The young LBJ

The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1)

Guys! I just read the 750+ page first volume of a 3-volume biography of LBJ, and I’m having bliss-out fits over it.

I know.
You’re fleeing from the blog, and I kinda sorta understand.
But wait.
Let me explain.
(photo credit: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum)
This book is so ding-dang good I nearly got weepy at several points. And once my heart almost burst in joy.
That, my friends, is a sign of good writing. Robert A. Caro is a pure marvel.
We’ll begin with the sentence that darn-near caused a heart explosion. Here ’tis:
“And as Lyndon Johnson came up Capitol Hill in the morning, he would be running.” (p. 217)
So, the context. Caro spends the long first paragraph of that chapter describing the scenery—the columns and pillars of the Capitol—witnessed by the 23-year-old LBJ as he walked (ran!) to his office when he worked as an aide to a Congressman. That glorious sentence ends the paragraph, and it’s the perfect capstone. I even made someone else read that page because I couldn’t hoard it all for myself. Literary perfection.
The weepy thing happened when I read about how LBJ, as a young Congressman during the Great Depression, helped bring electricity to the Texas Hill Country from whence he came. After reading the description of the lives people led before electricity, it makes sense that it was during this time that people began naming their sons for Lyndon Johnson. Caro describes how farm women could see the workers coming toward her house with the line of electrical poles, and when the workers arrived, they’d find the finest meal the family could provide, served on their best dishes.
We get a good view of Lady Bird here, and one is given to believe that she truly was as sainted as Margaret Truman suggested in First Ladies. Despite her innate goodness, still (thankfully) she’s interesting. One of my favoritest quotes of all time is this, by Lady Bird to a friend: “Lyndon and I committed matrimony last night.” (p. 302) Doesn’t it just sound innocently naughty?
This book is detailed, in the best way. So you get a solid sense of who the supporting characters are. For years now, I’ve been saying the words “Rayburn House Office Building” in response to library patrons’ requests for the addresses of their representatives in Congress. And only in this book did I learn who Sam Rayburn was. And I confess now I adore him just a lot. He was honest. Need I say more? Yet I will. Here (we’ll let Caro say it): “Years later, when someone mentioned that Rayburn’s father had not left him much of an inheritance, Rayburn quickly corrected him—his father, he said, ‘gave me my untarnished name.’” (p. 301) He was as honest as LBJ was fluid with the truth.
This book covers Johnson’s early years—from birth to age 36. His ambition is striking. It’s exhausting even to read about.
The 3-volume Caro biography (with the 4th volume in the works) is known as the warts-and-all version of LBJ’s life story. I’m doing OK with it. I’ve known forever that the guy was earthy, and why sugarcoat the truth?
Also, gotta confess: major (major!) authorcrush on Mr. Caro. Not only is he a genius, but he’s also cute as a button.


Next up: Volume 2!

He fought the law…

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts by Julian Rubinstein
The delightfully-told tale of a whiskey-addled hockey player/bank robber who became a Hungarian folk hero in the 1990s.

I was truly doubtful I’d like this book, which was chosen by our book club, but by halfway through I was reasonably engrossed with the story. For me as a reader, the thing that made this book work was Rubinstein’s writing, which is pretty darn snappy and smart.
Also, it’s the kind of story that’s almost too weird to be true—which is exactly how you *know* it’s true.
Attila (I’m serious—that’s the guy’s name) sneaked across the border from Romania to Hungary, started smuggling pelts, played hockey on a pro team (but was never paid for doing so), and took to robbing banks while wearing ridiculous wigs. Then he’d go spend the stolen money on extravagances and have to rob another bank.
Hungary during those years doesn’t sound like an easy place to live, so no wonder people tuned in to hear about his escapades and considered him a Robin Hood type of hero. (Though, guys! He kept all the money for himself and went scuba diving!)
Kudos to Rubinstein for making even this here curmudgeonly firstborn rule-follower feel a little tiny bit sympathetic toward the (anti-)hero.

