Book Review: The Path to Power by Robert Caro

The movie Selma, which debuted a few weeks ago, shines a spotlight on Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for civil rights. It’s also sparked a side controversy over its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. Some say it unfairly diminishes Johnson’s positive role in the civil rights movement.

How many Americans really know the story of Lyndon Johnson?

Over the years, several people have recommended to me Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography. It’s a four-part series on the life and career of America’s 36th president, with the fifth and final edition due out in a few years. People say it’s one of the best political biographies ever. I just finished volume one, The Path to Power, and I can report that it was totally compelling, at turns a gripping narrative of larger-than-life characters and a well-written explainer on 1950’s Texas.

Caro would argue it’s a vitally important topic: “Knowing Lyndon Baines Johnson—understanding the character of the thirty-sixth President of the United States—is essential to understanding the history of the United States in the twentieth century.”

The civil rights legislation that Johnson championed in the Senate and then later as President are addressed in the later volumes, which I have not yet read, so here I will pose just one general observation and question.

The question is this: Does everyone who achieves historic status in the world of business, entertainment, and politics possess a pathological level of ambition and hunger for power? Johnson reached the peak of global power despite being born in one of the poorest parts of the United States. It takes a certain kind of person to climb the tallest mountain when you start at the very bottom. Do these people suffer from insecurities and a need to be liked that’s so totalizing and so severe that these insecurities serve as the fuel for said ambition? And, moreover, is it the case that for most people who make it to the top, they sacrifice almost everything, from relationships to privacy to hobbies?

The more you read biographies of people who led historic lives, especially in politics, the more you begin to see an usual level of ambition that’s fueled as much by darkness as by light: where darkness takes the form of some primal character flaw, or an abusive or absent father, or an unforgettable injustice that molds the character.

This volume one by Robert Caro is an extraordinary of portrait of exactly that kind of ambitious, deeply flawed person: Lyndon Johnson. The portrait does justice to both the man himself and the varied influences around him that enabled his rapid rise from Hill Country Texas to Congress.

Johnson’s hunger for power knew no ends. He once said, “I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me. I know where to look for it, and how to use it.” In the early part of his career, which this volume focuses on, we see how willingly he works crazy hours, lies, kisses ass, compromises, whatever it takes, really — in order to slowly move up the political pecking order. The moment he attained power, he immediately used it to position himself for the next rung up.

Eventually, as Senator and then President, he came to use his power tragically in Vietnam but also wonderfully and historically in championing civil rights legislation that had been voted down time and time again. His Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965 were the first meaningful civil rights legislation on the books since 1870.

If you want to understand the president in the movie Selma — or you just want to understand American history better — begin Robert Caro’s series The Years of Lyndon Johnson. It’s terrific.

Various highlights from the book are included below the fold.



Continue reading

“Life Will Take Care of the Rest”

A few months ago, Nathan Heller wrote a fantastic review of William Deresiewicz’s book, a book that argues that elite colleges are bad for the soul.

The close of Nathan’s piece makes an important point with a light touch:

Beneath [Deresiewickz’s] fury at the failings of higher education is an almost religious belief in its potential. The stakes are, in truth, lower than he thinks. A college education, even a poor one, isn’t the final straightaway of self-realization, after all. It is the starting gate. College seniors leave with plans for law careers and then, a J.D. later, find their bliss as graphic artists. Financiers emerge as novelists. Avowed actors thrive in corporate life. And some alumni, maybe more than some, never get there; they work, marry, bear kids, buy homes, and feel that their true lives have somehow passed them by.

Would better college years have made those people more fulfilled? Even in the era of fast tracks and credentialism, the psychic mechanisms of an education are mysterious. Let teachers like Deresiewicz believe. For a couple of hours every week, students are theirs in the classroom to challenge and entrance. Then the clock strikes, and the kids flock back into the madness of their lives. Did the new material reach them? Will the lesson be washed from their minds? Who knows. They heard it. Life will take care of the rest.

Travel Reminds You: “This is Just One of Many Possible Worlds”

Washington_Dulles_International_Airport_at_Dusk

A few years ago, Alain de Botton wrote a book titled A Week At the Airport, about his time living at Heathrow airport for a week. Below’s an excerpt from the book in Harper’s magazine that resonated. It’s a special feeling when you return home from a long trip and put your head down at night and then think back to the place where you woke up. I remember when I once woke up in a small village in Costa Rica where there was no hot water, I then traveled all day, and by night was lying in bed in rich San Francisco. The contrast in my environments was striking. De Botton:

There used to be time to arrive. Incremental geographic changes would ease the inner transitions: desert would gradually give way to shrub, savannah to grassland. At the harbor, the cam- els would be unloaded, a room would be found overlooking the customs house, passage would be negotiated on a steamer. Flying fish would skim past the ship’s hull. The crew would play cards. The air would cool.

Now a traveler may be in Abuja on Tuesday and at the end of a satellite in the new terminal at Heathrow on Wednesday. Yesterday lunch time, one had fried plantain in the Wuse Dis- trict to the sound of an African cuckoo, whereas at eight this morning the captain is closing down the 777’s twin engines at a gate next to a branch of Costa Coffee.

Despite one’s exhaustion, one’s senses are fully awake, registering everything—the light, the signage, the floor polish, the skin tones, the me- tallic sounds, the advertisements—as sharply as if one were on drugs, or a newborn baby, or Tolstoy. Home all at once seems the strangest of destinations, its every detail relativized by the other lands one has visited. How peculiar this morning light looks against the memory of dawn in the Obudu hills, how unusual the recorded announcements sound after the wind in the High Atlas, and how inexplicably English (in a way they will never know) the chat of the two female ground staff seems when one has the din of a street market in Lusaka still in one’s ears.

