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Caro and Generational Perceptions Of LBJ


Reading the profile of Robert Caro Erik discussed earlier, I was immediately struck by this:

Caro can tell you exactly how Moses heedlessly rammed the Cross Bronx Expressway through a middle-class neighborhood, displacing thousands of families, and exactly how Johnson stole the Texas Senate election of 1948, winning by 87 spurious votes. These stories still fill him with outrage but also with something like wonder, the two emotions that sustain him in what amounts to a solitary, Dickensian occupation with long hours and few holidays.

The thing is, I suspect that Caro is equally outraged about the “theft” of the 1948 Texas Senate election as he is by the building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, even though to talk about a candidate “stealing” the 1948 Texas Democratic primary is essentially meaningless. There wasn’t going to be a fair contest for the votes; while LBJ certainly committed electoral fraud, since the result of unilateral disarmament by Johnson’s campaign would have been seeing the competing electoral fraud of the neoconfederate faction of Texas Democratic Party triumph like it did in 1942, it’s understandable that he chose not to do so. At any rate, the comparison sums up the fundamental problem with the first two volumes of Caro’s LBJ bio: he seemed to start with a conviction that LBJ was like Robert Moses only worse, when in fact LBJ was in many important respects pretty much the opposite of Robert Moses.

I suspect the key issue is that for many liberals of Caro’s generation, Vietnam seemed like almost entirely LBJ’s disaster, while the remarkable domestic triumphs of his administration seemed inevitable. People like me, who see LBJ’s domestic record as significantly more progressive than FDR’s (let alone the typical president) and see JFK and many others as sharing in the responsibility for Vietnam, are going to be at odds with some of Caro’s fundamental view of Johnson.

Even making some allowances, there’s no way around the fact that Means of Ascent is an almost unmitigated catastrophe; I’ll return to that in a follow-up post, with the hope that the New Republic will put the classic Sidney Blumenthal review up. At Erik’s suggestion I’ve been re-reading the Path to Power, and he’s right that I gave it less credit than it deserved because of the sour aftertaste of the second volume. It’s still problematic at some respects, and it made me wonder if a lot of the words that his editors cut out of The Power Broker involved Moses’s early life. The telling detail about a person in power doing important things can be great; about a teenager Caro’s piling-on method can seem mean-spirited. (After the umpteenth demonstration of how LBJ didn’t get laid as much in college as he implied or about his influence of a minor student contest etc. etc. you expect a four-chapter demonstration proving that he once cheated at cribbage.) The years covered in the first two books would have been much better suited to one. Still, it also has a lot of great stuff about Texas politics and a lot of what Caro unearths about LBJ is fascinating.

Fortunately, by Master of the Senate Caro largely pulled himself together, and it’s almost as great as The Power Broker. Part of this, I’m sure, is the stinging criticism Means of Ascent deservedly received. But I’m also guessing that part of it is the complete collapse of the New Deal coalition that happened between the second and third books; nobody could believe that there was something inevitable about the apparent liberal consensus of the mid 60s anymore, and the newfound appreciation for the Great Society helps balance the portrayal. While you can still sense his instinctive attraction to the patrician reactionary Caro isn’t suckered by Richard Russell the same way he got embarrassingly suckered by the myth of Coke Stevenson. Hopefully the new one continues in the new vein; I can’t wait.

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  • Hovde

    Yeah, the Cult of Kennedy the Lost Liberal Hero (who was gonna end the Cold War, dontcha know) seriously impairs reasonable debate about Johnson.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I think JFK is one of the funniest movies ever made.

      • Hovde

        And in terms of unintended hilarity, it may top them all.

        • Halloween Jack

          It helps if you know a little bit about the trial beyond what was in the movie; I don’t recall Stone including the witness Charles Spiesel, for instance, who testified that he fingerprinted his children when they went off to college to make sure that they weren’t being replaced by government-created clones. (In the excerpt from Jim Garrison’s book, On the Trail of the Assassins, excerpted above, Garrison blames his fuck-up on “the clandestine operation of the opposition”, although there’s apparently some doubt that he was even in the courtroom at the time.) I tend to agree with the argument that Garrison’s conspiracy theory is a heavily-sublimated gay panic response to Garrison’s discovery that there were gay men in New Orleans high society.

