Lyndon Baines Johnson altered the life of almost everyone who had close dealings with him. He certainly altered mine. One way was to change me from a self-confident journalistic interpreter of politicians by convincing me there was at least one I could not capture on paper. I devoutly hoped that a biographer would come along adequate to the challenge of LBJ.
Now comes Robert Caro. When I heard long ago that he had undertaken this task, preparing to devote many years of research to three massive volumes on Johnson, I was glad. A veritable modern Boswell, albeit recording post-mortem a Johnson he had never met. No one told me that Caro had begun this mission, as he recently confided to The Washington Post, "thinking I was going to love Lyndon Johnson." It would have shaken my confidence in his detachment. Even so, I would have waited my turn to relate my complicated memories of serving four years as LBJ's presidential assistant.
Calculating this would come in time for Volume Three, I was not impatient that Caro did not call me nor, so far as I can determine, any of Johnson's close associates during the Senate or White House years. The elaborate footnotes of Volume One attest that he was confining his researches to the period prior to 1941. LBJ has just turned 32 when Volume One ends.
Imagine then my consternation when Atlantic carried in its very first installment the summation: "No one knew him. Enlisting all his energies and all his cunning in a lifelong attempt . . . to obscure the facts of his personal life, his rise to power, and his use of power, he succeeded so well that no one saw him whole: not his wife . . . not his mother . . . not his enemies . . . not the citizenry of the Nation. No one."
But Caro, only 200 pages into Volume One, does see him whole: "Some men--perhaps most men--who attain great power are altered by that power. Not Lyndon Johnson. . . . In analyses of other famous figures, college, being only part of the formulating [sic] process that creates character, deserves only cursory study, but the years Lyndon Johnson spent at college are revealing of his character as a whole--all the more revealing, in fact, because at college there are no complications of national or international politics or policy to obscure character. . . . He came out of the Hill Country formed, shaped--into a shape so hard it would never change."
The biographer who had thought he was going to "love" Lyndon Johnson experienced a rather violent change of feeling: "Johnson's entire career . . . would be characterized by an aversion to ideology or to issue, by an utter refusal to be backed into firm defense of any position or any principle . . . Other qualities of Lyndon Johnson less immediately evident to others were present not only in Washington but at San Marcos [College]: the viciousness and cruelty, the joy in breaking backs and keeping them broken, the urge not just to defeat but to destroy; the iron will that enabled him, once his mind was set on a goal, to achieve it no matter what the obstacles; above all, the ambition, the all-encompassing personal ambition that made issues, impediments and scruples superfluous. . . ."
Why had Caro shot his judgmental wad so prematurely? By his own admission, he anticipated several more years of personal digging into LBJ's rise to power as Senate leader, vice president and finally president of the United States. This was the period, encompassing half his lifetime, when I watched closely, and gradually came not to love but to respect and, yes, even to admire this Texan whose final years were marked by tragedy. According to Caro, LBJ never grew an inch. By my own estimate, Johnson, like Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy before him, grew and continued to grow under the stress of exercising leadership. Caro claims that LBJ's true person was "cunningly concealed" from even his mother. I, on the other hand, had found myself impressed by the inner purposes of the growing leader even when his traits of personality tended to conceal those purposes.
Caro works in a frozen time dimension, and his admiring reviewers seem content with this biography of a politician whose character was hardened at an age barely beyond puberty. Newsweek's Peter Prescott, praising Caro's "astonishing concern for the humanity of his characters," claims that "detractors may be hard pressed to mount a rebuttal in face of the documentation he provides." How, indeed, will the later historian deal with the highly abbreviated footnotes, taking up 62 pages in Volume One alone? There is no research organization established for the purpose of double-checking the researcher. Caro did not keep transcripts of interviews, nor would he, in the case of Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, agree for her to record the interview.
Waiting for Caro, I can only sample his evidence for traces of bias or distortion. This is why I requested the oral histories in the LBJ Library of two young men, L. E. Jones and Gene Latimer, who figured large in Caro's first installment. They had been high school debaters coached by teacher Johnson who were later brought to Washington to share his hotel basement lodgings and serve as clerks on Capitol Hill, where he worked as secretary for a congressman. Charles Dickens could not compare to Caro in describing their desperate plight; nor Ebenezer Scrooge have driven prot,eg,es more mercilessly. ("In fact, as would be demonstrated as soon as Johnson began hiring men on a large scale, the crucial qualification was subservience. Dignity was not permitted in a Johnson employee.")
