final volume and I’ll guess we’ll hear more about Vietnam) but also the American dream before it turned sour in South East Asia and in the flower-powered sixties.  The Passage of Power had me thinking of John Irivine’s classic A Prayer for Owen Meany in the way that when the call came LBJ, despite all his faults, many of which he shared with the golden boy of American politics, JFK,  the Vice President was ready. He’d been ready all his life to be American President. He’d gambled that he was only a heartbeat away from the top job as Vice President and that gunshot put him in the seat of power. Kamala Harris odds are a lot less than the four of five to one that LBJ gambled on.  

Johnson VS Kennedy 1960. Both are running for President. When it becomes clear that LBJ doesn’t have the numbers for the Democratic Nomination to run for the Presidency and JFK does, they cut a deal in which LBJ agrees to become his running mate and when they win the election, they’ll be number one and two. President and Vice President of the—then—greatest nation on earth.

Coming second, unless it’s the Second Coming, means coming nowhere. Vice President is an honorary position with as much (or as little) power as the President’s wife.

Caro begin where he left off with Master of the Senate. LBJ is running the world from his Senate office. Eisenhower is relinquishing power and his Vice President, the young Richard Nixon, is the Republican Candidate for the top job. LBJ has two strategies that he tries to implement to retain power in the Senate (where if a President proposed a Bill, LBJ had the power of Caesar to give it a thumbs up or down) and to change the roles of President and Vice President to more of a job share. LBJ’s plots were simply brushed aside.

Here we have LBJ’s low period, when the Master of the Senate is no longer courted but avoided by Senators and a bit of a joke figure—nicknamed Rufus Cornpone, because of his flailing arms and long-winded stories—in  JFK’s new Camelot. ‘Power is Where Power Goes’ declares Caro and there were few Presidents as popular as the youthful JFK. LBJ is Vice President, but hears about the Bay of Pigs fiasco from the media. He’s so out of the picture he reverts to what worked before for him with older, more powerful men, and becomes a sycophantic arse-licker and sends JFK one—unwanted gift—after another. JFK instructs his cabinet to deal with the Vice President with the greatest courtesy.

JFK’s brother Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy (RFK), the Attorney General and former committee member and supporter of J. Edgar Hoover’s Committee on UnAmerican Activites, but as Caro shows, also JFK’s alter-ego and real number two, hates LBJ. It’s one of the great American no-holds barred feuds. Before and after the fall. Both men never forget or forgive and hold a grudge longer than Satan.

When JFK is President, Rufus Cornpone is regularly savaged by RFK. With another election on the horizon JFK assured LBJ that he’ll still be on the ticket as Vice President, but that seems doubtful, as LBJ does not seem to be in positon to deliver the Southern States in the Electoral College that gave JFK the 1960 Presidency. JFK is an idealist, but he’s also a pragmatist.

In October 1963, LBJ’s protégé and bagman Bobby Baker was involved in a sex and cash scandal that mirrored the Profumo affair in London. The media had begun investigating ‘Lyndon’s money’ and made a direct link between the tens of million dollars he’s made in his Texas radio and television empire, which he purchased for peanuts, and his political office, where he sold ad space for political influence. Quid pro quo, something for something. Oil men like Brown & Root, for example, pledged millions and bought Congress, then Senate and then the Presidency.    

LBJ did something remarkable after President Kennedy’s death, he united the American nation in a way not seen since President Roosevelt, perhaps even more so. But he did something even more remarkable, he faced down Senators from the South who’d formed a coalition to stop people of colour integrating and committing what they saw as the sin of miscegenation. Roosevelt, Trauman, Eisenhower and Kennedy were unable to pass civil-rights legislation because of the way the Southern senators used arcane rule, filibustered and top-loaded influential committees with their supporters and held hostage the passage of other bills in the legislative chamber to bend the will of their rivals and force them to retreat. LBJ had been a key player in this cabal led by the Georgian senator Richard Russell, who like many opposed the desegregation of the army and believed men of colour lacked natural courage and moral leadership. LBJ had in the previous volume helped fund Russell’s run for the Presidency. LBJ was the ultimate insider. As President who’d stolen his seat in the Senate, nevertheless he flipped the Southern Senators and passed civil-rights legislation, created Medicaid and a nascent welfare state in America.  Power is as power does asserts Cato. LBJ stands tall among his Presidential peers.

