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Wills On Means of Ascent

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I’ve been withholding further discussion of the second volume of Caro’s LBJ biography hoping that the New Republic would put Blumenthal’s review online.   That doesn’t seem to be happening, but even better I noticed that the NYRB has made Garry Wills’s review available.   As you would expect it’s a wonderful piece of writing in itself.   The review uses telling examples to demonstrate that Means of Ascent is a hatchet job — the whitewash of Coke Stevenson, the withholding or emphasis of Lady Bird’s intense fear of flying depending on whether it’s needed to make LBJ look bad, the meaninglessness of saying that the 1948 Democratic primary was “stolen.”   Even better, it does so with even more wonderful turns of phrase than one expects from Wills, which is saying something.  “One finishes this long volume with the fear, page by page, that Bambi will show up in the final paragraph to lick Coke’s cheek.”   “Those who decide they are too good for politics may be right, but they are often the least qualified judges, either of their own virtue or the system’s viciousness.”  And my personal favorite:

One reason for Caro’s deep belief that no one of any discernment or importance liked Johnson is his own inability to like anything about him…Caro’s imperviousness to Johnson’s weirder charms shows in many little ways as well as large ones. His evidence for the contempt students felt for him is their open use of the nickname Bull (for Bullshit) to his face. But there is bullshit and bullshit. “Bull sessions” is a neutral term—Johnson would later ask if he had to give a set speech at a political meeting or just bullshit. Bullshitting can be a skill, and even an art, not least in Texas. Caro has no critical ear in this regard, on the evidence of his unremittingly humorless pages. To write of Lyndon Johnson without a sense of humor is like setting a tone-deaf man to write about Mozart.

And yet, and yet, even at his worst I’m not immune to Caro either. Means of Ascent is a train wreck, far below the standards of Caro’s other four books, but it’s still an oddly fascinating train wreck. Once you can start to half-ignore the ridiculous framing, he still uncovers a lot of good stories about a political figure who’s worthy of extensive attention. And as I’ve said, it’s also interesting to me in terms of what it says about a certain generation of liberals, when (understandably) Vietnam loomed large while the Great Society could be seen as the emergence of a consensus. Means of Ascent seems to be working within the framework that caused a lot of people on the left to hold Hubert Humphrey — very possibly the most liberal major party nominee of the 20th century — in contempt. (For me, always symbolized by Mailer saying that if forced to choose he would prefer Nixon in Miami and the Siege of Chicago.) And as Tom Carson’s excellent review of Passages of Power points out, Caro reflects a particular variant of this — the patrician variant rather than the radical variant. Caro seems to find Jeffersonian leadership norms where politicians shouldn’t explicitly seek power very attractive, an ethos that Adlai Stevenson reflected. LBJ’s transparency was the opposite of this, which is part of what explains how Caro analyzes the 1948 Democratic primary.

But by Master of the Senate, Caro has changed. Part of this, I’m sure, is that he was stung by the criticism of Means of Ascent, and his clear-eyed view of Richard Russell (as compared to his embarrassing canonization of Stevenson in particular reflects this. But I don’t think it’s just that. The last two volumes pass the “Tyrone Guthrie” test. The third volume has — and should — a lot of critical material, but Caro no longer seems entirely immune to LBJ’s charms. And this is more pronounced in Passages of Power. As a longtime Camelot skeptic I’m not surprised to find “Rufus Cornpone” a more sympathetic figure that Bobby Kennedy and many of his associates, but I am surprised to find that at times this seems to be Caro’s view as well. I’m guessing that the evolution of Caro’s views about LBJ is shared by a lot of liberals of his era.

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