This is an old film, with impossibly young actors. But the same old story of corruption and cover-up, we’re more familiar with now. The 45th Un-United States President could say with some justification that he could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any votes’. He was partly right, and always wrong. Let’s leave the twice impeached President sliding out of history and return to the Watergate Scandal.
It was a pretty simple story, as Sean Connery’s character growled in his Oscar winning performance for supporting actor in Brian de Palma’s Untouchables—follow the money.
Two Watergate journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) follow the money, Republican Party Contributions that lead them to the bungled burglary at Watergate, smear campaigns, the bugging of Democratic candidates with the connivance of police forces, the FBI and even the CIA. Everybody knows but nobody is telling, or they’ve been got at and threatened. Unwilling to talk.
Strictly, off the record Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) is willing to meet Woodward and advise him whether he’s on the right track.
On the record, they’ve got to convince a grizzled Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) at the Washington Post to print their story. He tells them the story of how he thought he had something on Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. And he’d ran with it as far as he could, and thought he was getting some place. Then the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson had phoned him up and told him he was making Hoover head of the FBI, for life. That was a fuck-you from the President. He didn’t want them fucking up and bringing down his paper.
We know what happened next with Tricky Dicky Nixon. We’re waiting to hear and see what happens with the moron’s moron. Follow the money. Amen.
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.