Books June 2012

The Cruel Idealist

LBJ’s better angels, plus the power of Big Oil
Hank Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty

The fourth volume of Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson—the collective title for the still unfinished, seemingly never-ending saga, which is a profoundly eccentric and unbalanced account as well as the finest biography yet written of a 20th-century American political figure—chronicles LBJ’s life from 1958 to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, in July 1964. It follows Johnson as he clumsily seeks the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960; as he is outmaneuvered by John F. Kennedy; as he relinquishes the awesome position he had built for himself as the most powerful Senate majority leader in American history to become JFK’s vice president (and hence an impotent toady in an administration that scorned him)—and as he has the presidency thrust upon him following Kennedy’s murder. It’s a largely familiar story, and one in which, until the final months examined in this volume, its subject is perforce and atypically more acted-upon than acting. Furthermore, this volume and its predecessor—Washington-centric chronicles that cover the years when LBJ came to the fore of national life—lack the richness and vividness of Caro’s first two volumes, set largely in Texas and examining Johnson’s family background, impoverished and striving youth, and political emergence.

Still, Caro’s account takes a crucial turn here. The author has always promised that his multivolume work would reveal the dark and light sides of his subject—a man who possessed perhaps the most idealistic vision of government of any American president, and a man of staggering energy, but also a man of crushing ambition, shocking crudeness, unremitting dishonesty, and terrible cruelty. Until this volume, Caro, as his critics have charged, has mostly revealed the darker aspects of Johnson’s character and actions. But in this book a good deal of light emerges. This volume presents a sympathetic picture of the self-abasing and atypical—indeed slavish—loyalty that Johnson tendered to Kennedy, even as he was snubbed and disdained by such thuggishly pseudo-glamorous JFK hangers-on as that poisonous gossip Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

The dramatic centerpiece of this work is Caro’s depiction of the period following JFK’s assassination, when Johnson rose to the chaotic and potentially dangerous occasion with uncharacteristic grace, sensitivity, and self-possession—and with highly characteristic, if nonetheless preternatural, political adroitness. Caro plainly admires LBJ’s skillful exploitation of the fleeting sense of national unity to push through a crucial tax cut and historic civil-rights legislation.

Nevertheless, as in his earlier volumes, Caro is far more generous, even adoring, toward Johnson’s rivals and enemies—in this case Robert F. Kennedy and his doped-up, mobbed-up brother—than he is toward Johnson himself. Whether RFK—who shared with Johnson a mutual loathing and who, until November 22, 1963, enjoyed a near-universal and well-deserved reputation for viciousness—really underwent a characterological and ideological conversion after his brother’s murder, from McCarthyite bully-boy to, as Caro would have it, compassionate, tousle-haired hero with a “passion for social justice,” is a debatable proposition. But however one decides that question, one’s chief source should probably not be what apparently was Caro’s: the sycophantic and obviously biased account by Ben Bradlee, that tough-guy manqué with the fancy English shirts and an all but professional Friend of the Kennedys. Caro does note that the tendentious and fawning version of Camelot and its legacy advanced by Schlesinger, Bradlee, Ted Sorensen, and their ilk has become the historical template that is more or less still followed today. But the reader too often finds Caro adhering to that template himself—and one longs for him to subject Johnson’s adversaries to the same skeptical, even cynical, probing to which he has unmercifully subjected Johnson.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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