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Monstre Désacré

Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

by Robert A. Caro
Knopf, 506 pp., $24.95

In 1944 Laurence Olivier began a run as Sergius in Shaw’s Arms and the Man, unsuccessfully. When Tyrone Guthrie came by to see the Shaw play, he asked, “Don’t you love Sergius?” Decidedly not, Olivier answered. “Well, of course, if you can’t love him, you’ll never be any good in him, will you?” Olivier called this the “richest pearl of advice in my life.” Years later he could point to the exact spot outside the theater where he had received this pearl, after which he loved—and played—the hell out of Sergius.1

Robert Caro needed a Tyrone Guthrie at some earlier stage of this long run with the life of Lyndon Johnson. “Love that stooge?” Olivier had asked Guthrie; but Sergius is simply a blusterer. It is easy enough, with effort, to love a vain child. Monsters are another matter, and Lyndon Johnson was clearly a monster of ambition, greed, and cruelty. What’s not to loathe?

But it rots the soul to entertain, too long, an unmixed contempt for any human being, even the worst. There is something eerily obsessive about Caro’s stalking of his villain. It is the inverse of gilding the lily, this continual tarring of the blackguard. Johnson’s treatment of his wife was bad enough, one would think, that Caro need not exaggerate it. Yet Caro reserves information where it would partly exonerate, and produces it only when it further incriminates. We are told, early on, how Congressman Johnson flew home to his district on his patron’s corporate airplane while his wife had to drive the long trip with their belongings. Though Caro admits that “Lady Bird disliked flying,” he tells us that the principal reason for “this disparity in the Johnsons’ travel arrangements,” which proved that “he treated her like the hired help,” was Johnson’s parsimony where she was concerned.

In case we did not get this the first time, Caro (as is his custom) gives us the whole situation again, twenty-five pages later. After describing Johnson’s extravagance in buying custom-made shirts, gold cuff links, and tailored suits, he reminds us:

The Johnsons were constantly skimping—or at least one of them was; during a week in which boxes of custom-made shirts were delivered to the Johnson apartment, Mrs. Johnson set out, with her carload of boxes, on the long drive to Texas to save the cost of another set of dishes and household implements.

Now that we have learned how cruel it was of Johnson not to let his wife fly with him, we have to wait over two hundred pages to learn that Lady Bird not only “disliked flying,” as Caro first admitted almost in passing, but that she suffered “terror and airsickness” every time she got on a plane. We learn this only because Caro is now going to prove how cruel Johnson was in forcing her to fly around Texas giving campaign speeches. We are quite justified in wondering whether this bit of information about Lady Bird’s attitude toward planes would ever, at length, have emerged if it could not be turned against Johnson—just as its earlier suppression was used to blackguard the man. What other exculpating information is not only delayed but omitted?

Caro is justly celebrated for the knowledge of detail he brings to his task, but these details are organized more for emotional effect than for clarity of analysis. Most of his second volume, in what is a lengthening biography, deals with Johnson’s 1948 election to the Senate. We are told how Johnson invents, distorts, manipulates the few “issues” raised in the campaign; yet only when the election is over, and is being contested, is it revealed that the larger setting of this campaign was a struggle between Democratic party regulars and Dixiecrat rebels who opposed Harry Truman’s civil rights policies. This information has to be used, late and minimally, to explain why Truman’s partisans helped Johnson validate the fraudulent results of his campaign. Introduced earlier, that same information would have affected the way one interpreted the contrast between Johnson and his rival, the former Texas governor Coke Stevenson. Stevenson, who is as unremittingly whitewashed here as Johnson is tarred, would not seem so much the “parfit gentil knight” if it were known, ahead of time, that he was friendly to the Dixiecrats.

This is not the only information about Coke Stevenson that is suppressed. Stevenson was a fundamentalist in religion—a position not admired by Caro, and one that made Stevenson willing to go along, as governor of Texas, with the muzzling of professors at the state university. Though we are given, in effect, a minibiography of Stevenson in this book, we have to keep our eyes peeled to catch the one hurried reference to his religion, given inside a shriving larger context of his regard for the Republic’s social documents: “He read the two constitutions [federal and state]—and took their words—as literally as he read his Bible, and his reverence was no less deep.”

