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.

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