          • partisan

            It’s actually in the Director’s Cut. The movie is more than three hours long, although I will agree that this scene is better than Costner’s final eulogy.

      • Anonymous

        what was remarkable to me was that Stone obviously believed that the Zapruder film disproves the “magic bullet” theory, and he showed it again and again, and then had Costner use a pointer to show the bullet “changing” direction from body to body…

        and I kept saying, but no, look at the film, their bodies were NOT positioned in parallel angles, Connolly is turning and Kennedy is…

        and I suddenly realized that if you arranged the models like the real men were positioned in the Zapruder film that the bullet does NOT change direction… for the life of me I couldn’t get how/why Stone didn’t see that…

        of course since then I’ve seen later Stone films, as well as an interview and I realize that his mind has severely deteriorated since the time when he was a good director…

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          I think Stone’s ideas about history have gotten nuttier, but he’s still occasionally a good filmmaker. I’ve never liked JFK much as a film, but Nixon‘s a terrific movie. Both are terrible history, however.

        • John

          It is certainly true that his mind has deteriorated since the time when he was a good director. But surely “five years after Platoon” has to be considered to still be during the time when he was a good director. Whatever is wrong with it can’t be attributed to decline – JFK is a key work of Stone’s peak years.

          • Halloween Jack

            Stone’s also a chronic drug abuser. He’d supposedly kicked his cocaine habit by then, but Jane Hamsher wrote about doing shrooms with Stone during the production of Natural Born Killers, so who knows.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Although I believe that Oswald shot JFK and acted alone, that’s not what makes the movie so funny. What makes it funny is that Stone thinks that 1)JFK was killed because he was a leftist radical, and 2)Stone clearly thinks this assessment of JFK is correct.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            Absolutely, Scott.

            I’d add that the movie further suggests that the people doing the killing were an enormous conspiracy that involved Cubans, the Pentagon, and the Mafia, among many many others.

            As ridiculous as Stone’s assessment of Kennedy himself is, his view that our entire history has been hijacked by a fiendishly efficient conspiracy is as ridiculous and, in certain ways, worse in its political effects. Despite Stone’s self-presentation as someone empowering the public with the truth, the supposed truth that he’s empowering us with is, in fact, utterly disempowering.

            • Scott Lemieux

              Don’t focus on the who. Focus on the why!

  • david mizner

    I think this is right on (although I’m not sure about LBJ v. FDR.)

    I suspect the key issue is that for many liberals of Caro’s generation, Vietnam seemed like almost entirely LBJ’s disaster, while the remarkable domestic triumphs of his administration seemed inevitable. People like me, who see LBJ’s domestic record as significantly more progressive than FDR’s (let alone the typical president) and see JFK and many others as sharing in the responsibility for Vietnam, are going to be at odds with some of Caro’s fundamental view of Johnson.

    • howard

      this is why i wanted to post.

      i’m a generation younger than caro, but that means i remember lbj as an informed (and anti-vietnam war) teenager, and fwiw, my take (in real time, no less, much less in retrospect) was that would made vietnam such an unforgivable disaster is that otherwise, to quickly but not fundamentally oversimplify, johnson could have continued the great work of the civil rights, voting rights, medicare, food stamps, head start, and related programs and laid the foundation for not losing an entire cohort of “reagan democrats.”

      • Bill Murray

        3 of those 5 (civil rights, voting rights and food stamps .. maybe head start some too) were the primary makers of the Reagan Democrats

        • bill, my attitude is that lbj expected to lose the south with the first two; he didn’t expect to lose white working class northern democrats and neither did humphrey (for that matter), and had there not been vietnam (an almost impossible-to-imagine counter-factual, admittedly), i think they could have found a way to finesse the issues and not suffer the mass defections.

          after all, i would argue to you that as much as anything, the perception that the democratic party was the home of hippie anti-war crazies had to do with the creation of reagan democrats.

