Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud That Defined a Decade
By Jeff Shesol
W.W. Norton; 576 pages; $32.50
It started innocently enough. Bobby Kennedy, gearing up in the fall of 1959 to manage his brother’s upcoming presidential run, visited Lyndon Johnson’s Texas ranch to inquire after the Senate majority leader’s presidential ambitions. Johnson assured the younger man that he had none. Then, as was his wont, Johnson took his guest hunting. Bobby, a Navy vet who never saw action in World War II, fixed a deer in his sights, squeezed the trigger–and landed flat on his back from the recoil. “Son,” said Johnson, helping him up with a smirk, “you’ve got to learn to handle a gun like a man.” He went on to break his word by giving Jack Kennedy a fight for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination.
Bobby Kennedy never forgave Johnson the slight, loathing him to the end. Johnson, for his part, never gave up trying to knock Kennedy on his ass. And while their feud may not have defined a decade, as Jeff Shesol claims in this wonderfully entertaining, original, and exceptionally researched book, it certainly makes for a hell of a gripping yarn.
It is hard to imagine two politicians more opposed in temperament than Lyndon Baines Johnson and Robert Francis Kennedy. Kennedy was supremely self-confident and unyielding. Johnson was self-pitying and prone to the blackest paranoia. (For his paranoia, readers owe the 36th president a debt. Johnson recorded just about every telephone call he ever placed, and Shesol deploys impressive documentary gifts to knock the resulting transcripts into one of the most intimate portraits of the inner life of a White House yet committed to print.) The kinds of things Johnson reveled in–locker-room talk and stiff belts of whiskey, the “muted grays” of the Senate’s well-turned compromises, even his own hard-earned influence and wealth–were the kinds of things against which the Harvard-educated Kennedy defined his very identity.
Indeed, one senses that nothing less than the deepest matters of personal identity fueled their intense and bitter rivalry. The Bostonian must have sensed that, compared with the Texan, he came off as snobbish, petulant, and obtusely rich. Kennedy certainly made Johnson feel like a wheedling country bumpkin who was unable to pick out the right suit jacket. Kennedy, who cherished his very own LBJ voodoo doll, called Johnson “mean, bitter, and vicious–an animal in many ways.” Johnson found Kennedy a “little shitass” and a “grandstanding little runt.” It is not surprising that they didn’t care to be in the same place at the same time.
But circumstances forever conspired to place them in the same place at the same time: namely, in John F. Kennedy’s shadow. Their enmity began in earnest at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, where JFK decisively turned back Johnson’s last-minute bid for the nomination. Not, however, before Johnson’s reckless attempt to derail him by reminding delegates of rumors that Joseph Kennedy Sr., while he was ambassador to England, had appeased Hitler. Now protocol demanded that JFK offer Johnson the second spot on the ticket, and honor demanded that Johnson, given that he had insulted the candidate’s father, turn Kennedy down.
Instead, Johnson accepted. Bobby was given the unenviable job of marching into Johnson’s hotel suite to talk him out of it. To make a long story–it takes up the greater part of a gripping chapter–short: The dust lifted with Lyndon, the vice-presidential candidate, loathing Bobby for plotting against him (here was Lyndon’s paranoia, or maybe his ability to spot the hustle); and Bobby, the campaign manager, loathing Lyndon for having the audacity to take a job for which he knew he wasn’t the first choice (here was Bobby’s East Coast arrogance, or maybe his idealism). Thither to the White House, where Attorney General Kennedy, whose only previous public service had been as lawyer for two Senate committees, earned from journalists the label “assistant president” for his ubiquity at the highest levels of executive influence; while Vice President Johnson, who practically ran the government from his Senate chamber in the 1950s, found himself so insignificant that he was only informed of Cabinet meetings five minutes in advance.
JFK’s assassination changed everything but the feud, which only intensified as the martyr’s shadow loomed ever larger. In his grief, each man blamed the other for the tragedy. Bobby had been point man for the administration’s Cuban counterinsurgency program–whose activities, Lyndon insisted privately, had certainly brought on the assassination as an act of revenge from Castro. Q.E.D.: Bobby killed Jack. And Lyndon, thought Bobby, was responsible for his brother’s being in Dallas at all–to heal a wound in the Texas Democratic Party that Lyndon should never have let fester in the first place. Q.E.D.: Lyndon killed Jack. The executive branch clearly wasn’t big enough for the two of them, and Kennedy wisely decamped for his successful Senate run. Johnson, for his part, seriously considered dropping out of the 1964 election altogether, foreshadowing his 1968 decision not to seek re-election.
Up to this point, Shesol’s book is nearly flawless (though Texan readers might be forgiven for wondering whether Shesol doesn’t tip his evidence a little to favor Boston over Austin). When the chronicle enters the second half of the ‘60s, however, it loses a little of its aplomb. This is the period when a single issue–Vietnam–came to trump all others in establishing the political order of battle. With President Johnson’s Great Society sluicing off up to $2 billion per month in expenditures on Vietnam, and Sen. Kennedy being elevated, for better or for worse, to the role of standard-bearer for a generation repulsed by America’s imperial presumptions, the antagonists became symbols for opposing forces larger than either man could discern. By the time they faced each other for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, the story had outgrown the back-room atmospherics Shesol excels in reconstructing.
T his is perhaps why the lesson that Shesol draws from the denouement of the Kennedy-Johnson feud feels so unsatisfying. He claims that Kennedy is the archetype of today’s “New Democrat.” This is not a completely untenable proposition, since, as Shesol demonstrates, toward the end of his life Kennedy began to experiment with some uncannily Clintonesque gestures, such as financing urban renewal through market-based public-private partnerships. It is, however, hard to square Bobby Kennedy, whose characteristic response to Johnson’s poverty proposals was that they didn’t go far enough, with the end of welfare as we know it. And Shesol overlooks a far more abiding division in contemporary politics than those that divide today’s Democrats. Like so much that polarizes us these days, it is more cultural than strictly political.
Take a remarkable statistic that Shesol cites but lets pass relatively unexamined. In May 1967, Gallup found that the number of people who said they “intensely disliked” RFK–who was also probably more intensely liked than any other practicing politician–was twice as high as the number who intensely disliked Johnson, the architect of the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. Exactly who reviled the young senator to such a degree is not broken down further. But it is easy to guess. Consider the results of another poll, this one from 1964, in which Louis Harris found that RFK’s presence on a Democratic ticket would gravely hurt the party’s chances in the South and border states, among businessmen, and among fence-sitters in both parties.
That is a rough description of what Kevin Phillips later called the emerging Republican majority: the crowd whose voting habits were molded by the act of detesting the likes of Bobby Kennedy–politicians who never worked a day in their lives, who were eager (so the perception went) to oppress the plain folk with burdensome taxes in order to fatten the undeserving poor, eager to sell out America’s military supremacy out of some guilt-ridden moralism. Politicians who seemed not to know how to handle rifles like men. By 1968, that annus horribilis when Johnson cracked from the pressure of mediating an increasingly centripetal Democratic Party and Kennedy fell to an assassin’s bullet, two political ideal-types had solidified: a “silent majority” who supported Johnson’s war on Vietnam and voted in Richard Nixon, and a “new class” of liberal professionals and youth who supported Johnson’s war on poverty but detested everything Richard Nixon represented.
This is the mutual contempt, hinted at but not developed in this valuable book, that haunts us today.