Books July 2002

Fatal Attraction

Robert Caro does a lot of heavy breathing and grasping at the reader's lapels in his books on LBJ.
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To read one of Robert Caro's books on Lyndon Johnson, of which this is the third, is to wander into a psychodrama of epic proportions. Rarely has a biographer been engaged in such a long and ferocious struggle with his subject. This has been going on since the mid-1970s and appears likely to continue for another two or three volumes, as Caro moves Johnson out of the Senate and ultimately, one presumes, into the White House. At more than 1,100 pages, Master of the Senate is nearly as long as Caro's two previous volumes combined. In an era of long biographies, this is among the more leisurely. It is also among the most partisan.

This book is so long in part because Caro has many stories he wants to tell. Scores of pages are devoted to the roles of party whips and majority leaders and the function of Senate committees. Indeed, the first hundred pages are not about Johnson at all but, rather, recount the history of the Senate and how it operates. Caro's Senate is a body drunk on its own power for much of its history, "a mighty dam standing athwart, and stemming, the tides of social justice." But the Senate suffers far less at his hands than does Johnson, whom Caro describes as "a portrait in aggressiveness," a man so driven by his ambition that he "committed acts of great cruelty," and a "deceitful," "immoral," and "ruthless" man, given to "grabbing," "grasping" and "snarling" in pursuit of his selfish goals, shamelessly serving those useful to him while crushing those who stand in his way.

This emotional vocabulary may sound over the top to some readers, but Caro has toned it down considerably from the two previous volumes, for which he was widely criticized. Here he even manages to give Johnson credit for some accomplishments. It was Johnson, as he relates, who undid the seniority system that had allowed segregationist senators to lock up key committees; who put together a coalition to defeat the isolationist Bricker Amendment; who helped to ensure the censure of Joseph McCarthy; who broke ranks with his southern colleagues by refusing to sign the Southern Manifesto, which upheld segregation (as "one of the most courageous acts of political valor I have ever seen take place in my adult life," in the words of Oregon's liberal Senator Richard Neuberger); and who through his legislative genius broke the southern filibustering that had for more than seventy-five years blocked civil-rights legislation, thereby securing passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Caro relates these actions in great and often compelling detail. Toward the end of the book he writes, "It was Lyndon Johnson, among all the white government officials in twentieth-century America, who did the most to help America's black men and women in their fight for equality and justice." But in Caro's telling even this historic achievement is marred by the fact that Johnson's motives were not always pure or his methods above reproach. The thrust of the preceding thousand pages, with their tales of cynical compromises, unkind acts, and devious manipulations, is that despite his reputation, particularly among black people, as a champion of the civil-rights struggle, Johnson was not a true "hero of liberalism." He had not "always battled wholeheartedly for minorities." He had not done so, we are told, because as much as he honored justice, he honored ambition even more.

To serve that ambition, Caro tells us, Johnson formed tactical alliances with conservatives and racists; flattered powerful legislators who could be useful to him, such as Richard Russell and Sam Rayburn; did favors for the Texas oil and gas interests; took advantage of the "open and gregarious nature" of a kindly liberal like Hubert Humphrey; and punished those who opposed him, even if that meant "humiliating a senator." He was so driven that he could not see the "true depth of the antipathy toward him of northern liberals," and in his wheelings and dealings failed to grasp that "there was another world ... in which principles mattered far more than they did in the Senate."

In other words, Johnson was a politician, who while doing good deeds also engaged in some questionable and perhaps even shady practices. This is more shocking to Caro than it is likely to be to most of his readers, who may not have such high standards as he does—at least not for politicians. But Caro is the kind of moralist who is more concerned with the purity of a politician's heart than with the effectiveness of his actions. His Johnson was not morally untainted; he may have harbored "impulses that might be called noble," but in any conflict between his compassion and his ambition "it was the ambition that won."

Why was he so ambitious? Because he was driven by "desperation and fear, the fear of a man fleeing something terrible." (Caro so likes this phrase that he uses it twice.) And what was that terrible thing? That he would be considered a failure, like his idealistic father. Caro makes this point time and again. It is his Rosebud. And like that famous sled, it is dramatically striking but explains little. Nobody likes to fail. Ambitious boys born in log cabins want to do better than their fathers. And if they think that their fathers are uninspiring, they will find others to emulate.

