Friday, June 22, 2012

Caro's best yet?

Robert Caro is, for the time being at least, the last of a breed. Grand-scale biography has been an important part of the western tradition at least since the early 19th century, when the French historian and politician Adolphe Thiers wrote a 20-volume life of Napoleon, and almost every major western political figure of the 19th and early 20th centuries received at least one multi-volume treatment. In the second half of the twentieth century they became harder and harder to complete. No less than three historians from the GI generation--Frank Friedel, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Kenneth Davis--began multi-volume treatments of Franklin Roosevelt, but Friedel never got beyond 1933, Schlesinger stopped at the 1936 elections, and Davis died without getting beyond 1944. Arthur Link's planned definitive biography of Woodrow Wilson never got beyond 1917, and my friend Nigel Hamilton's projected three volumes on JFK came to an end after volume I thanks to disputes with the Kennedy family. Stephen Ambrose wrote two volumes on Eisenhower and three on Nixon.

After scoring a brilliant success with his book on New York master builder Robert Moses in the mid-1970s, Caro began work on LBJ. Two volumes, taking the story up to his election to the Senate in 1948, appeared during the 1980s. A substantial hiatus followed, and Master of the Senate came out in 2003, taking in the period 1949-58. That volume was quite extraordinary regarding the legislative battles of the Truman and Eisenhower years, but Caro and his editor apparently decided that length forced them to cut it short and essentially leave out the very interest legislative sessions of 1959-60, when large new Democratic majorities failed to win any major victories at all. Now, nine years later, comes The Passage of Power, covering Johnson's failed campaign for the 1960 Presidential nomination, his extraordinarily frustrating Vice Presidency, and above all, his first seven months or so in office. It is, obviously, the most concentrated volume yet, and it draws on new kinds of sources, especially the recordings of telephone conversations that Johnson began making as soon as he got into the White House. I found it the most readable so far--partly, I admit, because Caro has now reached the events that I not only remember quite vividly but have also researched myself--and in some ways the most moving.

Several emotional themes have dominated the whole work. On the one hand, Johnson evidently inherited his mother--known like so many mothers from the Missionary generation as a saint--a deep compassion for the misery of others. On the other hand, he was scarred by his father's business failures and determined to be hard-nosed, realistic, and successful in anything he did. As Caro has shown again and again, he had only two ways of treating other men. If they depended on him, he treated them like dirt; if he needed them, he fawned all over them. He could not treat anyone, it seems, as a real equal, and that suddenly explained to me something I had discovered writing American Tragedy--that Johnson had no talent at all for dealing with foreign leaders. As Presidents like Kennedy and the elder George Bush have understood so well, one must understand his foreign counterparts' problems if one expects them to understand one's own--and this Johnson could not do, it seems, outside the halls of the Congress of the United States, where he was accustomed to supreme power.

The book falls essentially into four parts. There is first the rather pathetic story of Johnson's half-assed (as he might have put it) campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination of 1960, in which he was torn, Caro argues convincingly, between his overwhelming ambition on the one hand and his fear of losing on the other. John F. Kennedy, for whom LBJ had never had any respect as a Senator, beat Johnson at his own game, out-campaigning and out-organizing him. Caro became very taken with many aspects of Kennedy's personality and governance while writing this book, and he implies that Kennedy's genuine wartime heroism under fire had given him an ability to cope with the ups and downs of electoral politics that Johnson lacked. He also had the ability to inspire, rather than to terrorize, those fortunate enough to work with him. Caro tells the story of Johnson's selection as Vice President very well, largely destroying, like Robert Dallek before him, the myth propagated by Robert Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger, and others, that JFK didn't really mean to offer the Vice Presidency to Johnson at all.

The second part deals with the Vice Presidency himself. I had completely forgotten--indeed, I had probably never known--that Johnson during the 1960-1 transition had attempted a Dick Cheney-style coup, proposing not only that he continue to lead the Senate Democratic caucus but also to assume unprecedented executive authority. Both attempts failed, and Johnson within a few months found out how badly he had underestimated JFK and the people around him. He became a figure of fun without influence in Camelot, and his frustration became intense. He responded by fawning all over the First Family, even giving Jackie Kennedy a few head of prize cattle to keep on the Virginia estate the First Lady had rented for her preferred quadripeds, horses. Eventually Jackie had to return the gift, suggesting that Lyndon sell them and contribute the proceeds to her White House restoration project. He did.

I did remember the Bobby Baker scandal very well. I had spent the summer of 1963 working in Hubert Humphrey's Senate office, thanks to a family friend, LBJ protege Harry McPherson, who had remained at his Senate staffer post after 1960, and sometime that summer I came across Harry in conversation with another young staffer with a polished southern accent. When I asked Harry about him sometime later--I think it must have been in August--he replied that he was the most powerful staffer in the Senate, its Secretary, Bobby Baker--but there was a wistful, slightly troubled look on his face as he said it. A couple of months later, at boarding school, I read the story of Baker's resignation under fire below the fold of the front page of the New York Times. It turned out, as Caro shows in great detail, that Baker must have been orchestrating an elaborate network of fundraising, political favors, gratuities such as a $500 stereo, and purchases of advertising on LBJ's radio and television stations on Johnson's behalf for a long time. Major news organizations including Life magazine began a deep investigation into how Johnson, who had never held a private-sector job in his whole adult life, had become a multi-millionaire, and there is ample reason to believe that, had it not been for Kennedy's assassination, Johnson's life as he had known it would shortly have come to an end. While I was not persuaded by Caro's argument that JFK was thinking seriously about dropping him from the ticket yet--an argument that rests on one conversation with the President's Secretary Evelyn Lincoln--it certainly looked as though the scandal would have turned Johnson into an enormous liability.

