Reading Johnson

I recently completed a 16-month immersion in The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro’s sprawling biography of our often-overlooked 36th President. Between April 2013 and August 2014, I buried myself in the 3,500 pages – and thirty-five years of research – that comprise a series of books that is not just a biography of a man, but the history of a country, a 101 course in American government and a psychological study of power whose effects still shape our political, economic, and social policies.

I approached the Johnson series having just read two entirely different biographies: Benzion Netanyahu’s Don Isaac Abravanel, the eponymous portrait of the 15th century Jewish philosopher, statesman, and author, and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, the biography of Apple’s now legendary founder. For reasons other than sheer length, The Years of Lyndon Johnson was a different undertaking entirely. Robert Caro is an author famously – and sometimes, torturously –  attuned to detail, and unafraid to spill ink or chop trees in the pursuit of the history of Texas Hill Country or esoteric Senate procedure. It is this detail that makes the title The Years of Lyndon Johnson so apt. Caro is not just reporting on the triumphs and tribulations of Lyndon Baines Johnson, but of the years of social, familial, psychological, political, economic, geographic and historical factors that shaped Johnson’s life and those of his contemporaries. Indeed, virtually none of those within Johnson’s orbit escape description shorter than three or four pages. By the conclusion of the (for-now) final volume, the reader has not only read a biography of Lyndon Johnson, but absorbed smaller biographies of Johnson’s parents and grandparents, his siblings, classmates, and immediate family. The reader comes away with detailed histories of oil magnates George and Herman Brown, Texas governor John Connally, President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey, Southern paterfamiliae Richard Russel and Harry Byrd — to name just a few. These mini-biographies stand alongside the extensive geographic histories of Texas, exploration of Senate parliamentary procedure, and descriptive policy narratives.

Given the enormous amount of time I invested in the books, and, out of a sense of tribute to the sheer amount of research Caro has done for the series, I made a special effort to visit the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, where much of the President’s writings and paperwork are kept. The Library, which is also a museum, is superb, and does an excellent job of placing Johnson within the larger sweep of history – the Cold War, the Beatles, Civil Rights and Vietnam – while also engaging the visitor through interactive exhibits that challenge museum-goers to “make some of the same decisions as the President,” such as whether or not to respond to the Gulf of Tonkin incident.  The museum and library inhabit the same building, and it was indeed humbling to see rows and rows of bound presidential papers behind glass – papers which Caro undoubtedly footnoted in the 300 pages of endnotes spread across the four volumes.

LBJ Museum

During the same trip to Austin, I visited the State Capitol, the nexus of power where Johnson’s political colleagues and patrons rubbed shoulders and shaped Texas history between the 1930s and 1960s – not infrequently at Johnson’s behest. Much as there is something outsize about Texas, and Texas politics, the State Capitol is fittingly outsize as well, rising several yards higher than the actual Capitol building in Washington, DC.

Me and RW at the capitol

On a recent tour of the US Capitol Building, I tried hard to view the structure – and, more specifically, the Senate Chambers – through Johnson’s eyes. Johnson was a legendary “reader of men,” to use Caro’s term, whose uncanny grasp of politics and personality enabled him to work best in small groups – particularly small groups of US Senators – to help pass legislation. Caro writes that Johnson, upon entering the Senate floor for the first time as a Senator, observed to himself that it was “just the right size” – a body large enough to wield power, but small enough to be influenced by just one man.

I remain struck by the extent to which Johnson’s influence still reverberates across the decades, in both policy and public discourse. Johnson’s early benefactors were the wealthy oil and construction tycoons George and Herman Brown, owners of contracting firm Brown & Root, for whom Johnson procured New Deal contracts in the 1930s and extraordinarily lucrative ship-building and oil-rig contracts in the 1940s. In return, the Brown brothers funded Johnson’s Congressional campaigns, and skirted campaign finance regulations through the use of shell corporations, individual donations, and unreported political contributions. Brown and Root would eventually become Kellogg, Brown and Root – or, KBR – a subsidiary of Halliburton for nearly forty years, and still an enormously profitable contracting firm with feet in Afghanistan and Iraq. (To this end, Gary Shteingart’s Absurdistan does an excellent job of satirizing the contracting business in the Middle East).

