No Panaceas

Saturday, June 07, 2003
The Good Ol' Days: I just happened to be reading a portion of Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus today. It was an important book in it's time since it provided one of the first inside accounts of the national press corps on the campaign trail. A lot of the prominent figures are still around: Broder, Novak, Hunter S. Thompson (more or less).

Anyway, here's a selection on page 150 that cracked me up:

During one brief period in the early fall, when McGovern began staging media events, Cassie Mackin, the NBC correspondent, felt downright insulted. McGovern would spend a whole morning hauling the press corps to some farm in the Midwest just so that he could appear against a background of grain silos when he made a statement about the wheat scandal. "This is a Presidential campaign and we don't need pretty pictures to get on the air," said Mackin. "Why can't they just run their campaign and let us take the responsibility of finding something interesting to say about it? It would be fine with me if they did nothing for the media."

It was just starting to become all about television.

Friday, June 06, 2003
Reforming the Filibuster: There's still some talk about reforming the filibuster for judicial nominees, but it's increasingly clear the Republicans don't have enough support even among their own senators to pull it off. I've said this all along, not that it was a particularly tough prediction. A piece in yesterday's Roll Call indicates that the nails are pretty much in reform's coffin. You can say goodbye to Estrada and Owens, too. Roll Call is a subscription service but if you get access to it, it's "Rules changes Unlikely" by Paul Kane.

Here's a few choice selections:

On the eve of a historic hearing on eliminating judicial filibusters,
key Senate Republicans said they lacked the votes to change internal
rules and remained very reluctant to go the so-called “nuclear” route
any time soon.
Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), for example, has been a vocal opponent of
the Estrada filibuster, but said Tuesday there is no logical reason
to alter the rules solely for judicial nominations and not other
legislative matters...

As for the "nuclear" option:

“I think it’s a very dangerous course to embark on,” Sen. John McCain
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said she would keep an open mind to the
different proposals, which she has yet to clearly study, but noted
that a strictly partisan move would come back to haunt Republicans.
“Whatever is done has to be done with the long term in mind,” she
said. “Majorities are here today, gone tomorrow. Whatever is done has
to be done with caution.”

Finally this completely accurate assesment by Mike DeWine (R-OH):

“This is going to have to get resolved by an
understanding between the parties,"...

There is another tactic the Republicans could try but no one seems to be talking about it. More later.

Thursday, June 05, 2003
Master of the Senate: I just finished Robert Caro's Master of the Senate. Reading a Caro book is a bit like a python eating a hippo. It takes a long time to accomplish, and even longer to digest.

This is the Caro book I have been awaiting for a long time. Caro and others have extensively covered the other parts of Lyndon Johnson’s life. Likewise, while I am sure that Caro will add some to the story of Johnson's presidency, that story has been recounted in numerous other places. But the story of LBJ's extraordinary, lightening-fast rise to the Senate majority leadership and the even more extraordinary story of Johnson's performance and power as Majority Leader, has never been adequately told. Until now.

Senate leaders rarely wield true power, the power to move numerous senators in ways they did not really want to go so that the entire collective chamber moves in a direction markedly different than it would go otherwise. Power in the Senate is simply too decentralized to the individual senator. House speakers have numerous institutional devices for manipulating their body. The means to easily shut off debate is just one important example. The Senate Majority Leader, while not the presiding officer, is nonetheless the top leader of the Senate and has virtually no such devices.

But the obstacles Johnson faced went well beyond institutional limitations. Current Senate leader Bill Frist enjoys a reasonably homogeneous caucus. The difference between moderate and conservative Republicans simply is not that great. In contrast, Johnson led the ultimate in divided caucuses. He served at the behest of the Democratic senators, and the Democrats of that time were badly divided between North and South. On many, many issues the Southern Democrats had far more in common with the Republicans, especially the Midwestern Republicans, than with the Northern Democrats. This is a Democratic party that featured both Richard Russell and Hubert Humphrey, James Eastland and Paul Douglas. Imagine if Trent Lott and Hillary Clinton belonged to the same Senate party caucus today. It would not be all that different than the awkward, often hostile pairing of Russell and Humphrey in the 1950s. To say that Johnson had one foot on a banana peel and another on a roller skate is to understate the obvious. This is the Senate he led.

