Where Power Stops

David gives another in his series of talks about democracy. This one draws on the theme of his new book Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers. From Lyndon Johnson to Boris Johnson, does power reveal the true character of politicians or do politicians reveal the true character of power? What sets the limits to what presidents and prime minsters can do? And how do we find them? https://profilebooks.com/where-power-stops-hb.html


The books that have had the single largest influence on modern Western politicians are Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon Johson.

  • These books are a love letter to politics: the glory, the grind, the graft.
  • Johnson’s life is a tale of redemption: he was a terrible man, but he did some great things.
  • Johnson’s life shows that individual politicians can make a difference. This is a story that a lot of politicians want to hear.


Caro says that the lesson of Johnson’s life is that power corrupts, but power also reveals. David disagrees.

  • Johnson wanted to dominate. Compassion was not who he really was, it was just another tool at his disposal.
  • To show he deserved power, Johnson had to do what Kennedy couldn’t do: civil rights and the great society.
  • It’s not that power reveals the person, but the person reveals the nature of the power. 
  • Politicians don’t really change. And they often don’t really hide who they are. 
  • When they get to the top, you see not who they are, but what that kind of person can do with power. 


Are Trump and Boris Johnson part of this pattern?

  • We haven’t discovered anything about Trump we didn’t know before.
  • Much more has been revealed about the institution of the presidency than the man.
  • What makes Trump different is that he doesn’t seem to believe that his power is subject to any constraints. This could actually change the institution.
  • Boris Johnson is different. For one thing, he is capable of shame. But he is also willing, potentially, to treat the limits of office as if they aren’t there.


Further Learning:


And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking

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