          • Bill Murray

            except that Reagan Dems weren’t really a deal until well after the war was over. I suppose McGovern may have lost a fair number of votes to this perception, but he probably lost more to what may be a related issue — he opened up the primary process after 1968 and tried to take power away from the entrenched leaders. Those leaders, such as George Meaney, did not support his candidacy and the votes they could sway went to Nixon

            • howard

              but the roots of the reagan democrats as a cultural phenomenon are clearly right there in 1968, and the reagan democrats first make their appearance, as a matter of fact, as wallace voters (in ’64 democratic primaries and then in ’68 overall).

              humphrey retains support, but basically nixon runs the table on them in 1972 by running against “acid, amnesty, and abortion.”

              reagan democrats are only a label, after all.

              and my point is that had there been no vietnam, there is no hippie anti-war scourge for the gop to run against on top of the benefits they are already getting with southern white voters from the civil rights and voting rights acts.

              but we wander far afield here – as i said in the first place, counterfactuals in which lbj withdraws from vietnam in 1965 are supremely difficult to envision because of how broad the impact was – from the core, which is that i, for one, was not blinded to johnson’s very real accomplishments by his massive error on vietnam: it’s the tragedy of the man.

  • snarkout

    As I said in the previous thread, I gave “Means of Ascent” a try (having skipped “Path of Power”), and the Coke Stevenson stuff turned me off of the whole work. It’s good to know that “Master of the Senate” gives up on forcing LBJ into the Moses template of someone adopting an increasingly crabbed, parochial vision of using their power solely to reinforce their own power. Does the Blumenthal review have any thoughts about why Caro seemed so revolted by his subject?

    • snarkout

      And the slobbery deference to Coke Stevenson really was baffling; there’s a certain love for image of the gruff-but-honest old-fashioned gladhandling pol (maybe he loves black people personally in addition to being kind to old folks and dogs) that I would have thought Caro was too smart to buy into, especially because he didn’t have to look any farther than the subject of his biography to discover that, no, in Texas in 1948 you could succeed politically without being a maximalist defender of segregation and white supremacy.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Right. He excuses Stevenson’s racism by pointing out that he came from the Hill Country, except so did LBJ so it’s not much of a defense.

        • scott

          It seems that there’s always a kind of woolly-headed centrist or even liberal willing to credit the likeable appearance of a Coke Stevenson or Paul Ryan over the underlying sordid relaity.

  • I suspect the key issue is that for many liberals of Caro’s generation, Vietnam seemed like almost entirely LBJ’s disaster

    Listening to tapes of him making decisions is sad. If it wasn’t his disaster to start with, he sure seems like a true believer in it, despite being pretty clear-eyed about how it was going and what the political fallout was.

    • DrDick

      Bear in mind that pretty much everyone in a position of power or influence at that time was a true believer.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      Just as Nixon wasn’t really focused on domestic issues formost of his career, LBJ wasn’t much focused on foreign affairs. His attitude toward VN was 90% fears about credibility (in the eyes of both America’s enemies abroad and his political enemies on the right at home) and 10% a fantasy of doing for the Vietnamese what he did for Texas hill country (hydroelectric projects, etc).

  • freight train

    I don’t understand why you say that for Caro “Vietnam seemed like almost entirely LBJ’s disaster, while the remarkable domestic triumphs of his administration seemed inevitable.” I took the entire point of Master of the Senate to be that no one but LBJ could possibly have gotten the first Civil Rights bill through, let alone anything that followed. “Inevitable” is the last word I’d think to use for LBJ’s domestic triumphs as Caro presents them.

    • TT

      I think for a lay reader like myself, it’s more puzzlement as to why among a certain set of liberal-mided historians Johnson is often dismissed for passing the “Kennedy” program of Medicare, civil rights, et al,in the wake of the assassination, but then gets all of the blame for Viet Nam.

      The reality in both respects is of course much more complicated. But I have a very hard time believing that Kennedy, who spent much of his time in office acquiescing to Russell and the Southern Caucus on civil rights, would have all of a sudden taken command in a mythical second term.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I don’t understand why you say that for Caro…I took the entire point of Master of the Senate

      I would recommend reading the post in its entirety.

      • freight train

        Okay, have done so again, and I’m not sure it’s clarified for me. But perhaps you’re saying that this was a problem with the first two books only, and Master of the Senate turned this around. If that’s the idea, then I’d point you to the Introduction of Means of Ascent, which, again, portrays LBJ’s decision to go all-in on civil rights as a decision that was entirely contingent, and entirely LBJ’s own. Even in Means of Ascent, I don’t see Caro underestimating LBJ’s domestic accomplishments, or the degree to which they would have been entirely evitable given a different president.

