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Coke Stevenson and Political Principle

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Last week, somebody asked me about Robert Caro’s response to the extensive criticism the second volume of his LBJ biography received for taking a Manichean view of the 1948 Texas Democratic Senate primary between LBJ and the ultra-reactionary Coke Stevenson in which Stevenson was the good guy. Since doing so is another way of making my point about political action and principle, I thought I would. I should reiterate again at the outset that my problems with Means of Ascent should not dissuade anyone from reading the rest of Caro’s masterly LBJ series (and the first section of the new one is encouragingly brilliant.)

On the Stevenson issue, I would have a couple rejoinders. First, Caro is largely unresponsive to the primary thrust of Blumenthal’s critique, which involves errors of omission rather than commission. He spends scarcely more time discussing Stevenson’s reactionary record in the 600 pages of Means of Ascent than he does in this New York Times response. And what little attention he gave it, as Blumenthal pointed out, was presented in weaselly, exculpatory language particularly jarring giving Caro’s more typical straightforward moralism. (According to Caro, Stevenson purged liberals from UT Austin because he “didn’t understand” academic freedom, not because he opposed it.) He also omits crucial context between the pro-FDR faction LBJ was aligned with versus the neoconfederate Texas Regulars (who tried to steal Texas’s electoral college votes for the Republicans) Stevenson was allied with. And with all due respect, when Caro explains this by saying that he “dealt only in a summary fashion with aspects of Stevenson’s life that had little to do with the campaign” he’s insulting the intelligence of his readers. Caro is — to put it mildly — not known for his laser focus, and that’s not an insult; the rich historical background Caro supplies is a large part of what makes his great books great. If Stevenson had ever done anything good in his political life I’m certain we would have heard about it at great length.

More relevant to the current discussion, I’ll concede that Caro is probably right that Blumenthal overreached when he described Stevenson as corrupt based on false or unsubstantiated rumors. I’ll concede arguendo that Stevenson was an atypical Texas reactionary rather than a typical one. Where I disagree with Caro is in his thinking this is very important. Caro sees a lot of value in Stevenson’s patrician posture versus LBJ’s transparent lust for office; I put no value on that. Caro greatly admires the integrity with which Stevenson advanced his reactionary views. My reaction is more along the lines of “why should reactionary interests in Texas buy what they already had for free?” What matters is Stevenson’s record; to me, whether his awful performance a as governor was the result of principle or corruption is beside the point. George Wallace’s racism may have been tactical rather than principled but the effects on African Americans in Alabama were exactly the same either way.

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