In Caro’s incantatory style, Stevenson’s identifying marks—his pipe, his broad shoulders, his battered coffee-pot—are returned to with cinematic insistence. We are told, over and over, that he was so independent and self-contained that he would have no telephone on his ranch, even when he was governor. He campaigned by driving around in his dusty car, without retinue or loudspeaker, to talk with voters man-to-man. His appearance on horse-back is a kind of theophany, cowboys doing him homage with a reverential gesture:

It was a cowboy gesture, a peculiarly Texas gesture, in fact, for cowboys do not tip their hats except to ladies. As men said “Hello, Coke,” they would touch one or two fingers to the brim of their Stetsons and then point the fingers toward the big man riding by. Even men who didn’t call out made that gesture; every man in the crowd was making it, it seemed.

Having given us a hundred words on The Gesture, Caro goes on for two hundred more, describing the spread of The Gesture through a crowd of all ages. All this occurred at a traditional rite, the Texas Cowboy Reunion, where Johnson did not dare show up.

Johnson’s arrival at an event was not as a “big man sitting so erect and calm on the prancing horse.” He came, explosive and vulgar, in the first helicopter ever used in a Senate campaign. The understated nod of the horseman, calm on his mount, is contrasted with the sweaty scramble of a man too frantic to stay inside his noisy vehicle:

Above larger cities he went wild,…he circled the downtown shopping area again and again at a height of three hundred feet, leaning out of the helicopter window and yelling down through a megaphone…while showering the city with his leaflets. Between cities, he urged [the pilot] Chudars to fly faster. And in his enthusiasm, Lyndon Johnson leaned out of the helicopter and, in the words of one reporter, “whipped his Stetson on the plane’s flanks as though it were a bronco.”

The helicopter rasps and blats through page after page, a malevolent intruder from some other world (fundamentalists find it in the Bible), disturbing the order of nature, intruding into people’s lives, flying backward and sideways, an occult sacrament of the new politics:

A dozen cotton-choppers, seeing the Flying Windmill suddenly wheel and head for them, dropped their hoes and ran in terror for the shelter of a nearby wood. Such reactions did not, however, deter the candidate…. “The chickens thought it was a bird coming down to get them,” [Horace] Busby recalls. “They would go berserk, flying up and hitting the fences.” Cows would gallop awkwardly away in panic to the farthest end of the pasture, the milk bucket having been kicked over. Horses would squeal and rear in their stalls.

If crowds gave “Coke” The Gesture, as one of their own, they came out to greet the helicopter with an awe for The Alien: “As he hovered and began to descend, he looked down on a sea of upturned faces—people waiting for him.” Johnson turned his new mode of arrival into a death-defying act, telling reporters that Lady Bird feared for his safety. When tight surroundings made a straight vertical takeoff necessary, Johnson would stay on the ground, telling people to pray for his endangered pilot, before driving to a cleared space where he could be lifted off in a sloping ascent.

Though Caro likes to present himself as a simple fact collector on a giant scale, he is actually a mythmaker, and what he gives us in this book is a night-marishly inverted fairy tale, one in which the dragon slays Saint George. It is a clattering great dragon out of the sky, which engorges the horsed knight, pipe, coffee pot, and all.

When the investigating reporting for which the book has been hailed would work against the myth, it is ruthlessly subordinated to Caro’s large effects. We are given, in admirable detail, how Johnson, in order to win the Texas primary election for senator, stole the crucial votes from Duval County—not only votes in the elusive Ballot Box 13, but the bulk of the county’s votes, which went for him 4,622 to 40. But it is an embarrassment to Caro’s thesis—the claim that Johnson stole on a whole new scale, introducing a corruption new to politics but destined to take over the nation—that Coke Stevenson won by margins just as lopsided in this corrupt county when he was running for governor. He once won 3,310 votes while five rivals split up the only other 17 to be counted. The south county returns were famously purchasable, and wins tended to be lopsided. “In another celebrated contest, one candidate won the primary in a south Texas county by 3,000-5, then got into an argument with the county boss and lost the runoff by the exact same margin.”2

Indeed, the history of the area suggests that if Johnson had not “stolen” the vote, Stevenson would have won by just as artificial a majority. So how does Caro explain his saint’s earlier victories in the county? By a blurring maneuver that affects his normally clear syntax. He bundles all the minimizing considerations past us in a distracted and distracting single sentence:

The border bosses had always supported him [Stevenson] by the traditional wide margins, but not for the traditional reasons—rather, during the first primary of his initial race for Lieutenant Governor because Austin’s conservative politicians and business interests who found his philosophy compatible persuaded the bosses to back him; in the second primary for no other reason than that the inexplicable O’Daniel (who had purchased the Valley that year) included him on the list of candidates he had never met but whom he was supporting (as one rebel Laredo politician said, “The machine localities are straight behind the candidates O’Daniel endorsed”); in Stevenson’s races thereafter for reasons not financial but strategic, because his immense popularity made victory a foregone conclusion, and the jefes wanted to be with the winner, and not antogonize a Governor whose disfavor might interfere with their rule.