Johnson’s means of attaining campaign funding was shady, but his drive to pass Civil Rights legislation – an obviously positive goal – was accomplished with equal cunning: He first passed the pared-down Civil Rights Act of 1957 while Senate Majority Leader, and placated the South with assurances that the law could not truly be enforced, and only subsequently pushed through greater Federal enforcement powers in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which, just last year, had some of its key statutes struck down by the Supreme Court.

And within the world of media, there are two performances that undoubtedly draw upon the life and legacy of Lyndon Baines Johnson. The first is, of course, Robert Schenkkan’s now-concluded 2014 play, All the Way, starring Bryan Cranston, which centers upon LBJ’s hard-fought efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. True to Caro’s description of Johnson’s attempts to alternately cajole and threaten other lawmakers – often over his trademark black telephone – the play was all about the delicate balance LBJ sought to strike between producing a bill his Southern constituency could swallow, but with meaning enough for Johnson to win the liberal vote in the 1964 election. Much like the Years of Lyndon Johnson, All the Way was a big work that entailed a commitment to understand the workings of Congress, the prejudices of the South, and the duplicity necessary to pass legislation.

To this end, the protagonist of Netflix’s House of Cards, Frank Underwood, bears surprising resemblance to Johnson in his duplicity, his “magnolia accent,” and wicked ability to pass legislation at any cost. I am certainly not the first to point out this connection, or that Underwood is seen reading Caro’s fourth volumeThe Passage of Power, in HoC‘s first season. That the show openly borrows from Caro’s portrait of LBJ is a testament to the importance of the books – and, of course, to Johnson’s presidency itself.

I cannot recommend The Years of Lyndon Johnson strongly enough. In fact, I’ve come to recommend the books to passing acquaintances, or even just random strangers on the street. Caro’s incredible articulation of history, psychology, and politics provides a lens through which to view current issues like healthcare, income inequality, factional violence, an uncooperative Congress, and a belligerent Russia – all things that Johnson dealt with between 1963 and 1968. Although Caro is yet to directly address Johnson’s second term – the book is forthcoming – I would most recommend the third (and longest) volume, Master of the Senate, which traces Johnson’s rapid rise from Hill Country to Capitol Hill, and his iron grasp over what were likely the most productive years of the Senate.

But if you’re like me, you might find yourself two-hundred pages in, realizing that it’s best to go back to the beginning, to Volume I, to dry, unforgiving Hill Country at the turn of the century, and the fascinating portrait of a man driven by insecurity and poverty, acting upon duplicity and cunning and kindness, making his fevered drive toward the highest echelons of power and the pages of history. Don’t forget the coffee, or the bookmark.

Accidental Abundance or “Oops, was that Tbsp or Tsp?”

“Don’t panic.”  It’s on the cover of one of my favorite books for a reason, and I needed that advice badly tonight.  I had just spent an hour preparing one of my earlier recipes from scratch and had taken my first bite of my steaming hot Sloppy Joe Tacos™.  Expecting a sweet and juicy bite, I was overwhelmed by the major saltiness in my mouth.

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A great idea, but too much salt!

I started to go through the five stages of grief.  First, I denied that it was too salty, “I followed the recipe to the T!  Chef John must have meant it to be this salty.” I then looked back at the recipe and saw that I had put in 1.5 Tablespoons of salt instead of 1.5 Teaspoons; meaning I TRIPLED the amount of salt in the recipe.  This was when I got angry (stage 2).  It was exhausting, but I’ll summarize my tips so that you can be prepared if this happens to you.