        • Scott Lemieux

          On the first point, allow me to quote myself:

          Fortunately, by Master of the Senate Caro largely pulled himself together…But I’m also guessing that part of it is the complete collapse of the New Deal coalition that happened between the second and third books; nobody could believe that there was something inevitable about the apparent liberal consensus of the mid 60s anymore, and the newfound appreciation for the Great Society helps balance the portrayal.

          Do you think “nobody” didn’t include Caro?

          On the second point, Means of Ascent wasn’t about LBJ’s future civil rights record. What I was trying to understand is Caro’s ludicrous decision to describe a race between LBJ and a corrupt, viciously white supremacist ultra- reactionary in which LBJ is the bad guy, which it seems fair to assume was motivated in large measure by Caro’s contempt for LBJ over Vietnam.

          • freight train

            The Introduction to Means of Ascent is entirely about LBJ’s future civil rights record, and makes it clear that as of the writing of that book, Caro did give full credit to LBJ for pursuing civil rights. If anything, the theme of Means of Ascent is the contradiction between what Caro sees as LBJ’s scummy behavior in the ’48 race, and what Caro sees as LBJ’s heroic, individual choices once he had obtained power through low means. Whatever the reason for Caro’s bizarre portrayal of Coke (and I agree it’s ridiculous), it was not that as of the writing of Means of Ascent Caro demonized LBJ, and as of the writing of Master of the Senate lionized him. Rather, Caro portrays LBJ as someone capable of demonic lows and angelic highs, and that theme and portrayal is consistent through all three books.

            • freight train

              Sorry, “theme and portrayal are,” not “is.”

            • Scott Lemieux

              1)Perhaps I’m misremembering — my copy is at the office — but I think the intro to MOA is much more qualified in its praise of LBJ’s civil rights record that you’re claiming here. IIRC, he points out the toothlesness of the 1957 CRA without noting that it 1)was the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction and 2)it was that or nothing (points he makes pretty clear in MOTS). He does give LBJ credit for the VRA act after some complaints about how it was too late, but I don’t think anything he says is inconsistent with thinking that Caro is the type of liberal who thinks that if JFK had lived the result would have been a full social reform package and no Vietnam.

              2)I think the idea that Caro’s assessment of LBJ didn’t change between MOA and MOTS is transparently wrong. Again, the key here is comparing his treatment of Stevenson and Russell; he’s never under the delusion that the latter is the good guy, although everything critical he says about Russell and worse could be said about Stevenson.

              • freight train

                Okay, I see what you’re getting at now, and where we disagree. No question that the treatment of Russell is drastically different than that of Stevenson, in a way that makes it seem that Caro had a change of heart between MOA and MOTS. But my reading of this is that Caro got criticized so hard for his Stevenson approach after the publication of MOA that he realized he needed to give Russell a more realistic treatment in MOTS. I don’t see that difference entailing, or even showing up in, a different view of LBJ – LBJ is presented consistently through the first three books as a man who used vicious means for sometimes good, sometimes bad ends.

                • Scott Lemieux

                  That is certainly possible; I don’t think there’s any question that the criticism he got for his absurd whitewashing of Stevenson — which he was immediately defensive about — affected his portrayal of Russell. Even so, it’s hard to imagine that it’s all that’s going on, in large measure because it doesn’t explain why he portrayed Stevenson as a hero to make LBJ look bad in the first place.

          • Is there anything to indicate that Viet Nam was the source of Caro’s animus? Or is your assumption based upon ‘what else could it be?’

            • Scott Lemieux

              Just an assumption; I obviously have no way of knowing.

  • Bill Murray

    At Erik’s suggestion I’ve been re-reading the Path to Power, and he’s right that it’s better than I gave it less credit than it deserved because of the sour aftertaste of the second volume.

    It’s late so am having a little trouble parsing this.

    • Strike “it’s better than.”

      Hey, when I do unpaid editing of LGM posts, should I add a “Labor Donated” tag or something?