Caro quotes several snippets from Latimer's oral history recorded in August 1971. But he fails to mention--not even to dismiss as irrelevant--Latimer's concluding remarks to the interviewer. "One more thing and I shall be done. Biographers and news media alike have libelously stated that Lyndon Johnson treated his staff with demands amounting to inhumanity or brutality . . . Someone should say--and I do say--that no one under him ever worked harder than he himself . . . and that far from being ruthless to his employees, their welfare was very important to him. . . . Small wonder that those of us who were with him when the going was tough resent very deeply statements by those who don't know who say he was ruthless to us out of their pique and ignorance."
Was Latimer's statement uttered because of lingering fear? L. E. Jones, dictating his oral history on Oct. 14, 1977, nearly five years after Johnson's death, made much the same point: "I am sure he had his detractors. I know he did. But the people that worked with him liked him. He had some faults, but most people were willing to overlook them because the guy was obviously a genius in politics."
Why, in this meticulously researched and exhaustively reported book, did neither of these conclusions find their way even into a footnote? I reviewed Caro's copious accounts of other interviews and noted a common usage: snippets of direct quotation are granted the interviewee, but the thundering judgments are reserved for Caro alone. Throughout the long volume, I could not locate one instance when close associates of Johnson had a chance to offer their overall assessments. Even Sam Houston Johnson, whose death has conveniently closed the book on Caro's revisionist treatmentonal digging into LBJ, is not quoted in a final judgment on his brother.
My suspicion of bias run rampant goes particularly to Caro's handling of those who cannot speak from the grave. Take, for example, his prolix recital of LBJ's relations with longtime friend, patron and fellow Texan, Sam Rayburn. ("Obviously, I fell in love with Rayburn," Caro tells the Washington Post interviewer. "They don't make politicians like that anymore.") He argues that in 1940 Johnson betrayed Rayburn by serving as "New Deal spy in Rayburn's meetings." The speaker was attempting to swing the Texas delegation behind Vice President Jack Garner against FDR's bid for a third term. Johnson worked behind the scenes to keep the Lone Star State behind Roosevelt. A face-saving compromise, allowing a first-ballot ceremonial vote for Garner, was negotiated and blessed at the White House. But, Caro concludes sourly, Rayburn "had been tarred beyond cleansing by a brush wielded by Lyndon Johnson." He fails to offer hard evidence from Speaker Rayburn or anyone else to support the conclusion. "Around the speaker's personal feelings had been erected a wall as impenetrable as the wall with which Lyndon Johnson surrounded himself," Caro hints darkly. Less hysterical historians record that Rayburn remained one of Johnson's most loyal friends until death.
So it goes. When we were very young, we played a childish game where every word or deed of one's playmate was ascribed to the basest motivation. I sense such game-playing in Caro's account. What was intended to be a love affair has gone so sour that no pejorative is too strong, no insinuation too farfetched. It is as if Robert Caro has become a chameleon for the monster he imagines: exaggerating beyond the point of hyperbole; manipulating facts when the facts don't fit his conclusions. Ten thousand footnotes cannot close this credibility gap.
How can we account for such a prodigious labor of denigration? Caro himself shows no particular attachment to ideology or issue or scruple of his own. He accuses LBJ of stealing elections while admiring the way Speaker Rayburn rammed through a critical House vote in disregard of the rules. A clue to motivation is provided by his interview with People in which he says he grew "disgusted" with politics after a brief stint as political speechwriter in New Jersey. He began his earlier book, on Robert Moses, because he had suddenly decided that highways "get built because Robert Moses wants them built." Then he ended up with a rather loathsome portrait of Moses. Evidently Caro's impulse to love powerful men cannot stomach familiarity with them.
What do I say when Caro finally calls? There appears to be scant chance that my assessment of LBJ will be of any interest to him. To turn him away runs the risk of perpetuating a dour suspicion he has repeatedly voiced of a conspiracy to conceal the "real" Johnson from public view. To speak with candor risks providing the snippets to reinforce the judgment Caro has already rendered and published. I find myself waiting with mounting curiosity for the phone to ring