For Caro, ambition carries the stench of power, and no word in the lexicon disturbs him more. He is both fascinated by power and repelled by those who exercise it. He is like a religious fundamentalist in the grip of a sexual passion he cannot control and cannot extirpate. For him, the very existence of power is the abuse of power. His books are not so much biographies in any conventional sense as they are virtual lamentations on the evils of power. His first book, a study of the city planner Robert Moses and what Caro described as "the fall of New York," was titled The Power Broker, a term suggesting shady tradeoffs. The Johnson series began with The Path to Power, in which the young Lyndon had no power at all but only aspirations.

Such a view of power in a sophisticated author and former reporter, who has presumably descended into the kitchen of politics, is odd. It is like being repelled by the realization that surgeons actually enjoy their bloody work. Few in the political arena are morally pure or devoid of ambition, and those few do not last long. To denigrate ambition and the quest for power does not put one on the side of the angels but, rather, establishes one as living in the clouds.

Although Caro grudgingly acknowledges Johnson's achievements, the real juice of this book lies in his tales of Johnson's underhanded and self-serving behavior. Unlike some biographers (David McCullough, for example, who seems to fall in love with the presidents he chronicles), Caro is fatally attracted to the kind of man he can hate. Nothing gets his Oedipal adrenaline going like a successful, powerful man of great accomplishment and impure heart. Especially if that man is a liberal. Character flaws are Caro's specialty.

One of his favorite devices is moral counterpoint. In each of the Johnson books he finds—or fashions—a saint done in by his protagonist-sinner. In the second volume, Means of Ascent, Caro found his Sigmund—a simple, honest man, too decent and trusting to prevail over horse thieves—in the person of Coke Stevenson, a "beloved" Texas governor denied election to the Senate in 1948 by a conniving Johnson. Stevenson was a man's man; "he made Texans remember why they were proud of being Texans." His people loved him because he "was not a politician but a hero." Yet Stevenson lost the election by eighty-seven votes, because Johnson "stole" it. Or at least this is what Caro claimed in that book and claims again here, although he offers no more proof than he did last time around.

It is daring of Caro even to mention Stevenson again after his "legend" was demolished by Sidney Blumenthal in a review of Means of Ascent in The New Republic of June 4, 1990. Blumenthal, who had done his homework, revealed that the saintly Stevenson had for years been plagued by accusations of taking money for phony oil leases; had won election as lieutenant governor in 1938 with the help of an endorsement from the reactionary governor "Pappy" O'Daniel, who is generally believed to have stolen the 1941 Senate election from Johnson; and was himself accused of stealing votes in the 1948 election. Indeed, charges of ballot-box manipulation by both sides in 1948 were so widespread that it is impossible to be sure who won the election.

In the unkindest cut of all Blumenthal also revealed Stevenson's racism, support for segregation, and refusal in 1942, when he was the governor of Texas, to prosecute a group of good ol' boys who had dragged a black man from his hospital bed and lynched him. Caro circumvents these revelations by suggesting that they are inconsequential, because "civil rights was not an issue in that campaign" that brought Johnson to the Senate. He then goes on to criticize Johnson for failing to support an anti-poll-tax bill during his run for the Senate in 1948. Blacks did not seem to hold this against him, however; as Caro admits, Johnson won a heavy majority among them.

The counterpoint hero, the anti-Johnson, of Master of the Senate is Leland Olds, the chairman from 1940 to 1949 of the Federal Power Commission, the government agency that regulated the creation and sale of power from natural resources. Described by Caro as a "former mathematics honor student" who wanted only to "be of service" and "to help human beings" by "mitigating the evil of poverty," Olds had the bad fortune to be a victim of a McCarthy-style hysteria that swept the country in the late 1940s. As a young radical in the 1920s, he had written articles denouncing religions that preached "the principles of the exploiting class," and had argued that social justice would come only with the "complete passing of the old order of capitalism."