So at first Stevenson did not buy the southern counties, because other people (business interests, Pappy O’Daniel) bought it for him. And then those same interests were so solidly behind him that there was nothing of value to sell to a rival. No wonder Caro does not want us to pause long on that breathless defense.

Caro tells us he is devoting so much space to the 1948 election not only because it is a good story (and it is) but because it offers the first glimpse of the new politics that would later overtake our electoral process—huge amounts of money, organization, and technology used to create an entirely false picture of one’s opponent. It is true that Johnson was free to make outlandish claims about Stevenson’s position, because Stevenson had a prickly kind of pride that refused to answer attacks. He considered his own honor impregnable, and that is all he offered the voters—he would make no campaign promises, issue no position papers, answer no criticisms. This quirkish approach had worked in Texas before, at a time when the governor could go home and not be reached by telephone—it was appropriate to a Texas sealed in on itself.

Stevenson’s conservatism was not only states’-rights on racial matters but on fiscal ones as well. He took a pay-as-you-go approach to the state’s own budget, and wanted to keep the federal government out. He had always opposed the New Deal—a position Caro seems to prefer to Johnson’s inconsistent support for Roosevelt’s programs. But the conflict of 1948 was not just one of campaign techniques. Johnson’s reliance on new means of communication and transportation resembled the “intrusive” technologies that Caro praised in the first volume of this biography, where the New Deal’s rural electrification was concerned.

Caro offers Coke Stevenson’s story as a tale of honorable failure, the story of a man too good to succeed—the same story Caro told about Johnson’s father in the first volume. In that part of his story, Caro turns Lyndon Johnson from hero-worshiper of his father into a sullen foe just as soon as his father’s virtues make him lose his money. The picture of the elder Johnson was as idealized as that of Stevenson is in volume two. (“The Best Man I Ever Knew” is the title of one chapter devoted to Johnson père.)

Sam Ealy Johnson, an idealist “straight as a shingle” whose uncompromising adherence to the beliefs and principles with which he entered politics made him a hero to some, was nonetheless a political failure who didn’t accomplish any of his most cherished aims. His son had, in the campus arena which was the only arena in which he had yet fought, accomplished his aims—because the impedimenta which hampered his father did not hamper him. He had won believing in nothing—without a reform he wanted to make, without a principle or issue about which he truly cared.3

Needless to say, Johnson’s savaging of Coke Stevenson is turned into an act of symbolic parricide. He would even accept the mocking nickname “Landslide Lyndon” as a result of his victory over Stevenson, if that meant he was tough enough to win, no matter what:

Lyndon’s little brother, who understood Lyndon so well, said, “It was most important to Lyndon not to be like Daddy.” Lyndon Johnson had to prove that he possessed the “common sense” his father had lacked. He needed respect for his pragmatism—needed it passionately—even if obtaining it meant portraying himself as a wheeler-dealer, a politician in the worst sense of the word.

Caro’s larger justification of this lengthy biography is that he means to unveil the secrets of power. In a chapter on Johnson’s fraudulent victory, Caro analyzes his subject’s strengths as a leader. He had single-mindedness in pursuit of his goal, and subordination of everything to that. He acquired the proper instruments (human, financial, technical) for his task, and was ruthless in using or losing them when it profited him most. He could, as well, think fast under pressure, and stick to a risky decision once made. Yet most of the time Caro presents Johnson as more driven than driving, the victim of his own passions. His strength is his capacity to desire things desperately. Thus, when Johnson orders his helicopter through, under, or around storms that frighten his pilot, Caro stresses how oblivious he was to everything except what he wanted at the moment. Johnson even went through a helicopter accident without noticing it.4 In all these ways, Johnson is just greedier, more ambitious, more ruthless, less thoughtful of others, than anyone around him. That seems to be the whole secret of power in Caro’s mind.

Such blast-furnace intensity is bound to overcome those who, like Caro’s Coke Stevenson, care for other things than power—for family, and decency, and the claims of others. This point is underscored in the idyllic scene of Coke Stevenson’s retirement that ends the book. Married again, adored and adoring, at peace with the land and himself, Stevenson has rescued his humanity from the degrading spectacle Johnson made of Texas politics. 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.