Jacqueline Kennedy: Reader

Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books by William Kuhn
Thanks to Ann Kingman of Books on the Nightstand for this recommendation. Even though I’m a Kennedy-o-phile (dear God, what a horrid construction), seeing the reviews of this book (and other similar one recently published) didn’t really tug at me. Till Ann’s rave review, and then I caved.
So glad about that. (photo credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum; that’s the First Lady’s bedroom in 1962. I’ll betcha she read in there.)
There’s way more Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis biography here than I would have thought.
And this book, more than any other I’ve ever read about her, helped me understand her.
Really quite something, that.
There are links here between the literature she loved and the men she chose to marry. And for the first time, I got why she married each of them, even as she knew their failings. Strange how that never made sense to me until now, but the way Kuhn explains it, it just makes sense.
The other remarkable thing is this: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a reader. I swear to you, I’ve never thought of her in that way. As a style and fashion icon, yes. As a famous wife and mother, yes. But as a reader… I just missed it, guys.
There are two wonderful sentences in this book that drive the point home:
“This slightly offbeat Jackie, her beautiful hair smelling not only of perfume but also of the cigarettes she sometimes liked to smoke when she was working, scribbling in the white space along the edge of a manuscript, is the Jackie we know when we understand that first and foremost she was a reader.” (p. 17 of the eBook)
During her marriage to Onassis, an insider said she “disappeared every afternoon while others napped to read by herself” (p. 25 of the eBook).
She was not like Us, but actually, in a way, she was. Gotta like that.
P.S. Just before posting this, I was over at A Work in Progress and saw a posting called “Are You as Well Read as Marilyn Monroe?” Given the whole Jackie/Marilyn thing, it was nice timing. And interesting to see that they both were readers.

Legend(s) of radio

Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism by Bob Edwards
What could be more perfect than veteran broadcast journalist Bob Edwards writing about the legendary Edward R. Murrow?
Yup, you’ve got it: Bob Edwards reading aloud his book about Edward R. Murrow.
For years, I drove to work each morning with the soothing voice of Bob Edwards telling me the news of the day. So to hear his voice reading this great biography… this was very good.
Edwards describes Murrow as the father of broadcast journalism; Murrow set the standard.
I went into this book knowing that Murrow had become famous as a war correspondent in London, broadcasting from amidst the Blitz. And I knew about the McCarthy encounters from the movie Good Night, and Good Luck. But that’s about all I could tell you about Murrow.


I didn’t know about his early years working in lumber camps or the fact that he lied about his age on early job applications. I didn’t know he died too young. And I didn’t know about his show See It Now, which sounds like it was amazing. (No wonder it made little money and also made the network nervous.)
In addition to Edwards’ fine narration, the thing that makes this book excellent as an audiobook is that it includes excerpts, in Murrow’s own voice, from some of his broadcasts. Murrow’s Peabody-winning report about riding along on a bombing mission over Germany is so good I can’t find the words to describe it. We hear Murrow’s broadcast, and then Edwards, in very few words, explains why it’s so powerful.
This is good stuff.
And it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t require a huge time commitment; it’s only 4 ½ hours long. Despite its brevity, this thing packs a punch.

Remembering Diana

The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown

I’m still pretty darn honked off that Princess Diana died.
Years ago, I bought the book Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words by Andrew Morton. But I’ve never read it, possibly because I was not ready to deal with some of the ugliness of the truth, and probably because I was still dealing with the fact that she was gone. (And, actually, The Diana Chronicles tells which parts are fabrication, which is rather interesting.)
And now, over a decade later, with all of this new royal wedding stuff in the news, my love for biographies of the British royal family has been reawakened. Yep, I’m on a kick.
The Diana Chronicles is a big, gloriously gossipy book. And to listen to it requires 21 hours and 21 minutes. Good grief. It made me wish I could listen to this audiobook while reading another actual book, but multitasking doesn’t really work like that. Instead, an unusual amount of exercising and housework took place, as I listened to this book with a certain compulsion.
We see Diana here as an actual human being, which means that she doesn’t always do good things. But it also makes sense why she was the way she was; after all, there were, quite famously, three people in her marriage.
The other thing that becomes clear is that, despite having often described herself as intellectually “thick as a plank,” Diana was smart enough to outsmart the royal family more often than not. For example, in the divorce, she made sure they were playing for public opinion before she engaged in battle; that was a fight she could win hands-down.
There are charming things here, too, such as Diana’s loving to visit friends and do their ironing, just for the wonderful normalness of it. And sad things, like the speculation that all her life she was seeking—and never finding—a loving family life to make up for the broken family in which she was raised.
I really wished I could have stopped after the 15th CD, because after that, she was gone. And it was as though the lights went out all over again.

