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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Review: Master of the Senate

Strangely enough, the library didn't have the ebook version of Master of the Senate, but it had the audio book version, so I grabbed it.  This is a massive tome, coming in at over 18 hours of listesning time, and it took me 3 renewals of the book to get to the end.

To say the book is an incredible achievement is an under-statement. Certainly, the book deserves all the awards and accolades it has won, and filled me in on much of the American civics lessons that I should have had but never got as an immigrant.

The book starts with a great explanation of the structure of the senate, and where it fits in the legislative bodies of the federal government. It explains how the senate was intended to be the government's bulwark against change, and how that has served successfully in various parts of American history, as well as how it fails by being overly conservative. The exposition is intelligent, descriptive, and an example of clarity in both writing and great use of examples to illustrate the author's points.

The coverage of Lyndon Johnson's ascent to the senate and how he went about gathering political power is also exciting. This was a guy who truly could talk out of both sides of his mouth, to look conservatives to conservatives, and sound sympathetically liberal to the liberals. In other words, he was an out and out liar and a great example as to why nobody should ever trust a politician.

And yet, Robert Caro manages to make you feel for Johnson. For all his faults, his naked hunger for power, and his raw ambition, Caro makes it clear that only Johnson could have delivered the 1957 civil rights act, the first such act in well over 80 years. And the historical accounts of the times is nothing short of detailed and amazing. I'm not normally an empathetic person,  but the chapters of the book detailing conditions in the American south would leave me boiling with rage, while every other chapter would have me nearly in tears with how the South treated its blacks. The description of the Emmett Till case and how two white people could literally get away with murdering a 14-year-old boy is so well told that you can feel the bitterness seeping off the the book.

Many Americans (especially those of us who are immigrants and are in technical profession) tend to have give an understanding of history a low priority. We want to look at the future, and it's obviously easy to denigrate the causes important to those of other races. This book, so clearly relevant to our current times, shows why that is a mistake: without a clear understanding of history, without a good sense of how bitterly fought and hard won civil rights were in this country, it would be impossible to understand why and how the current political battles are fought. After listening or reading to how various historical figures would rather shut down schools than allow black children to attend white schools, you will more easily understand why universal healthcare is so difficult to achieve in this country --- there are many who would literally rather die than see members of other races get the healthcare they need.

If the cause of civil rights was not important to you before, you'd have to have a heart of stone for it not to be important to you after reading this book. Highly recommended.

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