  • Mariann19

    I’m 63; hated LBJ with a passion. Yet I love these books and have come to admire Johnson as a flawed man reaching for greatness. I believe Caro gives him credit for doing some good things out of principle and doing some bad ones (election stealing) because it was the way things were done. Certainly, IMO he dislikes LBJ less than when he started, and definitely less than Moses.

    • Richard

      I’m 65, initially liked Johnson but then came to despise him (as very many college kids of my age did). On one level, it was personal – he was trying to send me to Vietnam. Even though Kennedy bears much blame for Vietnam, he didn’t get the chance to double down on the war as Johnson did and the student exemption to the draft was revoked under Johnson’s presidency.

      On another level, it was cultural. I was an urban, hip (several levels of irony in that description) college kid and identified (in my dreams) with the looks and style of Kennedy. It was very hard for kids like me to identify with Johnson.

      But like Mariann19, I’ve come to appreciate him as a flawed man facing some great challenges.

    • Scott Lemieux

      doing some bad ones (election stealing) because it was the way things were done.

      But this is exactly the problem. Caro’s argument isn’t that election stealing was the “way things were done”; his argument was that LBJ was a villain who stole the election from Saint Coke Stevenson, whose deep immersion in the neoconfederate faction of Texas politics he almost entirely ignores.

    • DrDick

      I am 60 and long had profound ambivalence about LBJ, given my opposition to Vietnam and my support for his domestic agenda. I did not ever really hate him, given that Nixon, who drafted me, was much worse. In retrospect, I think the latter accomplishments outweigh the former.

      I doubt anyone would have done things much difference on Vietnam, as that was pretty much the elite consensus at the time. In contrast, I am not sure than anyone else could have ramrodded civil rights and the Great Society through Congress. He was clearly a flawed, if great man, but that is really the best that can be said of any politician.

      Politics is a dirty game, especially in Texas and at that time, and nobody comes through with their hands completely clean. What matters is what they accomplish when they have power.

      • Woodrowfan

        I’m 53 and Nixon was always the villain, not LBJ. I remember being so disappointed that Humphrey lost to that bastard in 68. But then the draft was never something I had to worry about.

  • Ed

    Caro is always repetitive, even at his best. In The Power Broker he offers story after story following the same arc: a Moses project threatens people’s homes, they fight back, they lose, he destroys their neighborhoods and moves on to the next project. I think his character analysis is often on the simple side but he wasn’t wrong to emphasize LBJ’s family background and younger years, those factors are probably as important as he suggests.

    “Inevitable” is the last word I’d think to use for LBJ’s domestic triumphs as Caro presents them.


    • Scott Lemieux

      But the stories in the Power Broker/Master of the Senate, while repetitive in terms of establishing Moses’s/LBJ’s character, are often independently interesting and important. Trivia about LBJ’s college years, less so.

    • Halloween Jack

      The repetition is important in the Moses book, though (haven’t read his LBJ books), simply because the Great Man defense of Moses usually relies on the long list of public works projects that Moses had a hand in creating and would insist that the occasional regrettable side effects of those projects didn’t mitigate his greatness, omelettes and eggs and so forth. He’s not trying to keep from repeating a plot element; he’s making the case for Moses’ brutality and callousness in order to refute his apologists.

      • Scott Lemieux

        I also agree with this.

  • charles pierce

    My mentor in J-school was George Reedy, who was an aide to LBJ for years, and who got beat up pretty badly for the privilege. But sitting with him and the Jameson and talking things over made me an LBJ revisionist for life. Most of the points already have been made here, but the speech on the Voting Rights Act remains the best speech given by an American president in my lifetime.
    “…and we shall overcome.”
    In that accent.
    Right in the teeth of the old Southern bulls.
    Chills to this day.

  • partisan

    I’ve never read any of Caro’s books. But I think these comments from Leo Ribuffo on Lyndon Johnson in the September 1997 Reviews in American History are spot on:

    “Unfortunately, too, LBJ appears in this book only in his reasonable moments. [Gareth] Davies emphasizes that the Vietnam War raised the general political temperature and drove many liberals to oppose the administration. True enough, but the war sweeps through From Opportunity to Entitlement as a kind of natural disaster unrelated to presidential actions. However conflicted Johnson felt privately about the wisdom of the war or the likelihood of winning it (by some plausible definition), he drastically expanded the conflict, publicly lied about its causes, purposes, and prospects, and vilified its opponents. Thus he bears primary responsibility for the domestic as well as the international consequences.”

