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.

Wolf Hall, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, based on the Hilary Mantel novel, adapted for screen by Peter Straughan, director Peter Kosminsky

Watch Wolf Hall | Prime Video

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p02gfy74/wolf-hall-1-three-card-trick

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05172x8/wolf-hall-2-entirely-beloved

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0520v9d/wolf-hall-3-anna-regina

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b052sfnf/wolf-hall-4-the-devils-spit

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b053j5n1/wolf-hall-5-crows

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0547rvc/wolf-hall-6-masters-of-phantoms;’

I didn’t watch the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall first time around because I’d started the (first) novel—all 650 pages—of it and didn’t get beyond the first 20 pages. It begins in Putney, 1500, with young Thomas Cromwell getting the living daylights kicked out of him by his father. He flees to his sister Kat’s, to be consoled and then flees further, abroad. Most writing is judged in the first few pages. This wasn’t the book for me.

Yet, I started watching the screen adaptation by Peter Straughan and I was hooked. The incident that begins the book is presented as a flashback. Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) is a grown man with a wife and three daughters. His patron, Cardinal Wolsley (Jonathan Pryce), is in trouble.  King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) wants to divorce Katherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley), his brother’s widow, because she cannot produce for him the male heir he needs to cement his dynasty. King Henry VIII claims she was not a virgin on their wedding night.  

We all know about Henry VIII and his six wives. Katherine of Aragon introduced the Spanish farthingdale, the cone shaped structure worn under a dress, to the Royal Court. Henry VIII was a spendthrift and fashion trendsetter. The warrior Queen Katherine shows her loyalty to her Spanish forbearers by wearing a Spanish headdress. Henry VIII’s Sumptuary laws, 1510, against the ‘wearing of costly apparel’ in men’s fashions, by which the King decides who should wear what clothes, means at a glance he can tell what’s what and who’s who. Cromwell, the black crow, is obviously nothing.  The King has the richest plume of colours. His wardrobe lists 134 doublets made from 29 different fabrics. They are the Posh and Becks of their time.

Wolf Hall does not however show the aristocratic men wearing codpieces. They were part of men’s upper hose, reach elaborate decorative heights in the early years of Henry’s reign, a habit carried over for Henry VII. Henry VIII’s codpieces would have been gilded with gold. No doubt priapic and measuring more than eight inches. A man needed room to store his jewels. Not just a piece of cloth. A symbol of male virility.

1521, Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) enters the service of Katherine of Aragon. Fireworks. Henry VIII with his wandering eye. Katherine of Aragon has produced a male heir, but he lasted seven days. She’s produced miscarriage after miscarriage and one female princess, Mary (later Mary I). Henry acknowledges a bastard child, a male child, by another courtier as his own. Henry tells Katherine his doubts about the validity of their marriage. He tells Cromwell to fix it.

Cromwell’s mentor and former master Cardinal Wolsey has been exiled north. Wolsley’s inability to fix it with the Pope has moved him out of royal favour and royal circles. Cromwell is the king’s ‘right hand’. His lowly birth and his connections with the lower classes he plays to his advantage, setting up a spy network that trades in rumours and truth. To please the King, a group of noblemen murder Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell watches from the side-lines as they play it out in a grotesque masque for his King.   He does not swear revenge, he waits and gathers evidence.

We know, of course, 1536 Anne Boleyn will be beheaded. ‘Such a little neck,’ she’ll proclaim. Here we have it. Having not read Wolf Hall, is no disadvantage. Cromwell (fictional Cromwell, not Cromwell, the Archbishop of Canterbury) was born in 1500 then by Ann Boelyn’s death, Cromwell, in his forties, and at the peak of his power. Eleven days later Henry VIII marries another courtier, Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips). We do not see this. Nor the Act of Supremacy making Henry VIII the Head of the Church of England, breaking with the Catholic Church in Rome. Drama is personal. 1532, Katherine of Aragon is made to give back the Queen of England’s jewels. Anne Boleyn has the crown. Love and hate, played against the backdrop of Boleyn’s marriage, not her death. She produces a girl, a future Queen, Elizabeth I, that’s for later history, becoming herstory. Not enough, for now.

Breaking up churches and monasteries enriches Henry VIII, but it also makes Cromwell more powerful. ‘Power corrupts,’ argues historian Robert A.Caro, ‘but it also reveals’. Drama also reveals the fault lines in the royal court, the scrambling for power and influence.  Cromwell, the power behind the throne. A wonderful drama. I’m almost tempted to give Wolf Hall, Mantel’s novel, another try.