How did he do it? Caro makes a convincing case that Johnson combined very careful agenda setting with the innovative use of Senate rules, creatively built short-run coalitions -- often with Republicans and President Eisenhower as partners --, and, yes, the calculated use of his legendary one-on-one persuasive skills. For a while, at least, Johnson put on quite a show.

I have read all of Caro's four biographies (there are three about Johnson and one about Robert Moses). A Caro-written biography does not read like most biographies. Most biographies follow an understandably predictable trajectory: He was born, he grew up, he did stuff, and then he died. Caro writes a biography the way a plot-oriented writer writes a novel. He books feature something like a plot building towards a climax. When coupled with Caro's vivid writing style this approach makes for compelling, memorable reading. (I read Path to Power twenty years ago and I will never forget his description of 19th century life in the Texas Hill Country.)

Yet, a biography written like a novel creates distortions. (Insert your favorite complaint about Dutch here____________.) This is, after all, non-fiction biography and the events in peoples' lives really do not follow a script. Such distortions undermine Means of Ascent, the immediately previous volume in Caro's Johnson series. In telling the story of Johnson's 1948 Senate race -- the one where Johnson used voter fraud in the Texas Valley to squeak out his notorious "landslide" -- Caro opts for the oldest literary device around: good versus evil. Here Lyndon Johnson was the bad guy. Who was the guy in the white hat? Coke Stevenson. You do not have to know a great deal about Stevenson to know that, while he was not evil incarnate by any means, he was not the Lone Ranger, either. More crucial, in rendering LBJ "the bad guy" Caro reduced him to caricature, bereft of all the stuff that makes Johnson interesting. He was a monster with enormous capacity to do good. If you made an opera about LBJ it would be La Belle et la Bête and Johnson would play both roles.

Caro failed to capture this complexity in Means of Ascent. He nailed it in Path to Power and he recaptures it in Master of the Senate.

Yet, there is a different, somewhat less troublesome, distortion in this newest volume. For perfectly obvious reasons the "plot" in Master builds towards the climax: Passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. This means though that the dénouement covers three years, fully three-fifths of Johnson's time as Majority Leader. Caro completely skimps on these last years pausing only to visit Johnson's pathetic attempt to hold on to his Senate power after becoming Vice-President.

Perhaps Caro plans to address these last years in the next and final volume. Yet, in that volume he will cover the 1960 election, including the murky circumstances surrounding Johnson joining the national ticket, the Texas political feud that led to Kennedy's fateful trip to Dallas, the lingering accusation that Johnson was involved in the assassination, and all that minor stuff that happened later, like the Great Society and Vietnam. Caro compares more with Faulkner than with Hemingway. He rarely writes a short sentence and he takes his time telling a story and making an argument. This is not a criticism, it is part of why I love his work, but I do not see how he will write the fourth volume in less than 1500 pages, even with the ridiculously small type used in Master. So I doubt Caro will deal further with Johnson's last years in the Senate, outside his run for the White House. This is distorting because there is a case to be made that the 1957 CRA was indeed Johnson's summit and that he was well on his way to being a far more pedestrian Majority Leader as the 1950s played out. The waning of power can be as interesting as the waxing.

There are a few things I will say later about the context surrounding Johnson, a context that Caro captures beautifully. It shows a dramatically different Congress and a dramatically different Republican party than exist today. (The Democratic party was dramatically different, too, but that is obvious.) Suffice to say that if you like political biography you will be hard pressed to find a better read than this. It much deserved the Pulitzer, even if Kinsley did not actually read it.

Sunday, June 01, 2003
Why does John Kerry want to be president?: The Post today did a puff-piece profile on John Kerry. It's souffle light but without question it's the most positive big press item I've ever seen on Kerry. Regardless, what struck me is that John Kerry will chafe at, if not absolutely loath, the restraints of the presidency:

[John Kerry] flies barrel rolls,...relaxes by windsurfing in a squall,...ran with the bulls at Pamplona and, when trampled, got up, chased the bull, and grabbed for its horns.

He also kitesurfs and rides a motorcycle. As president he can forget about this kind of stuff. It's over.