The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Over the past year I’ve read 3/4 of Robert Caro’s now biography of Lyndon Baines Johson. Having just polished off the most recent volume over Xmas, I should say something about these books.
Caro has succeed in crafting one the most compelling fictional heroes in literature this side of Lucifer. I will concede that prior to making my way through the last 3 volumes of the series, I knew very little about this man or his era. My previous impressions of LBJ derived mostly a David Foster Wallace short story and this famous recording of him ordering pants. How accurate Caro’s portrait is, I cannot say. But there is “Robert Caro’s Johnson” out there now, existing in people’s minds apart from the real man, and this person is a fascinating human being.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was a son of a bitch. LBJ, as rendered by Caro, embodies all of the personal characteristics I most despise in a human being. He is by turns cruel, corrupt, cowardly, sycophantic. His treatment of his subordinates is almost uniformly loathsome, and he was most cruel to those people who loved him the most. He had an incredible ability to sense the emotional makeup of the people around him, and target most fragile elements of their character. He was fawning and obsequious to his superiors, particularly the elderly men on whom relied for favors and political advancement. He stole about a half-dozen elections through fraud in the volumes I read, ranging from student government to his senate seat. (I never thought it would be possible to experience actual rage over a senatorial election some 60 years past, but the theft of Coke Stevenson’s US senate seat did just that.) Lyndon Johnson would produce his penis to near-strangers in men’s rooms and urge them to wonder over its impressive girth. A truly, truly despicable human being.
By some happy accident, the most important public goods of the United States– the struggle for civil rights, the quest to end poverty– aligned with the political ambitions of the most ruthless and manipulative man imaginable. This is the central contradiction of Caro’s biographies: it seems to have required a man of this character in order to achieve a better nation. Indeed, for a tender-hearted liberal such as myself, the things he actually achieved during his presidency (important legislation covering health care, immigration, civil rights, education, and gun control to name a few) represent key components of a just and good society.
The most dizzying aspect of this contradiction is that LBJ really did care about the political agenda he advanced, one dedicated to eradicating poverty and racial inequality. He had a tremendous insight into people’s emotions– their hopes and fears, and he saw how racism and poverty robbed its victims of basic dignity. Indeed, it was this empathy that was a key component of his capacity for cruelty.
Would he have pursued these goods unless he saw their advancement as the key to his political success? All signs point to no. The desire for power and the crippling fear of failure seem to have been the ruling elements of his character. But it so happened that the makeup of the political landscape in the late 1960s was such that pursuing social justice — a cause he authentically, if secondarily , believed in — was key to realizing his ambitions.
As a piece of biographer’s craft the book is almost without flaw. Readers of the whole series may find certain parts repetitive, because the basic character traits that shape LBJ’s reaction to new events are well-established by later volumes; Caro tends to repeat certain episodes throughout, to lesser effect. This tendency is fortunately mitigated by his deft character portraits of new figures throughout the series –volume four is particularly blessed by the entry onto the stage of LBJ nemesis Robert Kennedy. (RFK, also a total bastard! Smashed a friend on the head with a beer bottle because he suspected him of trying to diminish the glory of his birthday party)
It’s impossible to read about this man without also thinking about our own dire political situation. Barack Obama is by almost all accounts a kind and decent man, one whose political convictions generally agree with my own. But much like Kennedy, he seems singularly inept at the task of realizing his convictions in legislation. Substitute Tea-partyism for Southern states-rightism as the insane ideology du jour (not a big stretch), and the situation facing Obama is not dissimilar to the one facing Kennedy, an incredibly popular man totally unable to coerce congressmen into obeying him. The outlook is not good.
Which is just to say: I would love to have a Clinton back.