Wednesday, 16 December 2015 10:54

Writers for Conservatives, 44 -Robert Caro's Johnson

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Writers for Conservatives, 44 -Robert Caro's Johnson

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. He writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

This is the fourth volume in a projected five volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, and since we are unlikely ever to see the last volume - Caro is 80; it took him ten years to write this volume - this is a good occasion to assess the whole enterprise. Each book was widely proclaimed on publication and won awards, and they were certainly fascinating. The first one, The Path to Power, about his upbringing in the poor country of West Texas, about his humiliation, as the Johnsons sank into poverty, and about his compensatory drive for power, was meticulously researched and carefully written, in fact beautifully written, and after its publication Johnson's widow stopped cooperating and tried to prevent anyone else from talking to Caro: the portrait of the man was too candid and it was backed by too much proof. In fact, Johnson was emerging as a monster of sorts: crude, coarse, driven by an outsize ego, relentless in his drive for power.

The second volume, Means of Ascent, about his early career in Washington as a congressional aide and later a congressman, continued the grisly theme of his blatant drive for power. The third volume, Master of the Senate, showed how he wielded that power as majority leader of the Senate. Through the end of that volume (1040 pages of text), Caro's writing, his careful attention to detail, still holds our attention, because as Johnson steps into each new role he reveals new aspects of his generally repulsive character. The fourth volume, however, has no surprises for us, and much of the detail seems irrelevant, so the reader find himself skimming, even though this is only 640 pages.

This volume is about Johnson's bid for the presidential nomination in 1960, abortive because he procrastinated, fearing failure. But Kennedy needed him on the ticket for the sake of the South's electoral votes, hence the unlikely partnership of the liberal Kennedy with the Southerner Johnson, intensely disliked by liberals and labor leaders. There was a basic incompatibility between the Ivy League sophisticates around Kennedy and the good ol' Texas boys around Johnson (the former referred to Johnson as "Cornpone"), and it was quite clear that he was an outsider in the administration. A vice president, of course, really has nothing to do, and Johnson, whose whole life was consumed by the need to exercise power, found the situation hard to endure. Every attempt to exert some influence, to exercise some power, was thwarted. In addition, there was deep antipathy between him and the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, an instinctive dislike that had begun years before when Kennedy was counsel to McCarthy's committee.

This volume takes us up to the end of the transition period when Johnson took over after Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. Caro shows how Johnson changed completely, dropping the awkward mannerisms that had marked him in the Vice Presidency, staying in the background as Jacqueline Kennedy went through the obsequies during the period of national mourning. Then, taking charge and with great determination and efficiency, he pushed through Kennedy's legislation that was going nowhere, demonstrating his mastery of the legislative process. The book ends after the State of the Union address in January 1964 when Johnson announces the War on Poverty. The last volume is to be devoted, one surmises, to the rivalry with Robert Kennedy and Johnson's role in the prosecution of the Vietnam War which, Caro says, wrecked his War on Poverty.

The big problem with the book is point of view. Caro is a 1960s liberal whose mind stopped functioning after November 23, 1963, so he has preserved those years like a fly in amber. Hence he can present the War on Poverty as a straightforward idea, and he can use the phrase "social justice" without irony. Camelot lives again. Whatever else it might be, this is no way to write history. For one thing, it diminishes the characters, reduces them to cardboard figures. We know they were real characters much more interesting than Caro's caricatures, but the book resolutely shuts out such perceptions. In this strange context, only Johnson is real because he really was the monster Caro portrays. Resolutely pursuing his researches, Caro documents Johnson's efforts to strong-arm the proprietors of a couple of small Texas papers to suppress reporters and stories he doesn't like, this after he had become President.

Robert Caro's achievement - researching and writing such an exhaustive account, and doing it so well - would be capped, of course, if he finished the final volume but what he has done so far is enough for us to judge this a great political biography. If you plan to read it, begin with the first volume and read them in order. *

Read 2215 times Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2015 16:54
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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