One thing that leaves me with a slightly sour taste in my mouth, however, is that Caro seems to be setting up a Means of Ascent II for the final volume, with RFK donning Coke Stevenson’s white hat.* Now, of course, that would not be nearly as disastrous the second time around. While LBJ’s refusal to unilaterally disarm in the 1948 Democratic primary is a minor transgression that just doesn’t merit the hundreds of pages of frequently tendentious vituperation leveled at Johnson, Vietnam was another story. (And, of course, the rage in Means of Ascent was pretty clearly indirectly about Vietnam.) And making a hero out of a moderate liberal like Bobby Kennedy would not be remotely like making a hero out a reprehensible segregationist like Stevenson. Still, when it comes to the belief (frequently held by liberals of that generation) that RFK was the liberal alternative to LBJ and Humphrey in 1968…well, I would say you had to be there except that many liberals of my generation seem to believe this not very persuasive argument too.
Which brings us to Fred Kaplan’s excellent column about the portrayal of the Cuban Missle Crisis. Caro’s account of LBJ’s casually sociopath haswkishness isn’t wrong, and nor is his portrayal of JFK admirably rejecting the advice. The problem, as Kaplan says, is that LBJ’s views were essentially identical to those expressed by all of the other advisers, including Saint Bobby. JFK, by that time, was becoming genuinely skeptical of his past stances, but RFK was still a generic liberal cold warrior (and his well-reciprocated hatred of Johnson was personality, not policy, driven.) I’m far from convinced that Robert Kennedy deserves to be seen as the more liberal alternative in the 1968 primaries. Sure, unburdened by being part of the administration he ran to LBJ and Humprhey’s left on the war, but then so did Nixon and we know how that turned out. And certainly it’s hard to see how RFK could have a domestic policy edge over the most progressive domestic policy president of the 20th century or his longtime liberal sidekick/torture object.
Incidentally, I’m not sure that I agree with Kaplan’s implications that Jack Kennedy would have had a substantially better policy on Vietnam than Johnson. It’s possible; certainly, his instincts were better than Johnson or any of his major adviser’s (including his brother). But note a key element of the story: JFK was only willing to make the rational trade of missiles with Turkey if it wasn’t public. Kennedy was extremely risk-averse, and while this is sensible to some degree — picking fights that can’t be won undermines presidential power — he took it to extremes. I can believe that that Kennedy would not have escalated in Vietnam to the same degree as Johnson (who cared relatively little about foreign policy and more about domestic policy), but it’s hard for me to see JFK taking the risks inherent in being seen as “losing” Vietnam.
*I should say, however, that to his credit while setting up RFK as a hero he does include this passage:
Some of the remarks [Bobby Kennedy] made about [Lyndon Johnson] showed a fundamental misunderstanding of his background. “What does he know about people who’ve got no jobs?” he asked Goodwin not long after the assassination. “Or the uneducated. He’s got no feelng for people who are hungry. It’s up to us.”
Even leaving aside LBJ’s vastly greater policy achievements with respect to poverty, this is pretty rich coming from Joe Kennedy’s son as directed at the son of a bankrupt Texas Hill Country rancher who was educated at that well-known gateway to the American elite, Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College.