The third and most intense part of the book, of course, is the account of the events of November 22-25, 1963, which Caro recounts in detail every bit as affecting, although not quite so excruciating, as William Manchester did 45 years ago. But as the excerpts published in the New Yorker made clear, Caro provides something new as well. The Lyndon Johnson who walked out of Parkland Hospital as President (even though he had not taken the oath of office) was a very different man than the frustrated, bitter, and deeply frightened Vice President who had gotten up that morning, or the Senator who could fly into a rage at the slightest mistake that a staffer might make. While the trauma Kennedy's death represented for the nation has often been discussed, its extraordinary impact on his successor has been neglected. Johnson, like everyone else close to Kennedy, had clearly developed an enormous respect for him and what he was trying to accomplish, and he undoubtedly felt genuine survivor guilt over what had happened. And for at least the next seven months, Caro makes clear again and again--most movingly in the last pages of the volume--Lyndon Johnson was truly a different man--calmer, more reasonable, far less prone to rage, and thus capable of providing the calming presence that the American nation needed so desperately.

Nor was this all. Nearly the country's entire political leadership also put their customary concerns aside--and Johnson took full advantage of this. When Kennedy was killed, the Senate was about to pass a bill forbidding a planned wheat sale to the Soviet Union, then, as later, a harbinger of detente. Working the phones, Johnson appealed to Republicans not to damage his prestige in his first few days in office, and it worked. Only after 9/11 have we ever seen anything comparable to the way the nation pulled together at that moment in the years since--and in that case, a new President put the new spirit into disastrous causes. Johnson put them into great ones.

There is no question, as Caro shows beyond doubt, that Johnson was determined to use that spirit and his knowledge of the legislative process to pass Kennedy's Civil Rights Bill. He understood--because he had seen and even assisted in the strategy as a Senator--how the southern barons who controlled Congress would stall every other measure on the calendar in order to leave too little time to deal with civil rights when it finally encountered a Senate filibuster. (Many readers will note how little things have changed: this is exactly the tactic that today's Republicans, led by southerners, have used against President Obama.) Their main hostage in December 1963 was Kennedy's tax cut, stuck in Virginia Senator Harry Byrd's Finance Committee. Determined to win Byrd over, Johnson insisted that his team submit a budget smaller than Kennedy's 1964 budget and somewhat under $100 billion, a figure of symbolic significance to Byrd. (It is astonishing to realize the extent to which, even in my youth, American politics were dominated by white southerners still determined, to the maximum extent possible, to mitigate the impact of Appomatox.) Caro's portrayal of Byrd is accurate, although he does not seem to have heard that, as Harry McPherson told me at the time, Byrd's mental capacity was by now sufficiently diminished so that he could not follow the details of his own committee hearings. In any event, Johnson's flattery won him over, as it had won over many older men in the past, and the tax cut--a fateful measure, actually, that dropped the top marginal rate from 91% to 75%--passed the Senate early in the year.

The story of the passage of the great civil rights act is equally compelling. Johnson needed Republican votes in the House and Senate, and he got them by ceaselessly appealing to the "party of Lincoln." Mainline clergy of all faiths--who half a century later have ceased to be a political force--played a critical lobbying role in breaking the Senate filibuster s well. And so the bill was passed. "We could have beaten Kennedy," Johnson's old mentor Richard Russell remarked very early in this fight, "but we can't beat Johnson." That could well have been the case, although we will never know.

Caro is apparently deferring foreign policy for the next volume. He does show that Johnson from the first moment was determined not to lose South Vietnam or pursue the neutralization option that Kennedy had gone for in 1961 in Laos. He does not discuss the very revealing crisis over the Panama Canal that broke out in early 1964, which showed LBJ as a man determined not to let foreigners push him around. I suspect he will make up for this when the time comes. Like me, he has listened to the White House recordings.

Regarding the Kennedy assassination itself, Caro takes a welcome agnostic position on the possibility of a conspiracy, except to say that he had found no evidence whatever that Johnson himself was involved. I heartily agree with that position. He makes it clear that Johnson appointed the Warren Commission to quiet suspicions of Soviet or Cuban involvement--although he could have gone a bit further in detailing the extent to which Johnson shared those suspicions himself. (Those suspicions escalated in 1967, as I have shown in The Road to Dallas, after Johnson learned about the CIA-Mafia assassination plots against Castro.)

Finishing The Years of Lyndon Johnsonr will be a challenge, not least because of the enormous source material available for the year of the Presidency. I have no doubt that Caro, by making full use of White House tapes, could write 1000 pages about each year from 1965 through 1968. In volumes I and II he had to rely mainly on interviews to develop an astonishing amount of information about events already half a century old; now he is drowning in documentation. Having struggled with similar problems of data organization myself, I know they can be solved. There is no doubt that Caro intended to write one of the greatest tragedies of American history, and no doubt that, so far, he has succeeded.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I thought Master of the Senate was a little better than this one, but hey, its like comparing 27 Yankees to the 48 Indians - both are great.