Brow Beat

Robert Caro’s Blind Spot

Why does the exhaustive biographer overlook Lyndon Johnson’s virulent misogyny?

Robert Caro, Lyndon Johnson.
Robert Caro, Lyndon Johnson. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Andy Kropa/Getty Images for Norman Mailer Center, Central Press/Getty Images.

About five years ago, I placed a call to Mary Margaret Wiley, who served as President Lyndon Johnson’s personal secretary from 1954 to 1962. I was writing a chapter on LBJ for my book First Dads: Parenting and Politics From George Washington to Barack Obama, and I figured that Wiley could shed some light on Johnson’s relationships with his daughters, Lynda and Luci.

As soon as I identified myself as a biographer, Wiley shot back, “Do you want the dirt?”

“No,” I replied, “I am interested in talking to you about how LBJ interacted with his children.”

Without further ado, Wiley, who died last fall at the age of 85, hung up the phone. My interview was over before I could pose a single question. Puzzled about her remark, I turned to LBJ: Architect of American Ambition by Randall Woods. Wiley did not speak with Woods either, but he learned a lot about her by talking with her successor, Marie Fehmer, who worked for Johnson from 1962 to 1969. In her interview with Woods, Fehmer said that Wiley and Johnson had had a long affair. And Fehmer also admitted that LBJ had tried to seduce her. In November 1962, just a few months after she took over for Wiley, Johnson offered to set Fehmer up in an apartment in New York City, if she would agree to have his child—a proposal she politely declined.

So the “dirt” that Wiley was alluding to likely had something to do with the fact that our 36th president was a sexual predator who preyed on his secretaries. As noted by Woods and a few other Johnson chroniclers—say, biographer Robert Dallek and longtime aide George Reedy—he also repeatedly groped his female staffers. Presidential speechwriter Horace Busby reported that once, while he was seated in the back seat of a car, he saw Johnson grab a woman under her skirt with one hand while driving with the other.

Surprisingly, in the first four volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, the definitive chronicle of LBJ’s life and career, Robert Caro says nary a word about the president’s predatory behavior. (He is now finishing up the fifth and final volume.) In his new book Working, a primer on his approach to biography, Caro provides his rationale. His magnum opus, Caro explains, says little about “the many women with whom Lyndon Johnson had had sex … because none of them seemed to have any significance to him personally or to have any connection with his political or governmental activities.”

The 83-year-old Caro also explains why he covers just two of LBJ’s affairs in detail—with Alice Glass, the wife of Johnson’s mentor, Charles Marsh, and with California congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas. As Caro notes, these women were political players in their own right: “Alice Glass was in truth not just another bimbo … [she] had a political mind that made her advice on politics worth listening to, so much so that there were moments when her advice was decisive in Lyndon Johnson’s decisions.”

This unreflective use of the misogynistic term bimbo is disturbing, especially in the midst of the #MeToo movement. After all, bimbo was injected into the political lexicon by Bill Clinton’s aide Betsey Wright in the early 1990s—a move that she now deeply regrets. As the Arkansas governor was gearing up for his first White House bid, Wright compiled a list of all the women with whom Clinton had had a sexual encounter of one sort or another; the campaign needed to be ready to respond if any of these women ever talked to the press—or, to use her infamous words, in the case of “bimbo eruptions.” For Wright, the shame for these encounters always fell upon the women (say, lounge singer, Gennifer Flowers) rather than upon her boss. And Wright was never bothered by the fact that some of these “bimbos” (say, Paula Jones or Juanita Broaddrick) had credible stories to tell, not of consensual sex, but of harassment or even rape.

How exactly does Caro address LBJ’s relationships with women other than his wife, Lady Bird, in The Years of Lyndon Johnson? From the get-go, Caro is clear that LBJ’s deep insecurity affected his sex life. In The Path to Power, he introduces readers to “Jumbo,” the name that Johnson gave his male member. Caro observes that in college, Johnson liked to boast of many lovers, telling his brother, Sam, “Well, I gotta take ol’ Jumbo here and give him some exercise. I wonder who I’ll fuck tonight.” But as Caro notes, the young Johnson exaggerated his sexual exploits to the point of fabrication.

In the next volume, Means of Ascent, we learn about Johnson’s intense connection with Alice Glass, with whom he began an affair in 1937, three years after his marriage. Caro stresses Glass’ intellectual heft, noting that “she possessed a political acumen so keen that the toughest Texas politicians enjoyed talking politics with her.” Glass longed to be Johnson’s wife, but he was unwilling to court the political suicide that a divorce would entail. Caro also notes that Johnson did not shy away from cheating on Glass with still other women—but these women go nameless. At the beginning of Master of the Senate, Caro describes the affair with Helen Gahagan Douglas, which lasted from 1944 until about 1949. Their bond, he emphasizes, also had strong political roots. He quotes Douglas, who said that a “mutual admiration of Franklin Roosevelt” is what drew them to each other.

In Working, Caro emphasizes that his books are better classified as studies in political power than as biographies and that he is eager to show the effect of that power on ordinary Americans. Of Robert Moses, he writes, “I just couldn’t write the book about the great highway builder—couldn’t outline it, even—without showing the human cost of what he had done. There really was no choice involved.” Yet Caro ignores that one of the prime movers of LBJ’s ambition was to exert more power over women—so that he could have more success in his attempts to exercise “Jumbo.” As George Reedy puts it, “Sex to Johnson was part of the spoils of victory.”

As Robert Dallek reports, throughout his career in elective office, Johnson “wanted beautiful women working for him and viewed them as fair game.” Dallek adds that Johnson, who would boast to his White House aides that he had “more women by accident than Kennedy ever had on purpose,” would not hesitate to use the Oval Office as a site for sexual activity.

While Caro does briefly allude to Johnson’s harassing demands upon his female staffers—such as his insistence that they lose weight—he tosses these comments into a brief section on how LBJ emotionally abused everyone who worked for him, both men and women. Remarkably, Caro neglects to mention how LBJ repeatedly invaded the physical boundaries of his female employees by groping them. This curious omission by America’s preeminent biographer, whose work is otherwise so thorough and sensitive, points to the depth of the problem that the #MeToo movement is trying to redress—that the sexual violence endured by generations of working women has long been nearly completely buried.

In the introduction to The Path to Power, Caro identifies a dark thread that runs through Johnson’s life, which he defines as “a hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will.”   Perhaps nowhere is this cruel streak more salient than in Johnson’s relationships with his female staffers. That this exhaustive chronicler who writes so movingly of Johnson’s other character flaws overlooks his virulent misogyny is startling—and points to a long-standing blind spot not just in presidential biography but in the culture at large.