Robert Kennedy’s assertion that JFK would have got around to achieving those great legislative peaks shows the Attorney General’s loyalty but also his political naivety. Only one President, supreme master of politics, LBJ, could have achieved what he did. His time had come, but at the peak of his power—it was gone. He won the election by one of the biggest landslides in American history, but we know what comes next, or at least we will know when Caro finishes his final volume. If you want to know about how we came to be where we are, read his history of LBJ. The old hates never went away, they remain, and are in the White House now with the moron’s moron as President. God bless America, indeed, and God help the rest of us.

Serhii Plokhy (2019) Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy.

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Serhii Plokhy’s history of Chernobyl won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2018. He tells us what happened when reactor No 4 in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant, named after Vladimir Lenin, exploded after what should have been a routine maintenance test on 26th April 1986. First to arrive where firemen, who hooked up their hoses and treated it as a routine fire, no immediate threat to the around 5000 workers and their families living in Prypiat. Some of the firemen picked up or kicked graphite, which had been inserted into the reactor in an attempt to slow down the nuclear reaction taking place. Later helicopter pilots dropped thousands of tonnes of sand and lead into the space left open after the roof had blown off and flipped over. Miners were brought in to dig tunnels and freeze the earth beneath No.4 reactor. The main objective was to prevent the building from sinking and contaminated water flowing into the ground water and into the Prypiat River, the Dneiper River, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic. It sounds a bit like one of those games you had when you were young and wrote your name and the street you lived in, the town and city and ended up saying – at the end —  and the universe.

Soviet scientists were able to explain the technical reasons, how the reactor had failed, but they weren’t able to explain what measures, if any, stopped the nuclear explosion from continuing and wiping out complex life on Earth. The China syndrome, nuclear meltdown, was theoretical, but became a practical problem and not just for armchair physicists. Radiation affected everyone and everything, far and wide, but the closer to the epicentre of the reaction the possibility of tissue damage was higher.

Plokhii puts it into perspective in the Preface:

Altogether 50 million curies of radiation were released by the Chernobyl explosion, the equivalent of 500 Hiroshima bombs.  All that was required for such catastrophic fallout was the escape of less than 5 percent of the reactor’s nuclear fuel. Originally it had contained more than 250 pounds of enriched uranium – enough to pollute and devastate most of Europe. And if the other three reactors of the Chernobyl power plant had been damaged by the explosion of the first, then hardly any living and breathing organisms would have remained on the planet.

Over 500 000 workers and soldiers were brought in to deal with the aftermath. I didn’t give it much thought at the time. Like most others I thought Chernobyl was a place spot in history, a no-go zone for humanity. Reactor No.4, where the explosion took place, was covered in concrete and a special roof constructed to keep levels of radiation minimised and localised, but the other reactors continued to produce power and electricity for the Ukrainian economy for the next twenty years.

This astounded me more than Stalinesque cover-up and KGB clamp down on dissidents that refused to toe the party line that it was business as usual. Weddings and parties still took place in the city of Pyripiat in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. A 1st  May Day Parade in Kyiv, the capital, less than 100 km away took place, while radiation levels were increasing and threatened the life of adults, but children were particularly susceptible to the invisible poisoning as was typically shown by thyroid damage.

Plokhy shows how the fallout spread to other countries. Belarus was affected proportionately worse than the Ukraine in terms of land mass and was first to declare independence from the Soviet Union. Dissidents in the Ukraine were able to use Gorbachev’s perestroika to galvanise support for power sharing and transparency around the cover up of what happened at the Chernobyl plant. They were able to argue they should no longer be a satellite state used as a testing ground for the new technology of nuclear fuel and combine the tragedy of what happened for a call to arms. Full independence and control of the Ukraine, the breadbasket of Russia and second largest of its satellite states.

With Russia bankrupt and not just morally and Boris Yeltsin becoming President, Ukraine became an independent nation. Chernobyl the focal point of dissent was now an economic albatross, yet the reactors around it were still needed to produce energy for a shrinking economy. Plokhy shows how the intellectuals and dissidents and high-faulting words began to sound very like Bill Clinton’s ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’

Chernobyl asks a very simple question of us, could it happen again? The History of a Tragedy suggests that as the poorer nations out with the Western world adapt nuclear technology as a cheap fix it is more rather than less likely to happen.

We’ve been here before. We are there now. Global warming and denial by the moron’s moron in the White House has the same sense of cover-ups and lies, but it is to American interests and fossil fuels, not nuclear, that is far more likely to lead to Armageddon. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that you cannot have one without the other. Both are possible when sectional interests, as shown here, take precedence over common humanity. I just hope there’s some historian around like Serhii Plokhy to write it up.