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.

Natural Justice.

Natural justice isn’t something we spend a lot of time thinking about. Years ago when I was working on the roofs with Kenny Smith, he got paid more money than me. Let’s say he got £65 and I got £50 per week.  He was a roofer and time-served, could measure the roof out and bang down tiles quicker than a labourer. I accepted he should get more than me, which isn’t the same as liking it. We travelled together on the train and came home together, but one week I asked him how much expenses he got.

I can’t remember how much more Kenny got, but let’s say he said he got six quid more than me. I thought it was a mistake and when I asked the boss, he’d sort it.

The boss didn’t sort it, but he sorted me. Kenny was a tradesman. I was nothing. I could like it or lump it.

We’re going through the phony war with coronavirus. It’s something that happens in faraway places like China, then European countries and places a bit closer to home. We hear about people we know ‘self-isolating’ and laugh about it. Perhaps we’re more worried about whether Celtic or Liverpool should be awarded the league title. The idea of natural justice comes into these arguments. Partisanship and different biases dictating what position you take.   

Those most skilled in the use of rhetoric know the best position to take is to claim the moral high ground. In the biography of Lyndon Johnson, for example, United States Senators such as Richard Russell urged other Southern Senators to moderate their language (for public consumption) and talk about civil rights and  reframe arguments about hating niggers and willing to start another race war before they’d give equal voting rights, equal rights in employment, housing and education. Russell promoted the idea of separate but equal. Claiming the moral high ground makes you look senatorial, while name calling—niggers this and niggers that—makes you sound moronic.

A timeline of the moron’s moron in the Whitehouse gaffes and ad-libs about the corona virus goes unseen or is largely ignored by his supporters who continue to believe he is doing a good job as President, while his detractors highlight not who he is, but what he is.

Ally Mc Coist can claim the moral high ground with his claim that, of course, Celtic should be elected champions, but only after they have played the remaining eight league games. Otherwise they would be given something they have not earned.

We don’t like giving people something they have not earned, unless of course, they’re billionaires like Richard Branson.

The Johnson government has until now had a pretty good run in their handling of the coronavirus. No gaffes, no outright lies, like Trump. The Tory government advices British citizens largely to self-isolate and wash your hands, which is good advice based on the current data. The next stage is shutdown. We’ve already begun that slow progress with schools shutting next week. Police and army clearing the roads and streets and a pass needed to travel.

 Chemist shops in Dalmuir, for example, are also busy as people stock up on prescription medicines creating a backlog and longer waiting times. Now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty with supermarket shelves clearing. My advice based on a dystopian novel I began to write years ago (but abandoned, like so many others) was don’t begin to panic buy until others begin to panic buy. I noticed the shelves in Asda are clear of most tins as people stock up. My thoughts weren’t how many more tins of beans I could squeeze into my rucksack, but what would happen to the foodbanks?

All of that stuff we don’t really care about because it’s not us, hits us. You can’t eat money. The vast majority of folk that start their day in debt and finish their day in even more debt (the working class) are separate but equal. People that rely on foodbanks have nowhere to go. An economic model based on the assumption that charity for the poor is a good thing, has quickly pulled the ladder up as wages go unpaid and business such a local pubs in Dalmuir go out of business, schools shut and nobody can offer childcare (while nurseries try to claim money for a service they haven’t provided—good luck with that). The sham of sickness pay coming under the Universal Credit government umbrella and  taking four to six weeks to process suddenly hits a lot of people hard, especially when they queue lengthens and they can’t get somebody to talk to on the phone. You find out the hard way that some people are expected to live on less than £100 per week and pay for everything else at the same time. Those people you looked down on have now become you. Usually that sort of thing doesn’t happen until you’ve got cancer or some other major illness and divisions of class and gender, for example, largely disappear.

Them has become us. Let’s claim the moral high ground. I deserve much more than they do—(fill in your reasoning here and apply for the next space on the defunct Jeremy Kyle show). It’s survival of the fittest.  As supermarket shelves clear and we fight over toilet rolls and steal hand wash from hospitals, we’re in the like it or lump it school and the harsh lesson I was taught as a teenager. Imagine, for a minute, you’re an immigrant, waiting to gain entry to another country. That’s not difficult for me as a writer. Perhaps it’s too much of a stretch of your imagination. Well imagine your mum or dad, being turned away from the hospital, as doctors and nurses practice triage on life support as they are doing in parts of Italy. Imagine your child dying? Or your child motherless? These are no longer storylines for would-be writers. These are the harsh realities of who lives and who dies. Who claims the moral high ground on the best of the terrible choices available?

Ask yourself is that fair?

