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The Necessary Details

Kevin Stevens

Working, by Robert A Caro, Bodley Head, 240 pp, £20.00, ISBN: 978-1847926050

On a warm day in September 1963, a few months after my eighth birthday, John F Kennedy visited my hometown of Great Falls, Montana. My dad brought me early to the motorcade route, and we had a coveted curbside vantage as the navy-blue presidential convertible floated within feet of us. Our glimpse was brief, but I still remember the calculated dazzle of the famous smile, the vibrant, intelligent eyes, the auburn shock of hair – though over time the memory has, inevitably, melded with the silent-movie horror of the Zapruder footage, filmed in Dallas less than two months after that Montana visit.

A year later, almost to the day, my dad and I were in the audience at Malmstrom Air Force Base on the outskirts of Great Falls when President Lyndon Johnson and Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson, who were meeting to sign a dam-building treaty, made a short public appearance. My impression of Johnson – again, probably coloured by seeing him so often on TV over the four years to come – could not have been more different from the Kennedy moment. Hulking and deliberate, sly-eyed and jowly, he read his prepared speech with little animation and what I heard as a yokel’s accent. Though only in his fifties, to me he was an old man.

My dad was introducing me to history and politics. An FDR-Truman Democrat, he admired how JFK and LBJ, in their different ways, had pledged their presidencies to the New Deal tradition of active government and compassionate liberalism. He was one of Kennedy’s “new generation of Americans”, buoyed by postwar prosperity and heady with confidence in America’s ability to do good. “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor,” my father liked to say, quoting Kennedy’s inaugural address, “it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Yet my young conception of the two presidents was closer to mythology than history. If the assassination made JFK a god, then Vietnam – the tragedy that shadowed my coming of age and would shape my own politics profoundly – turned Johnson into a demon king. The mythos of his presidency was summed up by the chant that haunted him in retirement and haunts his nation still: “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” Kennedy moved from Camelot to apotheosis; Johnson from the Great Society to the Gehenna of Indochina.

Over time my reading would correct those simplifications. The hagiography of Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger would be tempered by later chronicles of Kennedy’s feet of clay: Robert Dallek’s analysis of the Bay of Pigs debacle and the failure of leadership on civil rights; Seymour Hersh’s prurient detail of drug use and predatory sex, the stolen 1960 presidential election, and the multiple attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. Johnson’s fall from grace, on the other hand, would be balanced by a growing appreciation for the triumphs of his domestic legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; healthcare and immigration reform; significant federal funding for education and the War on Poverty. A flurry of LBJ books followed his death in 1973, the most notable of which was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, an admiring portrait that leveraged her working relationship with her subject: a member of his White House staff, she became a confidante during his final years. Johnson, she would argue, was a man who “accurately perceived the national will” and used his own monumental will to forge his Great Society programme, which would “enrich and elevate our national life” and “serve the welfare of every citizen”.

That thesis was accurate if incomplete, yet Goodwin’s narrative was both aided and compromised by her unparalleled access to Johnson (he had drafted her to help him write his memoirs), and she quotes him often and at length. But LBJ was a master at persuading an interlocutor – any interlocutor – of his version of reality, and there was no better man at bending the truth. Fortunately for history, just as Goodwin’s 1976 book was becoming a New York Times bestseller and launching her literary career, Robert Caro was beginning a project that would become not just the best biography of Johnson but, in the opinion of many, the best biography of any American president.

Caro was forty when he began research into what would become four volumes (and counting) on LBJ’s life. He is now eighty-three and still working on it. The first volume, The Path to Power, was published in 1982, and a projected fifth, covering the years from 1964 to Johnson’s death, is in progress and will include analyses of the 1964 presidential election, the climax of his feud with Robert Kennedy, the Great Society programme, and of course Vietnam and Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election in 1968. Caro says himself that he is “several years from finishing” this final book, and those like me who believe this collective effort to be a great literary and historical achievement pray that he lives long enough to see it through.

