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William C. Altreuter
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Thursday, July 05, 2012

I wanted a big read for the summer, so I picked up a copy of Robert Caro's Master of the Senate. My plan may be thwarted, because the damn thing is so compulsively readable I might just bomb right through it. The damn thing very nearly tells its story in real time, but that turns out to be one of its charms. Johnson is, of course, a complicated character-- the first two volumes of the series established that, as well as establishing Caro's dislike for his subject. He still finds Johnson disagreeable, but seems to be coming around. When it is all said and done what this shelf of books may ultimately be about is America's Original Sin. Johnson was a profoundly flawed man, but his role in advancing civil rights cannot be disputed, and the case can certainly be made that he was the only person who could have accomplished what he did.

The other vibe I'm picking up from the book is the overall uselessness of the United States Senate. When Congress was the dominant force in American governance it served a role-- weak executives are what I usually think of when I think about the underlying causes of  the Civil War, but, of course, it was more complicated than that. The Senate managed to hold things together for a while, maybe long enough for the nation to endure the Civil War, rather than merely splintering. Would that have been an altogether bad thing? Well, it sure as hell would have been bad for slaves, so I suppose that's justification enough today. The whole notion of State's Rights, and the necessity of state representation in Congress has caused a great deal of mischief, and I think the time has come to start rethinking it.

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