Caro has touched on a serious matter, the problem of maintaining human values in the scramble for power. Seneca faced this challenge in its most acute form, as the court adviser to a corrupt emperor. Addressing it in his dialogue on the tranquil mind, he admitted that honorable men cannot serve in some foul regimes. But even then, he argues, the virtuous man should “disengage with a dragging foot, retiring the standards with a military discipline retained.”5 It is too easy to conclude, prematurely, that the only “way to save oneself is to bury oneself.”6 Seneca would judge that a politician who refuses to answer questions has barely been engaged in the first place. 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.

Johnson, on the other hand, was not just an eager gulper after things but a shrewd judge of other people. We see him, in the book, inside his own immense drives; but he had to be able to rise above the situation, even to direct and profit from those drives. Power demands a certain detachment, the coup d’oeil Clausewitz thinks of as the commander’s supreme gift; an empathy with one’s foe; above all, persuasiveness to get and keep the right allies. Caro has referred to Johnson as the most powerful man in the world, though it is doubtful he was ever that. Anyone who might trigger nuclear war can be supremely destructive—and that includes a wide variety of people, including technicians along the line, most of them weak in every other way. At the moment of testing Caro will have to describe in future volumes, Johnson was less able to impose his myth on the relevant people than was Ho Chi Minh. And imposing one’s myth is the real test of power—not simply calling spirits from the vasty deep, but getting them to respond.

How did Johnson, on a smaller scale at least, get people to respond? Lying and stealing are good weapons, as Machiavelli knew, but not the supreme ones in a prince’s arsenal: the final trick is to win the people’s support. Caro thinks that is not really necessary—that Johnson won in Texas with less support than Coke Stevenson had. It is the same mystery he proposed in the first volume, when he said Johnson was the most powerful man on his college campus, and the most despised. No one, it seems, liked him; but most of them, nonetheless, did his will.

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. We are back to the Tyrone Guthrie test. 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. Caro is wonderful in tracing all the money awash in Johnson’s background; the FCC holds no secret from him; but humor is a code he seems doomed never to crack. He can expose all the lies Johnson told about his military service, but he does not notice the Flaubertian virtuosity of those accounts. When Johnson tells a country audience how he roomed with a country boy in the South Pacific, how the boy’s plane went down when they were both on a mission, he gives the tale this final touch:

I sat in that little room we had shared together, and I got all the letters his mama had written him, and I tied them up to send back to her. And I packed up his clothes. I remember I rolled up his socks. They smelled bad, but they were his, so I sent them to his mama, too.

There is an eau juste as well as a mot juste, and Johnson has drenched this passage in it, essence of sock.

Caro tells us Johnson was a great raconteur, but he shows no appreciation for that virtue, or for its political importance. The great storyteller must know his audience, the way to pitch his tale, what works in different situations. For two volumes, now, Caro has told us how Johnson, with rare exceptions, wanted only flunkies he could bully around him. But Johnson always had talented people ready to help him, and bullying was only part of his secret with them. He drew people into vivid psychodramas, in which he was willing to wheedle, threaten, flatter, cajole, joke, bargain. He could add colors to the chameleon, like Richard III—but it took a Shakespeare to write about Richard III, and an Olivier to play him. They both loved their monster.

  1. 1

    Anthony Holden, Laurence Olivier (Atheneum, 1988), pp. 187–188.

  2. 2

    Dan Balz, “The Mystery of Ballot Box 13,” Washington Post Book World, March 4, 1990, p. 11.

  3. 3

    Robert A. Caro, The Path to Power (Knopf, 1982), p. 189. The “visionless” race for which young Lyndon is excoriated was for the student council of San Marcos Teachers College. On one point Sam Ealy Johnson differed from Coke Stevenson—but that point just makes Caro admire the elder Johnson more: he defied fundamentalists by saying a good word for Darwin (pp. 91–92).

  4. 4

    By the time of the helicopter, Caro has retired the question of Johnson’s physical courage, though this, too, shows how Caro throws the worst light possible on each event in his narrative. In his first volume, the child Johnson screams hysterically when beaten, but only because he wants attention. In college, his avoidance of fights (always a tricky matter for boys in Texas) shows he was “a physical coward” (p. 156). In the war, cowardice keeps him from combat. In his one exposure to enemy fire, he shows self-command—and Caro admits this is a puzzling contradiction to his general picture. But the whole matter is forgotten by the time Johnson shows no fear in his storm-tossed helicopter.

  5. 5

    Seneca, De Tranquilitate Animae 4.1.

  6. 6

    Seneca, De Tranquilitate Animae 5.4.

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