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.

John Pilger, The Coming War with China.

coming war with china.jpg

http://www.itv.com/hub/the-coming-war-on-china/2a4249a0001

The title is deliberately provocative. Does John Pilger mean trade war between the number one and two trading blocks in the world? Because we know that is already happening. President-elect Donald J Trump in his campaign –among other accusations – accused China of raping America and stealing job and the American economy was ‘hurt very badly by China with devaluation.’ The United States and Canada are vital to the Chinese economy. The former dependent on the cheap money China provides to service its debts. Equally, America and the rest of the world are depended on the cheap imports that Chinese labours provide. Think Apple here. Australia’s economy is premised on exporting the raw materials necessary to keep the Chinese economy growing. Britain and America’s  metaphoric economy report cards, for example, are marked as successful if GDP growth has been reaching one-percent, or if it hits the dizzy heights of two-percent GDP growth. China, in contrast, recently hit growth rates exceeding ten-percent of GDP, but this has slowed in recent years to around five-percent and falling to levels associated with more mature economies.

It’s worth quoting Lijia Zhang, a Beijing journalist. Her best-selling book (although obviously not in America) is called Socialism Is Great! She was a child of the Cultural Revolution, when millions of Chinese died of hunger and has lived in the US and Europe. ‘Many Americans imagine that Chinese people live a miserable, repressed life with no freedom whatsoever. The [idea of] the yellow peril has never left them… They have no idea there are some 500 million people being lifted out of poverty, and some would say it’s 600 million.’

China stands now where America stood before the start of the First World War. The world’s axis is shifting East, not only to China, but to countries like India, which between them account for over half the population of the planet. It’s the end of empire for America. And like the British before them if it comes to deploying gunboats as the British did during the opium wars and the Boxer Rebellion, then Pilger notes the American’s are doing the same with over 400 naval bases world-wide, including one a few miles from me in Faslane, but most of them pointing East and costing trillions of dollars. The irony here James Bradley notes:  ‘Warren Delano, the grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the American opium king of China; he was the biggest American opium dealer, second only to the British. Much of the east coast [establishment] of the United States – Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Princeton – was born of drug money.’

America wants to be allowed to be more protectionists that China and China to be more free market than America. The irony here is the Hurun Reports conclusions there are more dollar billionaires in China than anywhere else in the world, including America. But as Eric Li concludes you can be a billionaire in China, but still not be able to buy the Chinese politburo. Pilger’s programme was made before the election of billionaire president Donald J Trump and whose senior positions have been filled so far with a number of billionaires, three Goldman Sachs bankers, and the chief executive of the largest oil company in the world, who has close ties with Russia. It makes George W Bush’s first cabinet of millionaires pauperish.    ‘I believe in American exceptionalism with every fibre of my being,’ said President Barack Obama.  President-elect Trump has already made that exceptionalism clear with his appointment of retired marine general James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as defense secretary. Accused China of interfering with a missing US drone and angering China’s leaders by taking a call from Taiwan’s president – an island that China regards as its sovereign territory.

The difference now is it’s nuclear. Pilger takes us through the stages of and testing of America’s nuclear capability. The Bikini Atoll was repeatedly blown up with the cost estimated in millions of dollars a day. But the real cost was to the islanders used as human guniea pigs in experiments into radioactivity that would have shamed Dr Mengele because the latter only tortured subjects in front of him and not the children’s children of their children as US scientists repeatedly did and continue to do. Poor nations dependence on the US dollar was highlighted by a tale of rich and poor. The Ronald Reagan Ballistic  Missle Defense Site (of course it’s defense) on the Marshall Islands spends billions of tax dollars and year, and millions of dollars a day. The island nearest this paradise ( a swimming pool away) cannot afford to fix the town’s only bus. But perhaps the most chilling moment in Pilger’s documentary was when a former soldier admitted that during the Cuban Missile Crisis a rogue officer ordered those under his command to fire the missiles, and opening the silo doors, which would have wiped out China and the world. For twenty seconds in 1961 the world stood on Armageddon, before the order to stand down was made and the officer quietly escorted away to La-La land.

Pilger does not touch on American’s forgotten war, the Korean war, when Chinese forces near Yalu in early 1950s caught General Douglas MacArthur and his soldiers by surprise (see David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter. America and the Korean War).  America was sick of war, as was the world. The answer was to go nuclear. But even then scientist recognised that would mean the end of the world. The Coldest Winter is, of course, nuclear winter.  Now with ‘smaller’ nuclear weapons and hawks in the cabinet, every war looks winnable, but only by striking first. We’ve given Dr Strangelove Trump the codes to our planet’s future.

Here it’s worth quoting an exchange with Pilger and Professor Ted Postol was scientific adviser to the head of US naval operations. An authority on nuclear weapons. Remember this is pre-Trump and pre the term ‘posttruth’ gaining entry to the Oxford English dictionary: “Everybody here wants to look like they’re tough. See I got to be tough… I’m not afraid of doing anything military, I’m not afraid of threatening; I’m a hairy-chested gorilla. And we have gotten into a state, the United States has gotten into a situation where there’s a lot of sabre-rattling, and it’s really being orchestrated from the top.”

 

I said, “This seems incredibly dangerous.”

 

“That is an understatement,” he replied.