    Ribuffo then continues with some comments on Johnson’s liberal opponents:

    “Finally, Davies’s historical vision is limited by two mutually reinforcing factors: he lacks a feel for the nitty gritty of politics and he stands determined to deliver a neoliberal message. Given Johnson’s behavior on the war, can anyone really expect the doves to have stuck with him out of loyalty to an abstraction called the political center? Members of Congress seeking to preserve their careers have abandoned presidents of their own party for much less good reason–or for no good reason at all (FDR because he tried to expand the Supreme Court; Harry Truman because he lacked flair, appointed cronies, or supported civil rights legislation; Gerald Ford because he tried to preserve détènte; and Jimmy Carter because he wanted to decontrol energy prices or tax energy companies). And Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s ordeal in 1968 shows that loyalty to LBJ went unappreciated at the White House and unrewarded at the polls.

    “For liberals in search of ways to distinguish themselves from Johnson, was advocacy of a guaranteed income as unrealistic as Davies contends? After all, a version of the guaranteed income, the FAP, passed the House in 1970 and stood a fair chance in the Senate. Moreover, there are good political reasons for advocating measures that cannot be enacted, not the least of which are to improve one’s bargaining position for a legislative compromise and to prevent the opposition from setting the national agenda. Davies seems to think that the political spectrum is a steel bar with a fixed center housed at the National Bureau of Standards. Rather, it resembles an old fashioned string of taffy whose center is determined by the strength of those pulling on the ends.

    “Davies is certainly correct that the liberals who failed to accept Nixon’s bargain, the FAP, made a major tactical mistake. Instead of stopping there, however, he keeps reiterating his assertion that a guaranteed income marked a disastrous break with ‘traditional liberalism’ (p. 177) because it repudiated “central elements of the dominant American credo” (p. 75), requiring work before remuneration.

    “What Davies calls ‘traditional liberalism’ was barely two generations old in the mid-1960s, and its proponents had successfully repudiated, redefined, or finessed many central elements of the dominant American credo since this version of centrist reform had crystallized in the mid-1930s. To prove the point, we need only return to the historiographical controversy that I cited at the beginning of this review: To what extent was the New Deal a continuation of the Progressive movement, whatever that was, and to what extent did it represent a significant shift? Unlike the old Progressives, New Dealers redefined urban machines as legitimate parts of the political system, and by the 1950s ‘traditional liberals’ like Daniel Patrick Moynihan were writing books about the ostensibly quaint characters who led them. Similarly, the New Deal interpretation of the Wagner Act implementing the union shop violated the venerable belief that anyone who secured a job from an employer had the ‘right-to-work’ (a belief later revalidated in the Taft-Hartley Act). Indeed, by supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Ac of 1965, Johnson repudiated a very central element of the American credo, white supremacy.

    “Perhaps, in the polarized politics of the ‘sixties,’ the American credo could not be redefined to include a small basic income as a right, just as passage of civil rights legislation was impossible in the 1930s and a federally enforced union shop stood no chance in the 1910s. As with these and many other reforms, however, there is no historical reason to accept the present-minded neoliberal premise that the effort was–or is–inevitably doomed by the weight of timeless traditions.”

  • PhoenixRising

    There wasn’t going to be a fair contest for the votes; while LBJ certainly committed electoral fraud since the result of unilateral would have been having the electoral fraud of the neoconfederate faction of Texas Democratic Party triumph like it did in 1942, it’s understandable that he chose not to do so

    For those who don’t specialize in mid 20th century state legislatures…any chance you could back that thang up for me? Or, since it’s Texas, run that by me one more time?

    Broadly, interesting post. Might be even more so if that paragraph made any sense. And yes, since it’s Texas, one of the options for response is always “Ah kin explain it to ya, but Ah cain’t unnerstand it for ya.”

    • Insert comma after the first instance of “fraud,” insert something like “disarmament” after “unilateral,”and insert a “not” after “chose.”

