Thursday, September 27, 2007

Book Report

One lesson hammered home in amazing detail by Caro’s Johnson bio is the paramount power of money in politics. Duhhh. Yes, but there is a level of detail and documentation in these volumes that is authoritative, and would simply be impossible in any account of more recent events. We get the perspective provided by the passage of sixty years, but the events (and even many of the names) are eerily familiar to readers of the paper this morning.

Johnson’s career was bankrolled from his first run for Congress by Brown and Root, a small, unassuming contractor you might have heard of from the Houston area. In election after election, Johnson spent sums that were unprecedented for congressional and senatorial campaigns respectively.

The Marshall Ford Dam. In the late thirties, Brown and Root had already started the dam that they would build their fortunes on, but they had two problems: (1) the dam was not authorized by Congress, as mandated by law, and (2) the dam was actually prohibited by law, because the land on which it was built was not owned by the federal government. These problems had originally been surmountable because the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee was committed to using his position to overcome these obstacles. But in February 1937, “Buck” Buchanan died at a most inconvenient moment for Brown and Root. Johnson was financed by the company in his first congressional campaign, in Buchanan’s district, specifically for the purpose of resolving these problems. It was make or break time for Herman Brown.

Johnson won his seat, and Brown got his dam, which was to be the financial cornerstone of the company’s future success. Caro seems to stand in awe of the sums available to candidate Johnson:

“A rough rule of thumb, occasionally violated, among Texas politicians was that a respectable statewide campaign could be waged for between $75,000 and $100,000. Johnson was thinking of money on a completely different scale. He always had. His first campaign for Congress, in 1937, had been one of the most expensive campaigns – possibly the most expensive campaign – in the history of Texas. During his first senate campaign, in 1941, men handed him (or handed to his aides, for his use) checks or envelopes stuffed with cash – checks and cash in amounts unprecedented even in the free spending world of Texas politics – and with these contributions of hundreds of thousands of dollars, he had waged the most expensive senatorial campaign in Texas political history. Now, in his last chance, he planned to use money on a scale unprecedented even for him.

He had it to use. After Johnson’s 1941 Senate campaign, George Brown had delivered to Johnson Herman Brown’s pledge to finance a second Senate campaign as lavishly as he had financed a first. Since that time, the federal contracts Johnson had helped Brown and Root obtain had gotten bigger; profits had mounted from millions of dollars to tens of millions – and at the same time fierce Herman Brown had glimpsed the wealth that could come to his company through the efforts of a Senator, rather than a mere Representative. In 1947, the pledge was renewed; if Lyndon wanted to run, the money would be there – as much as was needed.”

It was these huge sums that allowed Johnson to employ a dang helicopter – of all things! – in the ’48 race. This was a huge advantage, not only in covering the vast Texas distances, but also for attracting crowds for the novelty of the ‘Flying Windmill’.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Lots of new stuff breaking in that big Blackwater story. Hey, I don’t know nothin’, but: absolutely zero chance these guys actually get kicked out of Iraq. Blackwater is making quite a name for themselves among Iraqis as trigger – happy, State Department gangsters. I guess the questions that come to mind are: (1)Who (besides Bush) are their political patrons?; and (2) How is it (in detail) that they help Republicans get elected?

And remember the Blackwater guys who got strung from a bridge in ’94? According to the lawyers of their families, the company is counter-suing them:

Raleigh, NC -- The families of four American security contractors who were burned, beaten, dragged through the streets of Fallujah and their decapitated bodies hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River on March 31, 2004, are reaching out to the American public to help protect themselves against the very company their loved ones were serving when killed, Blackwater Security Consulting. After Blackwater lost a series of appeals all the away to the U.S. Supreme Court, Blackwater has now changed its tactics and is suing the dead men's estates for $10 million to silence the families and keep them out of court.

Okay, this is where I get the coveted Brass Pacifier – just like the one I was awarded for innocence and naivety in supporting the invasion of Iraq… Is this true? Is it possible that it could be true and I haven’t read about it in The Washington Post? Stop laughing! This is either weird left-wing kookiness, or it’s going to be a big story, right?

I knew the name of Cofer Black, the Blackwater vice chairman, rang a bell. Here he is quoted in Ron Suskind’s “The Thirty Percent Doctrine”, in a dialogue with another CIA veteran:

Mowatt-Larsen: “When you’re talking about torture, the question is, who sets the standard of evidence required for taking ‘expedient action’?”

Black: “What do you think the standard should be?”

Mowatt-Larsen: “Evidence is the key word. Because a lot of people are suspected of knowing things that they may not. If your assessments of who should know what are not sound, you could end up hurting a lot of people – and creating a lot of new enemies.”

Black: (nodded) “Fine. What about a case where a person may know about the staus of UBL and a bomb? And finding out what he knows could save a lot of lives. Then, what’s your standard, buddy?” (poking a finger at Mowatt-Larsen) “What do you do, then?”

Hmmm. Making unsound assessments of innocence and guilt. Hurting lots of people. Creating new enemies. Sounds like our boys!

America Trip Photos

Wang Chien-Ming, move over: the real "Glory of Taiwan"! In a Starbucks in Portland, Maine.

Family portrait in Dining Room

Professor Rob and the author all Margheritaed up in Texas

"The friendliest people and the prettiest women you've ever seen!"

