By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Powerful men, like the rest of us, are rarely as vicious as Saddam or as virtuous as Sakharov. They’re more like the Lyndon Johnson in Robert Caro‘s Master of the Senate, which grips you despite a whopping length (over 1,100 pages) that would’ve made even Theodore Dreiser blanch. Caro is a far better storyteller than most novelists, even if this makes him an unreliable historian (he cares less for balance than he does for drama). Having spent his first two Johnson books (The Path to Power and Means of Ascent) treating the former president as a power-mad sumbitch, Caro now seems eager to redeem him. But not before he spends hundreds of pages giving us still more of the scheming Lone Star vulgarian. We watch LBJ woo Georgia‘s redoubtful (but lonely) Senator Richard Russell to become majority leader; we watch him cheat on Lady Bird, berate his employees -- he could use the word nigger like a lash -- and whip out his penis, nicknamed Jumbo, as an earthy form of intimidation.
Yet just when his crudeness has you ready to cede Texas back to Mexico, Caro builds to a 200-page climax that demonstrates how the workings of power are trickier than you might think. Earlier in Johnson’s career, personal ambition had always trumped doing the right thing, but by the mid-1950s, he had grasped that he‘d never become president without showing some support for civil rights. And so -- in pursuit of his own presidential ambitions, and in defiance of his own palpable racism -- he used his wiles and his power to push through the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1957, a piece of legislation that no one else, least of all a high-minded idealist, could ever have gotten through the Senate. And though many still insist that Johnson was driven more by an insatiable hunger for personal glory than any concern for millions of black Americans, in the end that matters very little. History judges not what the powerful were thinking but what they actually did. Or didn’t do.
In early 1995, I flew into the Rwandan capital of Kigali, a city shell-shocked from genocidal slaughter a few months earlier -- corpses were still stacked like bloody timber in nearby churches. Stopping by the bar at the luxurious Hotel des Mille Collines, I found myself chatting amiably with a Greek aid worker who‘d witnessed the systematic murder of the Tutsi people by their Hutu neighbors. After a couple of drinks, his mood darkened and he glared across the table: “You Americans have all the power in the world. Why didn’t your Clinton do anything?”
A good question. Although I muttered a few words about domestic politics, I never knew the full, disgraceful answer until I came across Samantha Power‘s revelatory “A Problem From Hell”: America in the Age of Genocide. It turns out Clinton didn’t do anything because his administration was worried about the 1994 congressional elections and wouldn‘t risk another Black Hawk Down in Africa. Naturally, this didn’t stop our government from preaching morality in contexts that could‘ve been scripted by P.J. O’Rourke. On April 8, 1994, two days after the mass killings began, State Department spokesman Michael McCurry gave a press conference in which he chastised certain foreign governments for banning Schindler‘s List.
“The most effective way to avoid the recurrence of genocidal tragedy,” he sanctimoniously intoned, “is to ensure that past acts of genocide are never forgotten.”
Within days, Power notes, the same State Department would vehemently oppose calling the Rwandan massacres “genocide” -- not because it wasn’t the case, but because such a label would force the U.S. to act under the terms of the U.N. General Assembly‘s 1948 genocide convention. And so the killings were termed “ethnic cleansing,” and 800,000 Tutsis died violently, and the Clinton administration was so afraid of losing its power that it failed to do the decent thing, the thing that would’ve shown it deserved to have power in the first place.