Unsurprisingly, the oil and gas interests did not want Olds reappointed to his influential position when his second term expired, in 1949. Johnson chaired the hearings on his reconfirmation and, according to Caro, stacked the committee against him and undercut his defense. He did so, Caro suggests, to serve the Texas oil and gas interests, thus demonstrating that he "was not now and had never been a liberal." But of course he was a liberal, as were many of the other senators who in a time of hysteria uncourageously voted by a 53-15 margin to deny Olds reconfirmation. What the episode actually showed was that Johnson was not a political realist and at times was an opportunist—a crime of which most politicians stand convicted.

Anyone can nail Johnson for his bad deeds. Caro takes him to task even for his good ones. He tells us that in 1938, by assiduous lobbying in Washington, Johnson won for Austin one of the first federal grants for low-income housing. But there was a worm in the apple. Nearly half the units in a predominantly black and Mexican-American district ended up being occupied by whites. Caro suggests that this resulted from political opportunism on the part of Congressman Johnson, who named the top officers to administer the grant. But it might also have been political realism in a place where the city officials of the time quite probably would not have approved public housing otherwise.

As another example of Johnson's "deep compassion surrendering to true, deeper pragmatism," Caro relates the story of Felix Longoria, a Mexican-American soldier killed in the battle for the Philippines. On being told that a funeral home in Three Rivers, Texas, would not accept the veteran's body, an outraged Johnson offered his help to the family and arranged for Longoria to be given a hero's burial in Arlington National Cemetery. But then, Caro tells us, "the backtracking began." The indignant funeral director insisted that he had been misunderstood and had not denied Longoria burial. Complaints of false accusation began flooding into Johnson's office from irate city officials. Nevertheless, Longoria was buried at Arlington, and Johnson attended the funeral. That, however, was apparently not good enough. He had not, Caro tells us, invited the veteran's family to visit his office and have their picture taken with him. What is the point of this story? That Johnson, on being criticized by South Texas politicians, "learned the cost of siding with the oppressed" and thereafter was more careful about covering his political bases. Thus it is that no good deed goes unpunished.

Nor does anything else. Caro charges, for example, that Johnson helped to block a 1956 civil-rights bill because it threatened to impede his presidential ambitions. However, the fact is that most prominent liberals, including Adlai Stevenson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, and Wayne Morse, opposed the bill, on the grounds that it was cynically designed to split the Democrats. Even Caro admits that only three Senate Democrats voted for what was "a hopeless gesture foredoomed to failure."

Although he prides himself on examining virtually every document relating to his subject, Caro somehow missed another important episode. According to Robert Dallek, in Lone Star Rising (1991), the first volume of his thorough and judicious biography, Johnson, beginning in the 1930s, helped hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution to gain entry to Texas through Latin American countries. This action was striking at a time when few other politicians showed such concern. Perhaps Caro has no interest in it because it was, at least in part, a foreign-policy issue. In his single-minded concern with domestic questions, particularly civil rights and the legislative maneuvers within the confines of the Senate, Caro virtually ignores the great foreign-policy issues of Johnson's years in the Senate, including the charged debate over the formation of NATO; the argument over whether the United States should intervene in Indochina in 1954, after the collapse of the French colonial war there; and the Suez crisis of 1956.

For all its length, this book is very narrow in its focus. Its concerns are three: the obstructionist role of the U.S. Senate, the battle over civil rights, and, of course, the self-serving machinations of Lyndon Johnson. The first two are old stories, though retold in great detail. The third is a further installment of Caro's long-standing obsession.

Caro is of course not alone in being a biographer who dislikes his subject. Many writers choose to write about knaves. They are invariably more interesting than saints. Liking is not necessary—but understanding is. And understanding requires some emotional distance. Indignation, self-righteous or even righteous, is not sufficient. Only through what might be called literary empathy can a biographer show us why a person behaved a certain way. Caro's Johnson—covered with warts and bursting with deceit and ruthless ambition—is without ambiguity or complexity. He is someone we are supposed to love to hate and find particularly despicable because he sometimes did good things. But to view Johnson so narrowly is to miss what made him a consummately interesting person.

Caro has the strengths of an investigative reporter, which is what he was, at the Long Island daily Newsday, before he embarked on biography. He is a tireless researcher and has a nose for the neglected detail and the buried story. But he also has an investigative reporter's weaknesses: a determination to "get the goods" on his subject, a tendency to let his excitement over an arduously researched "revelation" exaggerate its importance. There is a lot of heavy breathing and grasping of the reader's lapels in his books.