The Johansons. Transplanted Texans, but they fit the bill. Thanks to Mr. Johanson, something of a rock star in the Wills and Estates field, for what may very well have been the best steak of my life.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Monkey Penguin Joke

Completely unforgivable. Also completely irresistable. What can I tell you: I have a soft spot for a guy who knows how to tell a joke.

Hat Tip: Big Tom

Sunday, September 16, 2007

People's Drug

Shorpy has a cool photo of a pre-1932 People's Drug Store. I don't go quite that far back; I remember the store from Maryland in the 1970's. A name can be pretty evocative. The single residual memory - out of all the hundreds of times over a twenty year span that I went to People's Drug - is of my redoubtable Grandmother Sullivan, who probably only visited the place one time.

The memory is a diptych.The first part has her leading us crossing the road, taking it for granted that the cars on Route 450 would just stop. They did. It must have made quite an impression on my eight year old brain; something on the order of: "Shit, I didn't know you could do that!" What I remember of the lunch at the soda fountain with my New York grandma (and I'm certain I remember it with fidelity) was her mirth at a sign behind the counter: "Tipping is now permitted." I had only the foggiest idea at the time of what tipping was, or why the sign was so amusing, but there you go - the memory is planted.

These days a guy like me doesn't have to go moping around thinking: "I wonder whatever the hell happened to People's Drug?". Wikipedia fills us in, but alas, People's Drug, it turns out, has been inhaled by CVS. What Wikipedia doesn't tell us is how the chain got its rather commie sounding name. New Deal era, perhaps? But, no... founded in 1904, so probably a bit more of a William Jennings Bryan - type thing than a Franklin Roosevelt or a Leon Trotsky.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Robert Caro's Johnson

While staying in Lydon Johnson's Austin residence a few weeks ago (ahem!), I idly began picking through a copy of Robert Caro's multi-volume biography that was on the shelf, expecting it to be a bit ponderous and entirely too detailed for my needs. This is a book I've passed over without much curiosity in countless bookstores. I knew it had been critically acclaimed, but it was just too damn big! It didn't take me more than half a page of reading, though, to realize I'd stumbled onto something special. The incumbent champion of all biographies in betelnut-culture has always been T. Harry Williams's "Huey Long". I read it when I was 17 - 800 pages in a single feverish four day session during summer vacation, mostly deep in the night. (Adding to the sense of being swallowed whole by a book is that this one comes with a sound track: my favorite Randy Newman album, "Good Old Boys", was clearly written under the gravitational influence of the book).

I'm not 17, and I've got a day job, so the intensity will never be quite the same, but this biography embodies the same combination of assiduous scholarship and the art of story-telling. Like "Huey", it draws you into into a three-dimensional, parrellel, doppelganger kind of world. It's said that if you asked Faulkner at any time of any day what a particular character in Yoknapatawpha County was doing, he could tell you. That's how real the world Caro draws is. Anyway, this is just a warning that future posts are coming. Caro's book is basically a series of remarkable stories folded into the larger narrative. I'll throw in a post now and then summarizing a few of them.

Urban Grit Model Train

Now I know I have time management issues, but it absolutely escapes me how I can't seem to manage to find the time to clean my apartment, when there are people in the world who are able to do this.

Anyway, this is pretty remarkable stuff. Model railroad renditions of what trains really look like - at least in gritty urban settings. When you think about it, the impressions of people a hundred years from now of what our world looks like will be unavoidably warped the tendency of people to prefer to record places that are more aesthetically pleasing. On the other hand, the painstaking recreation of these kinds of urban settings reminds us that, hey, if you bring enough kundalini to the table, it's all beautiful.

Hat tip to Your Daily Awesome

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Slip and Slide

Good clean fun in the backyard. The really ballsy guy is the first one to go down. Truly no way for him to predict what will happen!

Marinating In Maine

My absolutely stunning wife, relaxing in sleepy Maine after a whirlwind week of living in the fast lane in Austin. She was a good sport through mountains of Mexican food and thick Texas steaks; post-midnight best music in the whole world concerts; and bracing swims in the legendary Barton Springs pool.

You Lookin' At Me?

Picture of myself in repose on my vacation. Actually, I believe this one is from Kenting.


Thank God this kind of thing is available for free to everyone, or it would definitely be out of my price range.

Sunrise in Taichung

Indulging myself with a shot or two of the sunset from my window. Mind you, I don't see the sun rise in this lifetime unless I've been up all night, but I've seen a few this summer.

Taichung Skyline

A view of the Taichung, Taiwan skyline from my window. It's changed a lot in the last ten years.

Taking Camden

Joanne and Felisa looking smashing in Camden, Maine.

Johnson House

The back yard of the Johnson house on Deeson Street. Felisa had severe jet lag, so she went back early on a couple of nights while I heard music on 6th Street. She had a couple of shaky moments, but I can testify that the big old unfamiliar wooden house was a bit creepy late at night. The tennis court in the backyard is easily visible on Google Earth, by the way.

Brush With Fame

Yes, since you ask, we did stay at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Austin residence. Here's the old Lyndon, Lady Bird, and the two little birds in residence in 1948, the year the old rascal got elected to the senate.

America trip

And here is my beautiful wife on a cliffside in Kenting.