The focus and commitment required for such a mammoth task are explored in Caro’s latest book, Working, which he is at pains to point out is not a memoir but “a series of pieces … about my work and how I do it”. He admits that his hope of writing a full-length memoir is unrealistic given his age and the work remaining on the Johnson biography, so this slight collection of essays, many of them published previously, will have to do. And though Working gives us several interesting anecdotes about his research, a few notes on his working methods and trenchant observations about his subjects, I have to admit that I was glad that the book doesn’t have much substance – indicating that it didn’t divert him much from his real work, completion of that ultimate volume.

It is surprising to hear one of America’s greatest biographers say that he “never had the slightest intention in writing the life of a great man”. Caro cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter who, as he covered city elections and political scandals in New York and New Jersey in the 1950s and ’60s, learned that power in a democracy is more complicated than his civics lessons had led him to believe. Where power comes from, how it grows and is wielded, and how it shapes the lives of ordinary people – these questions pushed Caro into writing his first book, The Power Broker, a biography of Robert Moses, the unelected New York City official who was the driving force behind the creation of the extensive network of highways and bridges that defined the postwar New York metropolitan area.

Moses was a polarising figure whose vision had roots in reform and idealism but whose methods depended more and more on realpolitik and influence as his power grew. “From the very start,” Caro tells us in Working, “I thought of writing biographies as a means of illuminating the times of the men I was writing about and the great forces that molded those times.” Much of that illumination is the dramatisation of the human cost of his subjects’ decisions, including Moses’s razing of vibrant urban neighbourhoods and the displacement of thousands of families as he built the means of connecting (and enabling) the burgeoning suburbs that radically altered American life in the sixties.

The Power Broker nearly bankrupted Caro and his wife, Ina, who has collaborated closely with him on all his research. Because it took seven years to research and write – and because it required every minute of his working time, so that he could not hold down another job – the project was a huge financial burden on the couple, alleviated only by drastic measures such as keeping a variety of creditors on hold for years and selling the family home on Long Island, a house that Ina loved. But the book was a success, winning the Pulitzer Prize and a number of other awards and earning Caro the prestige and financial security that allowed him and Ina to take on LBJ.

Moses “was the most powerful figure in New York City and New York State for more than forty years”, so it was a natural step for Caro to choose as his next subject someone who wielded comparable power at the national level. Johnson’s single-handed transformation of the US Senate in the 1950s from a hidebound, stagnant institution into “the center of governmental ingenuity, creativity, and energy in Washington” would form the core of Caro’s dissection of how, throughout his life, Johnson marshalled incredible personal resources, including a willingness to lie, cheat and steal at the highest level, towards the total control of people, processes and institutions. But the Senate was always a springboard for the presidency, where Johnson’s ambition and cunning resulted in behaviour that would define a decade and change the US for good. “Never,” Caro writes, “has there been a clearer example of the enormous impact – both for good and for ill – that political power has on people’s lives than during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.”

Like Bismarck and de Gaulle, Johnson was a man of massive ambition and political will who had exactly the right political gifts to leverage the historical forces of his time and place as he came to dominate national political institutions. Ideologically neutral, ruthlessly pragmatic, he was a great reader of people and, as Caro puts it many times, “the greatest salesman one-on-one who ever lived”. He overwhelmed. His body was as large as his personality, and he used this physical bulk (he stood six-foot-three and weighed as much as eighteen stone) to cajole and intimidate. He would not stop until he got what he wanted. He was earthy and crass and contradictory. As president, on one phone call he might be bullying senators into passing historic legislation; on the next he was ordering trousers from his tailor, telling him to add an inch to the crotch, “down where your nuts hang”, and then haggling over the price. He could be overbearing and cruel, sexually aggressive with women, and not above demanding that a member of his staff take dictation while the president of the United States was sitting on the toilet. Oh, and he did more than any other white government official in the twentieth century to help African-Americans in their fight for social justice.