Caro's writing can also be overwrought. His work groans under self-consciously novelistic or scene-setting devices. In this book's very first pages we are for no clear reason presented with a full-page description of a room in the Senate, "narrow and drab, its two long walls a pale tan in color and undecorated except for a few black-and-white lithographs and dull green draperies" and a mirror: "Twice as tall as a man and wide enough to fill almost the entire wall, bordered in a broad frame of heavy gold leaf, it was a mirror out of another age, a mirror large enough for a man to watch as he swirled a cloak around himself and to check the way it sat on his shoulders—or, having removed the cloak and handed it to a waiting pageboy, to check every detail of his appearance before he pushed open those swinging doors."

Needless to say, no such man is ever produced—or any such pageboy, for that matter. Instead what we have is description for its own sake, a sign of a writer too much in love with his own prose. Both in treatment and in subject this book is twice as long as it should be. It would have benefited considerably from some ruthless editing.

It is also badly organized and unfocused. Johnson, the ostensible subject, wanders in and out, disappearing for pages and even for whole chapters as Caro's fancy is caught by something else. But then, Caro does warn us early on that this book is not just about Johnson and the way he furthered his ambition by exercising his skills in the Senate; it is a study of "America's Senate itself."

Caro implies that his is the only truly authoritative biography of Johnson—that he and his wife, whom he credits as his co-researcher, have interviewed more witnesses and examined more archives than anyone else. But there are facts and there are facts. Everything depends on interpretation ... or omission. One does not have to be a post-structuralist to question such assurance about the nature of "truth," particularly when it involves declarations about human motivation.

Confidence in Caro's method and judgment is not reinforced by the attributions and notes that are meant to back up his quotations and assertions. Because there are no footnote numbers in the text, it is exceedingly difficult to determine his sources. For one chapter, boiled down from his earlier books, there are no notes at all. Interviewees are cited as sources regarding Johnson's actions and motivations without any indication of who they are or why we should trust their words. Whole conversations are presented in the text without the reader's being able easily to determine where they come from. The normal qualifier "according to" would be helpful to a reader trying to sort out opinion from fact.

In focusing so relentlessly on Johnson's ambition, Caro often loses track of Johnson as a human being. He tells us, for example, that Johnson was often, at least in public, not very nice to his wife, and was even unfaithful. But he does not tell us what it was about Johnson that made the universally admired Lady Bird so devoted to him. He also relates that Johnson had intense and prolonged affairs with two extraordinary women: Alice Glass, the mistress and later the wife of Charles Marsh, the publisher of the liberal Austin American-Statesman; and Helen Gahagan Douglas, a movie star who was elected to Congress and then ran for the Senate from California, where she was defeated by a Red-baiting Richard Nixon in one of the many shameful episodes of the McCarthy era. But again, he treats these critical relationships as pesky intrusions that get in the way of following an amendment through a Senate subcommittee. A biography that reduces its subject to a political calculating machine, that in almost prurient detail unveils his ambition but ignores his heart, that fails to deal with the life of its subject and with the positive emotions that others deeply felt toward him, lacks an essential element of truth.

After three volumes and some 2,500 pages of text, Caro has still not been able to capture Johnson's complexity. Instead he is blinded by the cunning, even though impressed by the skills. He is indignant that Johnson was not like the liberal senators who "spoke of truth and honor" and meant it—the good Hubert Humphrey and others like him (who, of course, ended up serving Johnson to further their own ambitions). He is outraged that Johnson "was deceitful and proud of it." He has not yet been able to delve into Johnson as Robert Penn Warren did into his fictionalized Huey Long, in All the King's Men (1946), and as Billy Lee Brammer did in his novel The Gay Place (1961), still the best character study of Johnson.

But to have done so would have been to go beyond Johnson as a politician, to see him as more than a conniver who would do the "right thing" only if it cost him nothing and was sure to advance his interests. It would have meant not only examining the politics of "the years of Lyndon Johnson," which Caro does quite thoroughly, but also accepting Johnson as a complicated man driven by multiple impulses. Not as Shakespeare's malicious Richard III but, rather, as Schiller's torn and even tragic Philip II. Lyndon Johnson was a man of operatic dimensions. Robert Caro sees the action but doesn't hear the music.

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