Wednesday, May 15, 2013

books of too much detail

Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro
Another volume in the mighty multi-volume biography of LBJ, this one presenting a mixed grill of his attempt at a 1960 presidential campaign, his vice-presidency, and the beginning of his presidency, thus 1959-1964. As before, a monumental but curiously mixed-quality project. Caro is good on the mixed feelings and consequent half-hearted manner with which LBJ approached running for president (though he never squarely faces the fact that the 1957 Civil Rights Act, climax of the previous volume, which LBJ intended to be his bona fide to northern liberals, was perceived by them as a weak betrayal), excellent on addressing the fundamentally conflicting evidence over whether JFK really wanted LBJ as his running mate or not and on why LBJ accepted, and pretty good on the frustrations of LBJ's vice presidency.

Yet in other ways the book is weak. Caro must deal again with a question from the previous volume, which is what made LBJ think he could continue running the Senate from the vice presidency, at which he singularly failed. In the previous book Caro left it as a puzzle, but I noted, hidden in the text, the answer, which is that LBJ had watched Vice President Garner lead the Senate in the 1930s, so he figured he could do it too.

I actually wrote to Caro saying this (and several other things). He never replied, but he puts an implicit reply in this book, by describing the collapse of Garner's relationship with FDR, and his failure to be considered a potential presidential candidate in 1940. Implied conclusion: Garner's history is nothing to emulate. The facts are true, but the conflict with FDR had arisen because Garner had chosen the path of leading the Senate into conflict with the President, at which he had been quite successful. Yet conflict with the President was not inevitable in the Senate; LBJ had achieved many of his 1950s triumphs by cooperating with Eisenhower, so Garner's ultimate frustration is no reason LBJ wouldn't try to emulate his success. Caro's answer in this book to the basic question is essentially, though not explicitly, to state that LBJ's ego was so towering that he was sure he could bend not just the Senate, but JFK, to his will. I don't think that's an entirely credible answer.

After JFK's assassination, this book falls apart. Caro paints an extraordinarily florid picture of LBJ as The Man of Decision, waiting there coiled for three years as VP and suddenly springing into decisive and carefully-planned action the moment he's first addressed as "Mr. President." But the actual story Caro tells doesn't match this. LBJ's initial decisions had their share of fumbles and dead ends, nothing really critical, but quite at odds with this attempt to paint him as the unreachable master, and, weirdly, Caro describes the fumbles with as much detail as the successes.

The detail becomes excruciating in a ludicrously extended portrait of a hokey Christmas spent entertaining German chancellor Erhard at the LBJ ranch. Again we are somehow supposed to see this as some kind of master act of politics, when it was just the basic attempt to entertain an ally. (Erhard's political power in Germany would soon rapidly collapse, something Caro makes no note of whatever, so the visit had little long-term political consequence.)

And all this puffery leaves far less space than is necessary to describe this book's climax, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was the real thing for which 1957 had been just a softening-up punch, and it deserves more. But Caro makes several references to complex political maneuverings vital to the bill without describing them at all, which is bizarre from a guy to whom detailed descriptions of complex political maneuverings are his regular fare and responsible for many of his best pages.

The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination by Matthew Guerrieri
A whole book just on da-da-da-dum? It could be great; it could be a collection of random piffle. It's a collection of random piffle. At times Guerrieri dives into more detail than anyone could possibly want, including a lengthy and painstaking discussion of the significance of the quarter-note rest that precedes the first four notes in the score. It's more the literary/symbolic significance than the musical significance, so it's mostly pretentious hogwash anyway.

He tries to discuss virtually everything in Western culture that refers to those four notes, with total lack of discrimination over whether the reference is significant (e.g. Ives' "Concord" Sonata) or totally trivial, and he has very little worthwhile to say about them, the ineptness being typified by the epigraph quotation from the scene in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where Arthur Dent hums the four notes in a desperate attempt to convince the Vogons that Earth is worth saving; this is inept both because, as evidence of the Fifth's importance in our culture, it's worth about a penny, and because the quotation is presented in such a way that a reader who doesn't already know HHGG will not have the slightest idea what is going on.

Extra bonus, stuff with even less significance to Beethoven's Fifth, including, for instance, an entire history of 19th century aspirational humanistic philosophy, apparently on the grounds that Beethoven shared such aspirations, though their direct influence on the Fifth isn't and can't be settled, so the significance of the whole thing is purely guesswork.

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