Caro brings this complicated man, and his time, to life with a set of literary strengths that are very different from each other but closely interlinked: the depth and quality of his (and Ina’s) research, his narrative gift, and his compassion. The research gives him facts and context; his storytelling ability connects the details and brings them to life; and his empathy for his subjects – and for those affected by the power of his subjects – imbues his stories with felt life and emotional heft. And these qualities are more looped than strictly sequenced: often the compassion drives the research. The analysis, always rigorous, is also human. This is a writer who, as an investigative reporter at the crusading Long Island newspaper Newsday, learned when going through files “to turn every goddamn page”. Who, as a student at Princeton, was told by the literary critic RP Blackmur that when writing short stories he should “stop thinking with [his] fingers”. Who with Ina moved to the Texas Hill Country of Johnson’s birth and lived there for three years, winning the confidence of the usually reticent people of the area and unearthing facts about the future president’s impoverished upbringing and devious character that Johnson had successfully repressed throughout his life and that no previous biographer had discovered.

In short, Caro is both historian and creative writer; like Tolstoy, both hedgehog and fox, relating his narrative to a single central vision while at the same time, in the words of Isaiah Berlin, pursuing “many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory”. He creates character as a novelist does; his research methods include asking question after question of those who were there about how Johnson carried himself; how he buttonholed colleagues, literally grasping their lapels so they could not escape; how he loped and flapped through the Senate buildings, a cyclone of activity, completely in command; how he ranted and raved at subordinates. And the roundness of character extends to a large cast, not just Johnson’s huge, domineering personality but other towering figures, like Franklin Roosevelt and Sam Rayburn, as well as ordinary American citizens such as the women of rural Texas, who described to Caro in rich detail how their lives were lifted out of drudgery by the electricity that Johnson, as their populist congressman in the late 1930s, was able to get extended to the Hill Country.

These character studies are built on the bedrock of Caro’s research: the tens of thousands of documents he and Ina painstakingly examined at the LBJ Library in Austin, the New York Public Library and many other collections, and the hundreds of interviews he conducted over the decades. Because Johnson died relatively young, many of the principals of the public and private dramas of his life – including his wife, Lady Bird, his brother, Sam, the wealthy Texans who financed his climb to national prominence and a host of aides, backers, antagonists and fellow politicians – were still alive when Caro began this project in the mid-seventies. He tracked most of them down and worked hard to get even the most recalcitrant to agree to be interviewed (a process that often took years) and managed to extract telling details that, when set in the matrix of his narrative, create unprecedented social and psychological depth.

The result is a great biography that has both historical sweep and a feeling of being of the time – a happy result of the forty-plus years Caro has dedicated to the books, which look back a long way but also preserve what de Tocqueville calls “the necessary details” that only a contemporary view can capture. The four volumes so far – 3,500 pages altogether – are a continuous, smooth read (though there is some recapitulation from one volume to the next). The first, The Path to Power, covers Johnson’s background, his college years (including a year of teaching school in a poor Mexican-American community in south Texas), his time as a congressional aide, his successful run for Congress in 1937 and his unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 1941. Volume 2, Means of Ascent, tells of the war years (Johnson flew on a single bombing mission in the Pacific theatre and transformed that slim experience into a substantial, vote-getting war record), his indifferent time as a member of the House of Representatives and the compelling story of how he stole the 1948 Senate election from Texas legend Coke Stevenson. Master of the Senate, volume 3, is exactly that – an account of the decade plus of his Senate career, when, as the toughest and shrewdest majority leader in that institution’s history, he became the most powerful figure, bar the president, in the most powerful country in the world. And finally, The Passage of Power, my favourite volume, which tells the stories of the 1960 Democratic convention, the frustrating, powerless years of the vice-presidency, the Kennedy assassination, the Shakespearean conflict with Bobby Kennedy, and the first few months of the Johnson presidency, a whirlwind of executive achievement.