Natural justice isn’t about legality, but morality. It’s about exposing lies and making the best of bad choices. The coronavirus has exposed the fault lines in our society. The lie of trickle-down economics that takes money from the poor and gives it to rich billionaires like Branson or Trump.  Let’s hope it changes it for the better in the same way the Beveridge Report changed post-war Britain. I’m pessimistic, but I’m still alive, so there’s hope. But if I needed intensive care and there was somebody younger than me that needed urgent healthcare and they had children, I’d like to think it is only right and proper they get first dibs, no matter how much, or how little money they had. That’s my version of natural justice. That was the kind of idea we had when we set up the National Health Service. But it also extends beyond healthcare, to life in general and how we organise our society. Natural justice demands much more of our society. Ironically, the coronavirus is a practice run for when global warming begins to bite.  

M. Scott Peck (1983 [1990]) People of the Lie. The Hope of Healing Human Evil.

cartoon trump.jpg

I sped read through the 309 pages of this book in two sittings. It didn’t take me long. I’m good at that kind of thing, but I’m not sure if good is the right word. I read lots, but remember very little. M. Scott Peck is of course better known for his ten-million bestseller, The Road Less Travelled. Yep, read that too. Writing this now I can’t remember a word of it, but I’m guessing it’s full of folksy wisdom.  Americans love that kinda shit. As a lapsed Catholic I can’t say I’m immune either.

Scott Peck is a psychiatrist, but he’s also a Christian. He believes in the risen Christ. The flip side of this is the devil, Satan, who has fallen from grace. He wasn’t sure about that archetypal character. As a scientist and a Christian he looked at the evidence. You’ve guess it. The devil does exist he concludes and evil is a real force. He offers some case studies of people he feels are evil. And touches on the use of exorcisms to drive out the devil. He believes a very small number (my analogy would the around the number of what can be truly called compassionate conservatives) have something inside them which is not of them, which is fundamentally evil. The old argument of whether a person is mad, bad, or sad when they commit crime finds Peck siding with the rhetoric that some people really are bad, or in this case evil.

What I found interesting was this book written in the early eighties describes the American President Donald J Trump to a tee. Remember those games you played when you were younger when it was shown conclusively that by allocating Hebraic letters and mixing them with Greek numbers to Hitler’s name and finding conclusively it matched the number of the beast, as did, Emperor Nero. Peck does much the same thing here, but he does it blind. At the time of writing Donald J Trump was a multiple bankrupt who cheated and lied his way into maintaining the front of a business tycoon and property-estate entrepreneur encapsulated by the vainglorious Trump Tower. Now, of course, he’s the American President and more importantly Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Emperor Nero could only burn Rome. Trump can burn the world.

Peck offers as a case study of group evil the Vietnam war in general and, in particular, the case of My Lai, in a morning1968, and the cover-up which happened almost immediately afterwards. Anyone that has been watching the series on Vietnam, as I have, know that neither President John F Kennedy or his successor the Texan Lyndon B Johnson  believed in this war, but they admitted privately that to say so would end their hope of becoming President. Richard M Nixon was of course asked to stand down because of the lies he told about Watergate. These Presidents look like rank amateurs when placed next to the father of lies Donald J Trump. The coming war with North Korea is based on the same great lie. As one veteran said I killed one human, after that all I killed were gooks. The metrics used in Vietnam was the number of bodies killed. Some soldiers kept human ears as trophies. What Peck doesn’t say is most of the Task Force Baker had taken turns raping their young female victims before killing them. Most of the men serving that day got away with their crimes. Gooks don’t count. Demonization of the other is the first step in the murder of the soul.

Peck’s first case study is titled ‘The Man Who Made a Pact With the Devil.’ I guess there’s a similar story in Stephen King’s Needless Things.    An innocuous old man sells people exactly what they want. Trump has been selling fear and hatred for a long time now and drawing evil to him like a magnet. His lies got him elected to the highest office in the land.

Pecks gives us a loose definition between those that are mad, bad and sad.

If people cannot be defined by the illegality of their deeds, or the magnitude of their sins, then how are we to define them? The answer is by the consistency of their sins. While usually subtle the consistency of their sins. This is because those “that have crossed over the line” are characterized by their absolute refusal to tolerate sense of their own sinfulness.

This is something Richard Holloway the agnostic former arch-bishop talked about. Those who are narcissistic enough to believe they are always absolutely right and have a God-given right to do exactly what they want, are absolutely wrong. The problem here, of course, Trump would rather see the world burn than admit to getting things wrong. There’s a race running between his impeachment and him ending it all with a bang. God, I hope, is on our side and if He’s not available, perhaps we should phone Stephen King.