One wants never to give up this crystalline perspective. One wants to keep counterpoising home with what one knows of alternative realities, as they exist in Tunis or Hyderabad. One wants never to forget that nothing here is normal, that the streets are different in Wiesbaden and Luoyang, that this is just one of many possible worlds.

(Hat tip Steve Dodson.)

My New Essay on Lessons Learned

I wrote a long essay about what I learned from Reid Hoffman over the past 4.5 years.

I also describe some of what I did from 2012 to 2014 — a behind-the-scenes role I haven’t written about until now.

You can read the full essay here.

Fortune Magazine: Treat Your Career Like a Start-up

you01_1

There’s a feature story in Fortune magazine this month with a suggested 2015 resolution for all professionals: treat your career as a startup.

Delighted to see our book The Start-up of You as an anchor in the piece, and to see the career story of Nitin Julka highlighted as well. Nitin is featured on the Start-up of You web site as a case study in someone who used the principles of the book to transform his career:

On a quarterly basis, he conducts a life assessment and reviews what he considers to be his professional competitive advantage. Among his “most unique” attributes he lists his receptiveness to feedback. Indeed, in his quest for continual improvement, he has recorded personal and professional feedback in a single, running Google doc since 2010. He reads it once a week, when prompted by a recurring calendar invite.

Here’s the full Fortune piece.

HR Magazine: 2015 Trendsetters

Excited to be on the cover of HR Magazine this month as a Trendsetter for 2015. We certainly hope 2015 is the year of The Alliance!

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 1.11.28 PM

Experiencing Hawaii for the First Time

10899037_789966637741078_48927775_n

Having spent most of my life in California and loving to travel, it’s been an odd fact that I had never been to Hawaii.

Well, it’s a fact no more. I had a lovely New Year’s in Maui with good friends, food, and books. And no email or Twitter for five full days, which is always a refreshing respite.

Hawaii is indeed magical in winter time. A few theories. First, the climate: it’s warm there when it’s cold here, with no humidity. Second, the spirit of calm. It’s the natural Hawaain culture, I suppose. More important is the fact that pretty much all the tourists are there to simply chill out is infectious. Most of Hawaii is tourist central and they spread the chill out spirit in all the restaurants and beaches and hotels. Third, unlike Mexico, you don’t have to worry about passports, cell phone plans, currency and so on — further reducing possible stress in a beach front vacation.

(There’s a lot of natural beauty in Hawaii, though I must say, I didn’t come upon many nature scenes in Hawaii that we don’t have in beautiful California.)

Happy 2015.

Grammar Wars

Joseph Epstein, one of my favorite writers, has a fun review of two new books on grammar.

N.W. Gwynne argues for the old-school, strict approach to grammar, whereas Steven Pinker argues to relax the old rules and embrace the age of informality, baby. Pinker’s the kind of guy who likes to explode tradition, Epstein says: “Few things give him more pleasure than popping the buttons off what he takes to be stuffed shirts”: the word “whom,” the rules about can vs. may, split infinitives, and so on.

The closing paragraph of the review:

Rather than align myself with the Gwynnians or the Pinkertons, I say a blessing on both their houses, and I would add: Let the language battles between them rage on—except that to do so would expose me to the charge of ending this review on a preposition, which I cannot allow.

How Michael Lewis Slows Down Time

He writes, in a piece commissioned by Chipotle:

I even have tricks for slowing time—or at least my perception of it. At night I sometimes write down things that happened that day… Recording the quotidian details of my day seems to add hours a day to my life: I’m not sure why.

Another trick is to focus on some ordinary thing—the faintly geological strata of the insides of a burrito, for instance—and try to describe what I see.

Another: pick a task I’d normally do quickly and thoughtlessly–writing words for the side of a cup, say–and do it as slowly as possible. Forcing my life into slow-motion, I notice a lot that I miss at game speed. The one thing I don’t notice is the passage of time.

The last two points are what meditation and mindfulness are about. Observe the ordinary.

Here’s how Steven Johnson slows down time — he moved to a new physical place. In a new place, your status quo disrupted, and you’re forced to notice small details, which has the effect of making time pass more slowly.

Claims About Childhood

Griffiths believes that we force very young children into too much independence at a time when all they want is intimacy (she particularly deplores Ferberization, or controlled crying), and that we then exert too much control over older children who yearn only for freedom (she is dismayed by standardized testing). She questions the hierarchical nature of most adult-child relations, and demonstrates that in many cultures and across much of history, children have been given a much broader right of self-determination. She is fanatical about the importance of the great outdoors, and believes that all children need the kith of woods, sea and sky. She laments the enclosures movement of the 15th to 19th centuries that eliminated most common agricultural rights.Concerned that so many children today require treatment for psychological ills, she proposes space and freedom as the cure.She makes an eloquent, loosely Marxist argument that children’s play has been overtaken by commercial interests, so that imagination gets upstaged by sophistry. She objects to the way the nuclear family excludes the wider penumbra of people who stand to love any child, describing all the advantages of a “well villaged” child who may belong “to the street or the commons as much as to the home.” She lauds the idea of childhood as a quest that is precious regardless of its destination. And she regrets the fact that too many children are cut off from their daemon — their true calling — by a dreary pragmatism and a rigid, unresponsive education system.

Andrew Solomon on Jay Griffiths’ book “A Country Called Childhood”