To quote Berlin again, “One can save one’s soul, or one can … serve a great and glorious state; but not always both at once.” Johnson did much that was morally suspect as he fought unscrupulously for the ultimate power he craved. For the bulk of his twenty-three-year congressional career he carefully but craftily served the two masters who provided the means to election success and institutional power: the oil and gas titans of Texas, whose unprecedented postwar wealth was matched only by their willingness to spend whatever it took to keep Washington in their pocket; and the Southern Democrats of the Senate, those mavens of parliamentary stasis, led by Georgian Richard Russell, who used the power of their seniority, shrewd alliances with Republican conservatives, and skilful use of the filibuster to hold their party’s liberal majority at bay as they did everything in their means to preserve their “way of life” – segregation, racist intimidation, terror, and the denial of the right to vote for the South’s substantial African-American population.

America’s great political shame of the first half of the twentieth century was its government’s inability to pass even the most rudimentary civil rights legislation, though a significant chunk of the country was under apartheid, and though those states that did, gradually, recognise the constitutional prerogatives of African-American citizens did little or nothing to right the wrongs of slavery and a century of Jim Crow laws. For a long time Johnson shared this shame. For twenty years, from his freshman year as a representative to the watershed year of 1957, he had an unbroken record of support for his Southern white brethren, opposing all civil rights legislation (including anti-lynching bills) in both the House and Senate. Furthermore, though he positioned himself as a New Dealer when it would win him votes, his voting record consistently came down on the side of big business, especially energy companies owned by the Texans who had backed his political career and whose fortunes benefited hugely from Washington-mandated deregulation, inflated prices and the absence of meaningful taxation.

Johnson’s first prominent act as a Senate committee head, starting in 1949, was payback to those backers: he ruthlessly and subtly guided the committee that destroyed the career of Federal Power Commission (FPC) chairman Leland Olds, a career New Dealer whose intelligent and dedicated defence of consumers had incurred the wrath of the Texas magnates. So successful was Johnson in tarring him with the brush of communism that Olds not only failed to win renomination to the FPC but never worked in government again. “Shall we have a commissioner or a commissar?” Johnson asked rhetorically as Olds’s reappointment, pushed hard by President Truman, was roundly defeated in the Senate. Joe McCarthy could not have put it more succinctly.

Caro’s examination of Johnson’s legislative record and his blow-by-blow account of his reactionary congressional profile – states rights, anti-labour, pro-business, low-tax – are balanced by his equally convincing revelation of how adept Johnson was at tailoring his language and attitude to his audience. Even while he was acting and voting otherwise, Johnson could be measured, politically correct, and passionate with liberals about the causes he wanted them to believe he shared. And time, Caro argues, would show that he was indeed passionate about many of those causes. His own difficult upbringing, his job teaching poor Mexican children, his years on the stump meeting the hardscrabble Texans who were the core of his constituency – these experiences settled into his political bones, according to Caro, only to come to the surface when he had the ability to address their cause.

Caro goes so far as to suggest, plausibly, that Johnson’s long history of conservative action was driven solely by ambition: being from Texas, to get where he wanted to go (and the destination was always the presidency) he had no choice but to use the support of big oil and Southern bigotry as steps in the path to power. And power, Caro likes to say, reveals. So that in 1957, when Johnson “had accumulated enough power to do something – a small something – for civil rights in the Senate”, he did it. And when he came to the throne in late 1963, and was advised by the practical people around him not to waste his time and influence “on lost causes”, he would reply, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” When all was said and done, Caro writes, Johnson was “the lawmaker for the poor and the downtrodden and the oppressed. He was to be the bearer of at least a measure of social justice to those to whom social justice had so long been denied, the restorer of at least a measure of dignity to those who so desperately needed to be given some dignity, the redeemer of the promises made to them by America.”