  • Prepare – Do a bit of work in advance, set out pre-measured ingredients so that you won’t rush while cooking and err.
  • Taste early and often – Taste your dish as you add ingredients so you can catch mistakes quicker and deal with them.  Of course, only do this if there is no danger of bacteria.
  • Rice is your best friend – Adding a grain can be super helpful in toning down over-seasoned food.  This is what I did to fix my dish above (picture taken before rice was added).
  • Drink your problems away – Adding more water might not be possible in all dishes but in soups and stews, thinning the dish might be a quick fix with little pain.
  • Try again – Remember that cooking is a lifelong endeavor, learn from your mistake and your future self will thank you.

Excuse me while I go guzzle down some water…


Yesterday, Instagram released Hyperlapse, a video recording app that shoots at a lower frame rate than standard video apps, yielding smoother, more cinematic looking video that resembles Hollywood tracking shots. I tried it out – very briefly! – on a run earlier today, and indeed, the app does what it says.

Now, I just need to find a restaurant kitchen where I can shoot something like this:



Vegan Beef-Tip Stir Fry

Tell me it isn’t out of this world, I dare you…

If you have some of those friends who think that vegan food is all about salads and Grateful Dead songs, make them this dish and you will change their collective worldview.  This vegan Asian style stir fry tasted as good as any beef dish I’ve had at an Asian restaurant and it was way healthier (less fat, fewer calories, same yummy). 

The dish is built around the fantastic Gardein Beefless Tips (very similar to their “Beefless Strips” that we covered earlier) and is actually a modified version of the recipe that comes on the back of the package.  


  • Marinate the frozen tips for ten minutes in:
    • Garlic powder
    • Salt
    • Sugar
    • Pepper
    • A bit of canola oil
  • Add the mixture into a hot, lightly oiled pan and brown the tips on all sides.
  • Add in diced onion and peppers into the searing hot pan and stir fry for one minute.
  • Add in the following sauce mixture, cover and cook for a couple of minutes:
    • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
    • 1 tsp sugar
    • 1 tsp sambal or sriracha
    • 3-5 tbsp soy sauce (depends on how salty you want it to be)
  • Serve hot over rice (with optional musical accompaniment) and let your friends’ preconceived notions about vegan food come crashing down.

Break Those Barriers

Recently I stumbled upon this intriguing  tweet:

Some backgroundVim is a powerful text editor that is mostly used from a command prompt/terminal by programmers or other IT professionals.  It is notorious for it’s steep learning curve because its simplest operations (like moving the cursor or even exiting the program) are not immediately obvious.

After reading the article that was linked to in the tweet, I was motivated to try to learn vim even though I had originally been intimidated by the learning curve.  The article suggested a specific tutorial (vivmtutor), explained about how long it would take to complete (30 min), and promised that it would break all of the major barriers to entry.

This experience got me thinking about other learning obstacles that we can come across every day.  How many tools or topics have you aspired to learn, yet give up after 5 minutes?  Whether it is Linear Algebra, Underwater Basket Weaving, or Art History, everything has a barrier to entry.  Don’t let that get in your way, set your expectations properly and find a tutorial or crash course to help you through!

I ended up doing the tutorial and as promised, I now know how to exit vim (and a few other tricks).

Another Day, Another Delivery

Same day delivery is obviously where it’s at. Amazon recently expanded its Prime Shipping option to include $5.99 same day delivery options. Google teamed up with Costco, Target, and Barnes & Noble to roll out its Shopping Express service. And now Uber, a transportation provider, has rolled out same-day delivery for basic items in the Washington DC area.

What makes this evolution compelling is how only one of these services started in retail: Amazon. Google was a web services company, albeit one which wisely teamed up with challenged brick-and-mortars to compete with Amazon. Uber is still principally a transportation facilitator, but now has a clever way to use its drivers’ excess time and capacity. It certainly isn’t a threat to, or even FedEx (yet), but the ability to see your delivery en route is pretty darn compelling.


I recently read an article about bringing one’s iPhone back from the dead, after a nearly-fatal drop into water. As someone who destroyed his fair share of gadgets in water, I took the precaution of purchasing a FRIEQ Waterproof Case for my iPhone 5 in advance of my recent trip to the Caribbean. I had been initially skeptical of how well the case would work, but was pleasantly surprised when I was able to safely – and effectively! – take video under water. Check it out!