      [labor conscripted]

      • Sorry, delete the “not” after “chose.”

    • snarkout

      It’s missing a comma and a couple of words. Read it as “There wasn’t going to be a fair contest for the votes. LBJ certainly committed electoral fraud, but since the result of unilateral disarmament would have been letting the electoral fraud of the neoconfederate faction of Texas Democratic Party triumph, just as it did in 1942, it’s understandable that he chose to fight dirty.”

    • kth

      I’ll paraphrase Erik’s larger point another way, because it is crucial and cannot be said often or loudly enough: every election held in a Confederate state before 1966, and every national election that hung on the returns from the southern states, was stolen in a manner far more fundamental and outrageous than the chicanery alleged in Caro’s history, or similar alleged occurrences.

      • DocAmazing

        One of my favorite Johnson stories, probably apocryphal bullshit:

        Early in his career, Johnson was working as a fixer and collecting names from tombstones to add to the voter rolls, along with another guy. The other guy was working in an older part of the cemetery and called out, “Lyndon, this headstone’s too old. I can’t read it and I’m gonna skip it.” Johnson, outraged, walks up to the man and says, “You do whatever it takes to get that name. That man has as much right to vote as anyone in this graveyard.”

        • Woodrowfan

          I heard the same story (or a close variation) about Mayor Daley and about Boss Tweed in NYC.

        • Halloween Jack

          “But he’s not really a pig-fucker.”

          “Well, make him deny it, then.”

  • joel hanes

    I recently watched “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” which includes some tapes of Johnson deciding to double-down in Viet Nam, and McNamara’s discussion of how Viet Nam went so badly wrong. I’d recommend it.

  • LeeEsq

    Liberals of Generation X and Y might be more inclined to view LBJ more favorably than liberals of Caro’s generation or the baby boom but only slightly more so. I imagine this is because the associate Vietnam more with Nixon than LBJ rather than allocating any blame to Kennedy and Eisenhower for the debacle. I think that most younger progressives still aren’t that fond of LBJ except those with a deep interest in history.

    • DrDick

      As a Boomer, I would generally agree with this. I think Vietnam tainted LBJ’s legacy for many of my generation. As I say above, I long had an ambivalence about him, but in retrospect I think the good (civil rights and the Great Society) far out weigh the the bad (Vietnam). this is especially true since I do not think anyone else at the time would have done better on the latter.

      • LeeEsq

        LBJ was something in a rough sport with Vietnam. He could not have easily withdrawn from fighting Commies during the height of the Cold War without loosing a lot of political credibility in the United States. At very least he had to continue the Kennedy and Eisenhower path of sending military advisers to South Vietnam. Looking weak on Vietnam could have effected his ability to get Civil Rights and Great Society legislation passed domestically. A lot of people really don’t realize this. However, a few Civil Rights leaders like Rustin did and thats why some Civil Rights leaders thought it necessary not speak about Vietnam.

        Obama is in a slightly similar position but can reverse Bush’s course easier because there was more public skepticism from the start of the War on Terror, especially from Iraq II onwards. The main problem is with true believes and cowards in Congress. When LBJ assumed the Presidency, the only people skeptical about Vietnam were people at least somewhat sympathetic towards communism or actual communists. These people had very little political capital in the early 1960s. The early opponents on the War on Terror were at least more politically mainstream than the early opponents of Vietnam.

        • DrDick

          That is pretty much my take on LBJ and Vietnam, as well. Took me a while to come to terms with it, but the data do not suggest any real alternative interpretation.

          • Lee

            I also think that LBJ’s reputation is hurt becasuse he was homely. JFK was a very handsome and charismatic man, Jackie Kennedy stunning, and their children very cute. This makes many people, including people who should know better, more willing to over look JFK’s flaws.

            LBJ, his wife, and daughters were much less photogenic than the Kennedy family. This naturally makes people more likely to focus on LBJ’s flaws and mistakes rather than their accomplishments.

            Nixon is an interesting case. He was average in apperance or even slightly ugly. However, his personality is really interesting even though its rather ugly. Its almost that of a Shakesperean villain in real life. LBJ doesn’t come across with the sort of pathos that eminates from Nixon. Nixon’s pathos is what makes him more symapthetic in the public imagination than LBJ.