Caro’s story of Johnson’s conversion – if that is what it was – is a fascinating one, and begins with the 1957 Civil Rights Act, a toothless bill that nevertheless was the first such legislation to be passed by the Senate since 1875. The act was ushered into law without being killed by the powerful Southern bloc because of Johnson’s unsurpassed legislative ability: his parliamentary expertise and leadership; his blend of strong-arm and quid pro quo; his knack for recognising common ground and effecting compromise; his ability to create such common ground. The 1957 bill, Caro writes, was “a demonstration not only of legislative expertise and leadership, but of legislative creativity – of creativity on a very high order”. Less than a decade later, Johnson used the power of the presidency to turn that initial creative gesture into historic, permanent legislative achievement: the great acts of 1964 and 1965, when he did what Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy could not – work with Congress to bring American law into line with what the moral arc of justice, and the majority of Americans, demanded. His Southern allies felt stabbed in the back. His liberal partners could only admire the chutzpah and genius and scale of the achievement, all the more satisfying to Johnson because it came so quickly after three years in the wilderness of the vice-presidency.

The Great Society would be his legacy. His place in history. Except that it wouldn’t. Because of Vietnam.

Johnson’s Achilles heel was foreign policy. His Senate career had obvious blind spots when focus shifted outside the US. As chairman of the Armed Services’ Preparedness Subcommittee during the Korean War, a watchdog group responsible for ensuring that waste, corruption and mismanagement of America’s mobilisation and war effort were identified and corrected, Johnson used the subcommittee as a publicity vehicle, exaggerating shortfalls in defence production and military readiness and expertly manipulating media coverage so that for a full year he was in the public eye as America’s “watchdog in chief”. His strategy was to raise his profile as a stepping stone to Senate leadership, but the task force’s work dangerously overestimated the threats to American security, internal and external, and, as Caro puts it, “amounted in effect to a demand for greatly expanded mobilization, a placing of the nation on an all-out war footing almost as if it were engaged in a global conflict”.

Towards the end of his time in the Senate (as he was gearing up for a run for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination), Johnson repeated the earlier pattern, resurrecting the subcommittee in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik and the American paranoia that followed. The effect was to fuel the hysteria. “There was the same emphasis on publicity, the same squeezing out of every possible drop of that mother’s milk of politics,” Caro writes. Johnson’s team defined the Soviet threat in military terms, creating a “Pearl Harbor atmosphere” and calling, again, for America to place itself immediately on an all-out war footing to address what came to be known as the “missile gap” between the US and the USSR. Dwight Eisenhower, president at the time, calmed those waters – to his credit. But Johnson had got what he wanted – “tremendous press” that made him look like a national leader.

These cynical manoeuvres were ominous precursors of his grand presidential error, the escalation of American intervention in Vietnam. And there were other, more overt signs of danger. During the Suez Crisis in 1956, Johnson advised President Eisenhower to tell the French and British that they had American moral support and should “go on in”. Eisenhower, of course, demurred. Caro’s dramatic retelling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, centred on Johnson’s involvement as vice president, adds further evidence of his belligerence. Unlike Robert Kennedy, who quietly and passionately argued for caution and restraint during the secret meetings that followed the discovery in October 1962 of Soviet missile installations in Cuba, Johnson aligned himself firmly with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who advocated a surprise air strike with plans for a follow-up invasion. Over the thirteen days of the crisis, JFK would allow his brother’s perspective to inform his leadership, and the positive outcome is now a matter of history. But Johnson did not learn its lesson.

There must be many who share my impatience and eagerness to read Caro’s fifth volume and discover what his research, cumulative knowledge, and narrative gift will reveal about that short period of history – let’s define it as starting in August 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and extending to March 1968, when Johnson announced he would not run for re-election – when the LBJ dream faded and took the American dream with it. But we know what’s coming.

Johnson’s introduction to Vietnam came in 1961, when Kennedy decided to boost the confidence of Ngo Dinh Diem’s weak and corrupt South Vietnamese regime by sending his vice president on a state visit. Johnson’s report to the president was hawkish and US-centric (“the battle against communism must be joined in Southeast Asia with strength and determination”). His view was the result, as David Halberstam described it in The Best and the Brightest, of “looking at Vietnam through the prism of American experience, American needs, and American capacities”. What’s more he backed Diem enthusiastically, publicly calling him “the Winston Churchill of Asia”.

