Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Book Review: Some of It Was Fun

Title: Some of It Was Fun: Working with RFK and LBJ
Author: Nicholas Katzenbach
Rating: ****1/2
Tags: politics, government, rfk, lbj, civil rights, vietnam

Well, actually, all of it was fun... reading the book, that is. Katzenbach served in the administrations of both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He participated in some of the most exciting events of those administrations, including efforts to increase civil rights for African Americans and in debates about Vietnam. He knew well Bobby Kennedy and Johnson, JFK less well, and his observations of these leaders and others of lesser rank are fascinating.

Katzenback began in the Office of Legal Counsel and then became deputy Attorney General under Bobby, then Attorney General when Bobby left the Johnson administration, then undersecretary of State.

He was often involved in civil rights issues while in the Department of Justice, including being on the ground for the integrations of the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama. He was also involved in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act which changed the face of America. His perspective on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' efforts in civil rights is invaluable. Civil rights leaders were doubtful at times of the federal government's commitment in this area, but Katzenbach points out that the South was a caste system, that local law enforcement was almost completely opposed to black civil rights, and that the government's powers were limited. It simply wasn't practical to mobilize the National Guard or to send in military troops to desegregate schools and public accommodations district by district. What they did do was enforce desegregation in selected instances so that they could threaten to do so somewhere else with credibility. Still, it took the Voting Rights Act to get blacks into office, which really broke the back of segregation. The passing of both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act are both thrilling stories, and depended on an amazing amount of prep work and floor management. JFK was assassinated before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which slowed things down to some degree as it took time for Bobby to regain his zest for action.

Katzenback became Attorney General after Bobby left for the Senate He grew kind of bored, frankly, as the excitement of earlier days waned. When the undersecretary of State position opened, he asked for it and got it, despite the fact it was in title and pay grade a demotion. As undersecretary of State he was involved in many interdepartmental meetings about Vietnam with high-powered players from Defense, State, and other government agencies. Consistently the only person with any optimism about Vietnam was Walt Rostow, the national security advisor. The others for various reasons were doubtful that the war could win, in the sense of a survivable South Vietnamese state. But the North Vietnamese knew that time was on their side and were not interested in substantive negotiations, and LBJ did not feel he could unilaterally pull out. Katzenbach believes that in part Johnson' passion was for domestic politics, and he was not as interested in or as knowledgeable about foreign policy. Johnson could see that the war was destroying the Great Society that he had worked so hard for, but couldn't see a way out.

Katzenbach speaks well of almost everyone, but he is fairly realistic in his assessments. His picture of Bobby Kennedy increases one's sense of the tragedy of his loss, and confirms why people thought of the Kennedy administration as Camelot. It was full of the young, the energetic, the innovative, the bright, the open to hearing ideas from a broad range of people, and led by a President who was all of these things. He took great pleasure in working with Bobby, but learned to get along with Johnson. He doubted Johnson's motives at first, but came to recognize LBJ's passion for the Great Society programs and his unfailing political instincts, which he has never seen surpassed.

Sprinkled throughout the books are wise assessments of the ability of governments to affect issues, real lessons in politics as the art of the possible.

Fascinating and amazingly readable book.

Publication W.W. Norton & Co. (2008), Hardcover, 320 pages
Publication date 2008
ISBN 0393067254 / 9780393067255

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