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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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