Judging a book by its cover

The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood by Jane Leavy
It ain’t often that I go choosing a book because I’m instantly infatuated with the guy on the cover. But it ain’t every book that has the grinning Mickey Mantle looking back at you. Normally I’m not this bossy on the blog, but I need for you to do this:
Click this link to the book cover.
Then return here. OK? I’ll wait.
Now—see what I mean? Is that not the most alluring cover ever?

We’ve previously established that I’m no sports fan.*

In fact, last month, if you’d said, “Tell me what you know about Mickey Mantle,” I’d’ve said, “Baseball player. During the 1940s or ’50s, I think?” I’m not kidding you. That’s all I had, and part of it was part-wrong. (1950s-1960s was his era as a pro.)
So now I know lots more, and some of it is so good it makes a person get a little weepy. And some of it is so unpleasant it makes a person wish it weren’t true.
And all of it, as written by Jane Leavy, is even better than the book cover.
Leavy’s a former sports writer for the Washington Post, and her writing is pure wonderful.
Each chapter of this book addresses a significant date in Mantle’s life. At first, I was disappointed that this wasn’t the plain old biography treatment, and then, as I read on, I was really glad the author chose this format. It works.
The other thing that really makes this book amazing is that Leavy dices up her description of her 1983 (semi-disastrous) interview with Mantle, and sections of that story are scattered throughout the book.
While I was reading it, this was the book I didn’t want to put down, and for which I neglected the other books I was reading.
Yes, I’m talking about a sports biography.
Even if you care nothing for baseball, you can believe me when I say that this book is one of the best biographies of 2010.
Full disclosure: Then I had to haul out the old tape of That Touch of Mink, because this book told me that Mickey Mantle had a cameo in it. Who knew?!

* From this book, I learned what a switch hitter is. (Mickey Mantle was one.)


Silent? Not exactly…

Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President by Donald R. McCoy
Coolidge. Really, what can one say?
God knows he didn’t say much. But when he did speak, usually it was worth the wait.

(That’s him on the left, with his wife Grace next to him. March 4, 1925 — Inauguration Day)

(photo credit: Library of Congress)

This book, which gives a clear sense of the type of person—and president—Coolidge was, gave me a much greater appreciation for the guy. I like the dry-witted folks, so Coolidge is my kind of fellow. I feel like I can understand him.
The thing that still stuns me is that he became president. Actually, I’m stunned that he wanted to become president. Such an introvert really isn’t particularly suited to the role, methinks.
And, yes, as a president, we’re looking at a fairly mediocre specimen. (And it ain’t just me; the 2009 C-SPAN Historians Presidential Leadership Survey places him in 26th place. Not horrible, but not where you really want to be. But hell, he edged out Nixon for 26th!)
The other thing that becomes evident is that Grace Coolidge, beyond having one of the greatest First Lady portraits ever, was enormously helpful to her husband because of her social skills. She had the gift.
Coolidge biographies aren’t exactly thick on the ground. So I turned to the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop’s “Essential Presidential Book Shelf” to find a recommendation. This is one of two Coolidge biographies they suggest, and it does everything a presidential biography should do.
It gives us the human being, and it shows us how he gained the presidency and how he performed there. And I think McCoy gives a clear-eyed view. Also, some of his sentences are beautiful things.
Some of the material (dear heaven, please cut it out with the farm subsidy talk and all that discussion of tariffs!) was a bit dry, but some of it was surprising. For example, did you know the whole Harding scandal blew up during Coolidge’s presidency? Harding was already safe in his grave, and Coolidge was left to deal.
And I tend to forget that the Coolidge’s eldest son, still a teenager, died during their White House years, due to an infection. So they were dealing with grieving, in addition to the usual grief that the presidency entails.
Reading this book before a visit to the fine Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library & Museum (which displays Coolidge’s mechanical horse! And the Sioux headdress!) made the experience all the richer.

44th President

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick
Because I could check it out as an eBook, and because I’m doing the U.S. Presidents Reading Project, I did something I don’t usually do: I read a biography of a current president.
Usually, I like to wait a while.
Sure, I’ll read the books about the campaign, but I usually wait for a decade or so after the presidential years before reading an actual biography of a president.
But, against all odds, I read this 600+ page eBook, and I enjoyed it.
The thing this book really does is give a person a clear sense of Barack Obama’s background and his ambitions. It also gives a great sense of context about President Obama’s significance in the civil rights movement.
Before reading this book, I knew his general bio, sure. But this book filled in the details. It’s filled with information derived from interviews with many people from his inner circle, and I love that stuff.
But, I know in 10 or 20 years or so, I’m going to want to read a book about his presidential years. That’s the stuff I really, really like.