            • Halloween Jack

              Nixon made it work for him as the self-appointed champion of the underdog (or, as was the case in reality, people who felt that they were underdogs, being set upon by runaway social change); Rick Perlstein made the case that it worked in large part because, even though Nixon was incredibly canny at co-opting gambits and ideas from potential rivals like Reagan and George Wallace, he also very much saw himself as the underdog.

        • I’m not so sure about this. When the two Senators from New York feel pressured into voting for an unprovoked war against Iraq it seems to me that there wasn’t that much public skepticism.

          • Lee

            I did not say that there was enough public skepticism to avert Iraq II. What I said was that there was more open public skepticism when Bush started to pimp for Iraq II and it was more to the mainstream than early opposition to Vietnam.

            In the early days of the Vietnam War, around the time of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the only skepticism came from people on the really Far Left rather than more mainstream liberals. The majority of mainstream liberal supported the Vietnam War for years. The public also took longer to grow skeptical than it did with Iraq II. Obama was simply in a better position than LBJ was in fixing the foreign policy mess he inherited.

            • Obama was better at it because opposition had formed– and because he’d opposed it himself, so he was fairly secure in knowing that this was part of what people wanted him to do. As for the rest, as I recall it among the people who were opposed to Iran II from the beginning were Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders. Howard Dean, too. Isn’t that pretty much the really Far Left of the day?

              • Lee

                Amoung elected officials yes. Amoung non-politicians, there was widespread skepticism in most liberal circles with a few glaring exceptions and protests against the war before it began. With Vietnam, most of the public supported it and protests developed long after it started.

  • Nigel

    I’d be interested to read the Blumenthal review, too.
    You could, however, have quoted Caro’s reply which is readily available:
    It appears that the review was not without its own factual inaccuracies.

    As for Caro’s personal view of LBJ, it seems to me to be far more complex (and realistic) than you give him credit for, even in the earlier books – and Caro was one of the few Democrats who hadn’t airbrushed LBK from history back in 2008;

    • Scott Lemieux

      As a description of MOTS and maybe even the first book, “complex” is true. As to Means of Ascent, sorry, no. It’s about as simplistic a morality tale as a densely packed 550 page book can be, which might be OK if this simplicity didn’t involve lionizing a corrupt neoconfederate crank to make LBJ look worse.

      • Nigel

        Did you even read Caro’s response ?

        I’ll await your follow up post with interest.

    • Anonymous

      In his reply to Blumenthal Caro cites the value of Stevenson’s estate inn1975 at $708,000,in inflation adjusted terms that is nearly $3 million today. In the very next paragraph Caro describes Stevenson as someone who “nevery really had much money.” $3million isn’t much money, really?
      If Caro is willing to make this kind of a stretch to defend his portrayal of Stevenson I don’t see why one should give much credence to the rest of his argument.

      • Nigel

        Selective reading isn’t reading.

        Here’s the rest of the paragraph:

        “…But the bulk of this amount -$639,000 -consisted of the value the Internal Revenue Service placed on the land of his ranch. Most of this land was purchased before Stevenson entered state government, piece by piece as he earned fees as an attorney. Beginning in 1914 he bought it for prices as low as $6 or $8 an acre -and the increase in its value over the 60 years he owned it accounts for most of the estate’s total value. Despite his lifelong frugality -so rigid it was a joke among his friends -and despite the fact that his legal expertise made his services as an attorney eagerly sought, Coke Stevenson, for a decade one of the most powerful men in Texas, died with only 59,000 in the bank. That amount, and the land together with a few minor items, constituted his total estate.”

    • Walt

      In a way, Caro’s reply is more self-damning than any criticism. He starts out by focusing on a specific side issue, and then shits to explaining why he falls in love with Stevenson. He falls in love with the image of the Cowboy Governor, something no historian in their right mind would give a shit about. Stevenson’s actual record as a politician is pretty forgettable, which is why he was forgotten until Caro decided to rehabilitate him.

      The way Caro describes his evaluation of sources is pretty self-damning, as well. Every more-recent source is tainted by association with Johnson, while a few interviews and older sources accepted uncritically.

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