Diem was assassinated in a US-backed coup just weeks before Kennedy’s death. One of Johnson’s first acts as president was to send secretary of defence Robert McNamara and CIA director John McCone to Saigon, and they returned with pessimistic reports that should have been a red flag but served to harden the new president’s view. “We’re going to lose that war,” he wrote in a memo to Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield in December 1963. “Do we want that to be another China?” Johnson was looking for support to increase American involvement, but Mansfield, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an expert on East Asia, refused to give him the answer he was looking for. “We do not want another China,” Mansfield wrote, “but neither do we want another Korea.” Johnson ignored Mansfield’s prescient counsel and told his cabinet the war could be won “at a limited expenditure of American lives and resources somewhere commensurate with our national interests”.

But at that point he was not stating this belief publicly. The massive escalation of US troops would not happen until after Johnson had secured the 1964 election. Mindful of public opinion, Johnson campaigned that summer on a peace platform. “Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict,” he said. “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” But behind the scenes the US military was exploring options, planning what units might be called up if ground troops were required, checking out bombing sites. Then came August and the fateful Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave Johnson authorisation to use conventional military force in Southeast Asia without a formal declaration of war by Congress.

After Johnson had secured another four years with a landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, the gloves came off. The bombing raids started and the number of US troops on the ground began its steady climb from the 17,000 there had been when JFK was killed to its peak in 1968 of more than 536,000. We know the other grisly stats. Millions of Vietnamese killed, north and south; over 58,000 American deaths; the physical destruction of one country and the moral destruction of another. A lot of ink has been spilled over what President Kennedy would have done about Vietnam had he lived. I believe that the Cuban Missile Crisis gives us a clue, and that, perhaps guided by his brother, JFK would have chosen a more prudent course. But we’ll never know – whereas Johnson’s actions are now history, and the carnage is the principal portion of his legacy.

While I await Caro’s analysis, it seems to me that some of the very traits that lifted LBJ to the heights of national power and put him into a position of being able to create such a historic domestic programme – his salesmanship, secretiveness, pragmatism, arrogance, and ability to dominate institutions – contributed to his blindness about Vietnam. Also, he was essentially a provincial man who lacked confidence with diplomats, non-Americans, and what he called “Harvard men”. He did things his way, unwaveringly, but with his fear of what people might think at the front of his mind. So he lied to the American public, ignored the advice of foreign policy experts, assumed war powers that only Congress should have had, and became the principal architect of the century’s great stain on the American fabric.

Soon after he was elected president, JFK, himself a skilled reader of men, told his aide Kenny O’Donnell that Johnson “thinks he’s ten times more important than I am … You are dealing with a very insecure, sensitive man with a huge ego.” It is easy to lose sight of that insecurity when you consider the power Johnson amassed and the influence he exercised over thirty years of public service. But Caro never allows the humanity of his subject to drift from his view. His depth of human feeling – forty-plus years after starting the series of books and still writing – remains considerable. His intimacy with Johnson, a man he met only once, is always in evidence, in spite of many harsh discoveries and revelations.

Caro is especially moved by LBJ’s insecurity over the poverty of his upbringing and the thinness of his formal education. Towards the end of Working he relates a story he heard from Johnson’s speechwriter Horace Busby, who accompanied him to Paris for a NATO conference in the late fifties. At a formal dinner, Busby told Caro, Johnson was deeply afraid he was going to make a fool of himself. What followed was poignant in the extreme. As Caro tells it,

there was another dinner in Paris. Johnson decided, at the last minute, not to go. And Busby, who did go, recalled that a member of the French Senate came up to him and asked where Johnson was, and Busby answered, He couldn’t come tonight. And the French senator said, Oh I was so looking forward to meeting the greatest Parliamentarian in the Western world. The greatest Parliamentarian in the Western world. He was afraid to go to dinner.

If this is a hint of the fifth volume, then we indeed have much to look forward to. Long live Robert Caro.

1/6/2019

Kevin Stevens is a novelist and critic based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His most recent novel is A Lonely Note (Little Island, 2016).

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