I visit the seamy side

Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster by Jonathan Eig
From page 1, this book grabbed me. Here’s what did it: the writing style.
Eig’s writing is positively fun to read. He makes the reading effortless (which probably is tough to do on the writing side of things).
And his writing is smart—he uses great turns of phrase and has wonderfully understated comic timing.
Here’s a sample: “As much as any Chicagoan, Sbarbaro embodied the city’s love-hate relationship with bootleggers. He held two jobs—one as an assistant state’s attorney, the other as a funeral home director—so that when he wasn’t putting gangsters in jail, he was putting them in coffins.” (p. 48)
Not only is the writing snappy, but the skillful characterizations bring the bad guys, the good guys, and all of the in-between guys, vividly to life.
Based on the title, I expected this book to focus solely on the plot to take down Capone, but happily, it also provides plenty of background about his rise to power. And the whole thing—the rise, the fall—all of it is captivating and seemingly too strange to be true.
Along the way, I grew wildly fond of the quiet, careful (and Iowa-born!) U.S. Attorney George E.Q. Johnson, whose work eventually led to Capone’s imprisonment for income tax evasion. The author had access to Johnson’s papers, which provided a wealth of detail and insight.
The other fascinating part of this book is the contention that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was not ordered by Capone, but was instead planned and carried out by William “Three-Fingered Jack” White in retaliation for his cousin’s murder. Eig makes a good case, methinks.
Here’s my ringing endorsement of this book:
I nearly always get creeped out by true crime books, so usually you wouldn’t hear me going, “Great! Gangland killings! Let me read on!”
But I could not put this book down.
Here’s the trailer:

Thomas Jefferson, I am perplexed by you. And vaguely vexed, too.


Thomas Jefferson by R. B. Bernstein
Here’s the thing: Jefferson is complicated.
And I think that’s behind the reason this book has been described as the best short biography of Jefferson. This book is remarkable in its balanced view of the man.
It just places the information there for the reader to evaluate. I appreciate an author who respects his readers enough to do that.
So, this here reader decided to get all snarky about old T. J. It really isn’t very responsible of me.
Because here’s the other thing: I’d be happy if I could really like Thomas Jefferson. But I just can’t do it.
Here’s how I try to convince myself. I say: He was bookish! Developed a cataloging system and sold his books to the Library of Congress, for Pete’s sake! I say: He loved learning and was brilliant! Was instrumental in the founding of the University of Virginia. Was a supporter of public higher education. Invented stuff and designed a beautiful home! I say: He was all about the separation of church and state! I say: I sort of get a kick out of the fact that he kept pulling a “You cannot have the Mango” act and then kept returning to seek political office anyway. I say: How about that Louisiana Purchase? I say: He wrote the Declaration of Independence!
Isn’t that enough?
But then I think these thoughts: Slavery. Hypocrisy. Sally Hemings and the children he fathered with her. Sexism. Debt (he had to sell his books for the money).
And that’s when I start to get all snarly and ornery.
This is one complex situation, and that’s all there is to it.
So here’s the thing: I know Jefferson was hugely important to our nation’s history. I honor and respect his contributions.
But I still don’t exactly like him.*
But I did like this book!
In addition to its fine-tuned sense of balance, the other outstanding feature of this book is that the author provides just enough background information (without ever seeming condescending) to provide context to a reader who is not well-versed in the early 19th century. (That would be me.)
Wonderful biography. I’m really glad I selected this biography of Jefferson, because I feel like it was truly an even-handed treatment. Anything different would have felt like it either glorified him or focused too much on his flaws.
So — any negative tone you’re picking up here is just me being irritable because there’s so much about Jefferson to admire, yet not.
* It makes completely no sense, particularly since JFK was a philanderer, but I still am fascinated by—and, yes, I admire—him. Why’s he get a free pass, while poor Jefferson gets put in the penalty box? Besides the ugly slavery stuff, I think it might be a personality thing. I really don’t know. I’m an odd one; there’s no way around it. Also, there’s this thing going around now with people angry at Jefferson because apparently he wasn’t religious enough for their tastes. That’s not why I’m ornery about him, though. There are just too many reasons to have mixed feelings about this dude. Again, I’ll say: Complicated!