The Book Club

A Thoroughly Boring Bully

Dear David,

Believe me, I never found this book tedious. I even agree more than you might think with what you describe as the standard reading. Perhaps my point wasn’t clear yesterday because I was actually saying two things:

1. If power is the end to which all aspects of Johnson’s personality are means, then those other aspects become not just secondary but nonexistent. (And that’s what I mean by two-dimensional.) “Compassion” as  a means is not compassion.

2. Caro is no dupe, in one sense. He has the two sides of Johnson in proper order of importance: He sees that power was always more important to Johnson than compassion. But he fails to see that that renders the compassion wholly phony.

In general, I love biography as a means of reading history. You’re the historian here, not me, so let’s have your opinion on this: Standard period histories can drift in the direction of current-day (post-facto) preoccupations in a way that biographies tend not to. Here there’s no getting around what was really on Johnson’s mind and whom he really felt it was necessary to impress. Caro thus gives us a Washington in which Richard Russell looms far larger than Adlai Stevenson, in which Sam Rayburn is a vastly more important figure than Richard Nixon, in which Herbert Lehman is a folk-hero to race liberals while the Kennedys’ opportunistic posturings are not yet of any interest to anybody. (And how, incidentally, could history have forgotten Nebraska Sen. Kenneth Wherry, that Dubya avant la lettre, who referred to Vietnam as “Indigo China” and to the Gurkhas as “gherkins”?)

A biography permits a reality that is more accurate because it is more subjective. Caro is always keen to show how “the facts” can be warped by time pressure, or complacency, or mass delusion. Think of LBJ’s inexplicable loss of self-control (including his vote-counting ability) when he got presidential fever at the 1956 convention. Or think of Douglas MacArthur’s challenge to Truman, which appears a sideshow to us but wasn’t lived as one. In fact, it was as serious a constitutional crisis as America underwent in the 20th century, but no one noticed that either, since, as George Reedy put it, there was at the time “absolutely no anti-MacArthur sentiment in the country worth noticing.”

So, it’s not the book I find tedious, it’s Johnson. I’m not saying he doesn’t emerge as “colorful.” When Johnson has his massive coronary at the age of 46, he’s being rushed through the Virginia country on his way to Bethesda Naval Hospital in a hearse (which doubles as an ambulance in the hick town where he was stricken). As Caro relates: “And there was another important matter. ‘Doctor,’ he said, ‘let me ask you something. Will I be able to smoke again if this is a heart attack?’ The doctor said, ‘Well, Senator, frankly, no,’ and Johnson, with … ‘a great sigh,’ said, ‘I’d rather have my pecker cut off.’ ” (And, as you noted on Tuesday, that’s not just any pecker. That’s Jumbo we’re talking about here.)

Johnson’s carnality, over the long haul, gets on my nerves. Not the sexual stuff so much as the man’s entire oddball philosophy, which is simultaneously animal and unnatural: his oddball insistence, at every stage of his life, that subordinates be forced into extremely close proximity to him while he took a shit; his belief that he could “read” fear in people’s eyes; his conviction that his height gave him some sort of irresistible sociobiological weapon of top-doggery, as when, discussing policy in his Texas swimming pool, he would walk aide Joe Califano out to just the depth where Johnson could stand but Califano had to tread water. (Such deranged self-congratulation on the matter of one’s own height would not be matched in American politics until four decades later, when Al Gore bizarrely strode up to George W. Bush during one of the 2000 presidential debates, in order that the American public might better gauge the candidates’ relative stature.) These body games were not about pride in his person; they were about humiliating others. (In a less physical way, consider LBJ’s office staff, who if their desks were cluttered would be told, “Clean your fucking desk,” and if their desks were clean would be told, “I hope your mind isn’t as empty as that desk.”)

It would be one thing if Johnson had embraced a Teddy-Roosevelt-style cult of physical vigor. I’m not crazy about that, either—but Johnson’s physicality is made less likable than even TR’s by the knowledge that he was, as Caro tells us, an “absolute physical coward when younger.” And a moral coward, too, in ways. He had a revolting ritual of shoving inhalers up his nose—but, in toady fashion, he’d never enact it in front of the patrician Russell. When did he come out from under FDR’s wing? When FDR died. And why did he obstruct Democrats who wanted to challenge Joe McCarthy? Was it because his lawyer had let LBJ know that McCarthy knew about his ill-gotten fortune and his extramarital affairs?

Caro’s conceit that “power reveals” is of very limited utility, I think. The implication is that one doesn’t have a real character until one can exert control over everyone in the immediate vicinity. The fact is that nobody has that kind of power. To be human is to be locked in dependencies and have narrowed options. Nonetheless even the lowliest menials are morally free. They do things that deserve praise and blame. And it won’t do to say that one’s real personality is unknowable until one joins the ranks of the half-dozen most powerful people on earth. Why not say the opposite? Why not say “powerlessness reveals”? Why not say we can’t judge a senator as a moral being until we know how he’d behave, say, in jail?

It’s been nice wandering over this continent of a book with you, David. In time, the Rockies may tumble, Gibraltar may crumble, and Vol. 4 may appear. Till then, I remain

Yours, etc.,