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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/6751/book-review-beginnings-of-the-great-society/

Book Review: Beginnings of the Great Society

June 16, 2007 by

Libertarians have always had a sense of history. Mainly because they puzzle over the USA of the 19th Century and its transformation into the USA of 2007. Many explanations are offered. A Pulitzer prize winner, Robert A. Caro, has made a unique contribution to this political conundrum in a multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. What a book! the first two volumes, which I read, The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, go 1400 pages. LBJ, you’ll recall is referred to as the founder of “The Great Society”; big benevolent government. Therefore the life and times of this consumate politician blights our lives, even today.

Chockful of details, the character of the man is vividly revealed. Initially he was a west Texas rugged individualist who philosophically detested the New Deal. But that didn’t keep him from using it’s largesse to outlanders – like his God-forsaken congressional district – to climb the slippery pole of politics. Caro describes the political environment, then draws the man himself – in incredible and unflattering detail. The concise explanation? Johnson would do whatever it took to win. Not excluding lying, stealing, and wielding the hammer of his power. And it was a huge hammer forged by the treasury of Brown and Root, the construction behemoth, now a subsidiary of Halliburton. Tangled in a legally convoluted power project, the company was on the ropes. On a hope and a prayer they were building a dam for the government totally unauthorized by the government. Then the Lone Ranger (that’s LBJ) rode to their rescue.

I’m trying not to overstate the point. But this pile of rocks on the lower Colorado River in West Texas was literally a pivotal point in American history. Pivotal, because it guaranteed the ascendancy of this hagridden, junior congressman and the liberal legislation he crammed into the body politic.

The key to LBJ’s career was the treasury of Brown and Root (and soon other kindred sources) which Herman Brown opened to this freshman Congressman. Money talks – everywhere. But in West Texas it shouts loudly and when it’s not shouting, it’s buying votes. And Herman Brown was a man of bountiful gratitude who never forgot his own personal Lone Ranger; the young congressman with the big ears and flapping long arms who could “fix” anything – even an unauthorized dam illegally built on land not owned by the federal government. LBJ, with both hands in the construction company’s till became the money man for the democratic party. And in 1948 ran for senator against a mythical Texan, legendary Coke Stevenson. Stevenson was a man after our own heart. Upon being criticized for not restraining the bedlam that was the state legislature (he was the Speaker) he replied, “as long as they’re not voting, they’re not passing any laws. And as long as they’re not passing any laws, they’re not hurting anybody”. A wise man. But too honest to compete with Lyndon and his Brown and Root money.

I better stop before I give away the plot. LBJ eventually goes for the highest office in the land. But I’m not going to tell you the outcome.

The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, two books which will open your eyes to American politics in the first half of the 20th Century.


Mace June 16, 2007 at 9:30 pm

I completely agree with your review. The first volume completely changed my understanding of politics and started me down the road from being a liberal to becoming a libertarian.

Niccolo June 17, 2007 at 1:41 am

I haven’t read the book yet – but I plan to order it immediately – however, I must disagree slightly with the review or at least where it seems to be heading. Now I know, I know. LBJ wasn’t a great guy and I dislike him as passionately as any other here, but it seems like this review places the blame solely on LBJ.

Man, for all the history classes I’ve taken and all the history books I’ve read concerning the 20th century, LBJ was by no means the genesis of America circa 2007. If anything, the man was just another fulfilling prophecy of a country gone sour.

ted Roberts June 17, 2007 at 10:14 am

Mark, thanks for your comment. ted

Niccolo, LBJ comes out in this book much worse than I ever imagined. As I told another commentor, I never saw a biographer treat his subject with such venom. He hates him. I’m not complaining nor am I a student of that period of American history. Caro, may be absolutely right. And you’re rite too – LBJ wasn’t the first – FDR had a few political faults that soured our politics too. rite? ted

wow gold,wow power leveling June 17, 2007 at 10:52 am

Niccolo, LBJ comes out in this book much worse than I ever imagined. As I told another commentor, I never saw a biographer treat his subject with such venom. He hates him.

g June 17, 2007 at 12:43 pm

I thought Woodrow Wilson was the one who really screwed up america.

Brent June 17, 2007 at 1:20 pm

There were and are many political entrepreneurs. Certainly LBJ was a noteworthy success.

happylee June 19, 2007 at 1:02 pm

You bring back fond memories. I read Robert A Caro’s book on Robert Moses the same month I read Atlas Shrugged. The stunning contrast between Reardon and Moses was enough to etch on my mind forever the difference between good and evil; and the difference between using great talent to advance mankind and using great talent to undermine the advance of mankind.

Caro’s first book (and later, books) on LBJ showed a different character. (A “political entrepreneur” as noted above.) Though LBJ worked as hard as Moses, and had the same intrinsic motivation that is so rare in this world, his primary concern was to feed his own feeble self-esteem. Moses, on the other hand, never doubted his own enormous abilities, worthiness and capacity for work. He just directed his talents towards what he thought were a worthy goal — pushing progress against all odds (i.e., pushing his scientific dream utopia against petty, puny human preferences). To slightly oversimplify: Moses was the ultimate technocratic bureaucrat and LBJ was the ultimate politician. (As an aside, I think Hillary is a “moses” who has spent a lot of money, energy and time trying to become a “LBJ.” Very scary.)

I really wonder if someone like Moses would have become a quasi-Reardon if only his dominating mother had made him read Mises instead of the progressive claptrap he was raised on. (And it kills me to think that Mises and Moses lived in the same City and may have even passed each other on the street! Gosh, to have lived in NYC in the 50′s and 60′s is to have lived among giants. Imagine Rand, Mises, Rothbard, Liggio, Reisman and Moses getting together for dinner in NYC. Intoxicating…)

Anyway, both books should be on every up-and-coming libertarian’s reading list. And each of these heavy books make a very nice doorstop when done….

ted Roberts June 20, 2007 at 2:07 pm

happylee, thanks for your comment. You’re the 2nd or 3rd person to mention the Moses book – I guess, considering Caro’s skill, I oughta read it. You said it all when you said that LBJ was the ultimate politician. He didn’t “miss a trick” as they say – and that was his specialty – tricks. regards, ted

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