The long awaited fourth volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson has been widely praised, but I want to put in a discouraging word. The praise was earned by the central characters, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. The Kennedy brothers and Johnson showed so much mutual contempt that it was hatred worthy of Shakespeare, and it did impact on the fate of the nation. Moreover, these figures are larger than life in the ordinary sense that you could not easily see yourself having a beer or coffee with any of the three of them. They were so full of themselves that they were best observed in passing, as figures in a political campaign. Unless you were an old friend, being with the Kennedys would be attending upon royalty, and being with Johnson, according to the reports, would be even worse: for him you would be either a subordinate or someone Johnson was winning over to be a subordinate. These were the leaders of cult groups, and I say that as someone who had become a member of the Kennedy cult as an undergraduate.
I remember, back then, having it explained to me on a sunny spring day at the sundial on the Columbia campus, that Kennedy had a good shot at the nomination. I could not believe that he could live down his right wing father or his McCarthyite brother, though I had already considered his post-colonial speech on Algeria as refreshing. Was he going to be a maverick that provided fresh thoughts on difficult issues? He seemed intellectually equipped to do so. But it was a one shot deal. He gave no further clues to having an independence of mind and so earning a place for himself as a lion of the Senate. I was won over to Kennedy when he appeared at the convention hall in Los Angeles to accept the nomination, as if getting a Presidential nomination was itself an accomplishment rather than a chance to try to accomplish something. But it was all so majestic: the attractive family, the gracefulness, the comfort (largely feigned) with being in the limelight. It took me twenty years to get over that. As for Johnson, this undergraduate thought he was a Southerner and so the case was closed against him. I wanted Adlai in what was a weak field, though I should have supported Humphrey, who had always, always been strong on civil rights, so much so that Morning Joe denounced him recently for not having the courage of Harry Truman who had done something about civil rights because Humphrey walked out at the ’48 convention because he was not getting enough. Everybody has their role to play and Humphrey understood from early on that civil rights was the major issue of his times.
Caro is very good at bringing back these vivid figures. I do not think, though, that he gets the stories right. That is because he arcs the story of the Sixty campaign so that it plays out a literary roles and genres. Kennedy is playing Prince Hal. The wastrel and inattentive youth gets serious about the political career thrust upon him and with his brother serving as his this time loyal Iago, fighting like hell to get what he wants. Johnson is playing Hamlet and so hems and haws before deciding too late to go all out for the nomination, and that is what costs him the prize, his hesitancy. It is all very tragic and you aren’t required to like tragic figures.
Thinking that way is to encourage a literary Machiavellianism of the sort that was also prized in Shakespeare’s time. We all like to imagine ourselves in a world where everybody is always calculating and acting decisive at just the right moment. The world of Dallas and Game of Thrones is captivating as a distraction from life and as something to enjoy vicariously. Wouldn’t we all like to be that clever and ruthless? Except that in real life we want there to be more than that. We want politicians that are more human, more approachable, just as the last three presidents have been, and we want them to be about something more than cutting their opponents throats. Where are the issues? What about the American social landscape upon which the drama of presidential politics is played? Machiavelli is good for melodrama, not for understanding the way politics operates.
The Theodore White books were better than Caro at getting to what elections are about, which is not the inside baseball but, rather, how politicians scheme to find ways of engaging the voters, to ride the crest of one issue until they nimbly jump to the crest of a different wave. Look at how Obama took the high ground on gay marriage and so won the past week, the Republicans letting that victory pass so that they can get back onto the economy without leaving themselves open to even more criticism on the gay issue by making too many comments about it. Theodore White knew that constituencies counted, and that constituencies are won by issues. The Jews want support for Israel; the white Catholics of Kennedy’s time want support for labor unions; Liberals of all stripes want civil rights legislation. Issues don’t go away even if Caro treats constituencies as won over because a candidate works hard at it.
That is why, I think, he makes the mistake of dealing with Johnson’s hesitancy to drop into the race as an expression of a pathological fear of humiliation. Caro thinks Johnson couldn’t show he wanted the nomination that much because he might not get it. But, to the contrary, what Johnson did made rational sense. He did not jump in until after the West Virginia primary, when it was too late, because he knew at that point that Kennedy was wrapping up the nomination and so only a desperation race might pay off. And Kennedy won West Virginia not only because of having F. D. R., Jr. on his side. He drowned Humphrey with money, some of it via Sam Giancana, the Mafia Don whose mistress, Judith Exner, he had taken on as his own. Sound too sleazy for presidential politics? Have you ever heard of John Edwards or Bill Clinton? These things do go on. Richard III or Othello and tell you that a woman can make a difference in politics. But Caro does not spend much time on the sexual sleazy side, even though Kennedy and Johnson both indulged themselves.
Before the West Virginia primary, Johnson had thought, quite rightly, that Kennedy had too many deficits to get a first round nomination. Why did Johnson need to push the nomination to the back rooms to be settled? Because he was, indeed, a Southerner, and no amount of speeches were going to change the mind of Northerners about him, even if, as Caro recounts, there was a successful speech in Pennsylvania. What Johnson knew is that a full out campaign would have opened him up to too many press conferences at which he might be asked embarrassing questions. Was he abandoning the South’s position on race relations or wasn’t he, and what would he promise to do about race relations as President? That way, he would either alienate the North or the South, and the South was providing him with the burden of the delegates he was taking to Los Angeles. He could never be more than a regional candidate if he campaigned for the nomination. All the quotations Caro can muster from supporters who urged him to campaign cannot overcome that reasoning. Johnson had to get the nomination from the backrooms, not having declared himself on anything, or else he wouldn’t get it at all.
Now, Caro does admit the argument that for a Southerner to become the nominee was all but impossible later on when he discusses why Johnson was willing to accept the Vice Presidential nomination as the only route he had to the White House. Here he gathers up the Johnson quotes he can find to support that position, just as previously he had gathered up the Johnson quotes to support the idea that Johnson was being irrational. That is what comes of quote mongering, however extensive are your files. It doesn't add up to much. Caro does not take back what he had said before because Caro will not allow consistancy to get in the way of rhetoric.
Caro has done before this trick of bending the story to the dramatic arc he wants it to follow. He laments Robert Moses overreaching when, late in his career, Moses pushed through the Cross Bronx Expressway that destroyed central Bronx neighborhoods and which was therefore one of the causes that led to the burning of the Bronx in the Seventies. But one event following another does not mean the first caused the second. There were many other factors at work. Ethnic immigrants were leaving the Bronx to move to Coop City and the suburbs because they had passed a generation or two in the working class bedroom communities which filled the central Bronx. And that was probably even more important than flight from the Blacks who moved in after they left because their motivation to leave was more than fear of newcomers. It was the sense of having accomplished something so that they could move on to something better. The positive motive is often the stronger motive, even though Caro, in general, burdens his characters with much too much awful motivation to overcome. If Caro is right, how could Kennedy or Johnson or anyone else ever bother to get out of bed in the morning except because they are driven to it by love-hate relations with their fathers? That does not satisfy as a political analysis.