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America’s Nastiest Blood Feud

Francis Miller/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson at the ground-breaking ceremony for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., December 1964

Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson—this is the fourth volume of a planned five—was originally conceived and has been largely executed as a study of power. But this volume has been overtaken by a more pressing theme. It is a study in hate. The book’s impressive architectonics come from the way everything is structured around two poles or pillars—Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy, radiating reciprocal hostilities at every step of the story. Caro calls it “perhaps the greatest blood feud of American politics in the twentieth century.” With some reservations about the word “blood,” one has to concede that Caro makes good his claim for this dynamic in the tale he has to tell.

There are many dramatic events, throughout the volume, that illustrate Caro’s theme. I begin with one that could seem insignificant to those not knowing the background on both sides, because it shows that even the slightest brush between these two triggered rancorous inner explosions. Johnson, newly sworn in as president, had just come back to Washington on Air Force One from the terrible death of John Kennedy in Dallas. Robert Kennedy sped up the steps to the plane and rushed fiercely down the length of the cabin through everyone standing in his way (including the new president) to reach Jacqueline Kennedy. Understandable that he would first of all want to comfort the widow? Yes, but. This was the first of many ways Bobby (called that throughout) tried in the first days to ignore the man who had ignominiously, in his eyes, supplanted his brother by a murder in the man’s own Texas.

Caro understands that Bobby was determined not to see Johnson, even if he saw him—so he did not see him. But Johnson saw him not seeing, and hated him the more. That is how hate narrows one—narrows what one wants to see, or is able to see, in order to keep one’s hatred tended and hard.

Both men had good reason to treat each other with some empathy at that moment. Johnson had just inherited a crushing office, in a time of national crisis, and had to legitimize himself in every way he could. Bobby should have recognized the need of the nation, and gulped down the unwelcome fact that Johnson was, in fact, the president now. He should have set a pattern for stricken Kennedy loyalists on the plane. Johnson, on the other hand, should have sympathized with a brother still reeling from an incalculable loss, a man moving in a blur of emotions, and he should have swallowed his resentment at the snub. But they were blocked from the generosities needed in such a moment of tragedy by their previous clashes, well laid out by Caro.

Bobby had a long history of trying not to see Johnson, of resenting it when forced to acknowledge his presence; and he loathed shaking his hand. It began with their very first recorded meeting, in 1953. Lyndon Johnson came into the Senate cafeteria for his customary breakfast there. He was trailing his entourage, radiating his power as minority leader. He passed the table of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was sitting near the entrance with three or four staffers, including a newcomer to his team, twenty-seven-year-old Robert Kennedy, who had just got this job through the influence of his father, a McCarthy supporter. Johnson knew about that arrangement, as he did all the things that went on in “his” Senate. Johnson had mocked Joe Kennedy all over town and despised Joe McCarthy as a loose cannon in the Senate. He also did not think much of the newly elected senator John Kennedy, whom he would soon be calling a sickly absentee from the Senate and “not a man’s man.”

Yet McCarthy, with his coarse affability, leaped to his feet when Johnson approached, greeted him as “Leader,” and shook his hand. His aides followed suit, all but one, who remained seated, with an expression of distaste. Bobby knew what Johnson had been saying about his father and his boss, and he always bristled at slights directed at his own revered family. He refused to get up, or even to look at Johnson. Johnson, whose own history of humiliations Caro has traced in earlier volumes, was just as quick to sense contempt, and determined to crush it if he could. He was a bully and a sadist, and he took the earliest opportunity to force Kennedy to submit to the dreaded handshake. He went right up to him, towering over him (he always put his height to use) and crowded at him with a half-extended hand. Finally, in the embarrassment of a growing silence, Kennedy rose and, with averted eyes, shook Johnson’s hand. Johnson felt he had made this lowly staffer crawl. It would prove to be a costly victory.

The 1960 Campaign

Johnson had ached toward the presidency from his youth, an urge whose progress Caro has long tracked in his earlier volumes. Johnson recognized the obstacles in his way, mainly his association with the South and its racism. He had tried to ease this problem by getting the Senate to pass toothless civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960. He knew he could never win the liberal Northeast, but his many allies assured him that he had a passing chance in the Midwest and a good one in the West, and he could win by adding, here and there, enough votes to bulk out the still-solid South. He also felt that he would face a weak lineup of rivals for the Democratic nomination. John Kennedy was shaping up as the main threat, but he did not think much of him. It became a mantra with him that “the boy can’t win.” What had he done? He was an absentee senator with no major legislation to his name.

Johnson, who always set great store by physical strength, dismissed Kennedy as a scrawny lightweight. He was on to something that it would take journalists, and then historians, years to get to the bottom of. Kennedy was often absent from the Senate and other places because he was either in the hospital or was trying to regain an appearance of health and activity. Caro revisits the findings of biographers who finally documented how constant was Kennedy’s pain, from a formidable array of physical impairments. His back all but immobilized him, even with a brace wrapped around with mummifying tapes. His handsome features fluctuated in color and fullness according to his intake of cortisone and other drugs. He had many ailments to hide in order to keep on projecting his prized image of “vigor.”

Johnson knew something was wrong and later, during the 1960 campaign, he acted on his instinct, sending a former Senate investigator to find out the truth. A doctor who had treated Kennedy confirmed that he suffered from Addison’s disease and needed continual cortisone treatments. Johnson had members of his campaign team, including future Texas governor John Connally, hold a press conference to reveal those facts. Bobby answered that his brother never had classical tubercular-related Addison’s disease (he had a different kind), and Ted Sorensen said he had not been treated with cortisone (he used a cortisone derivative). These were lies hidden in technicalities, but nothing could have sharpened more Bobby’s determination never to let anywhere near his family the man who had revealed his brother’s affliction. We can only imagine the shock when that brother asked Johnson to become his running mate.

But before that traumatic episode, Caro addresses a major puzzle in his story. Why did Johnson assemble a campaign team for the 1960 election and then, month after month, refuse to use it? At first he said that he would make his campaign believable by staying and working in the Senate. But when his allies asked to organize stealthily for him, he forbade it. Caro, with his knowledge of Johnson’s lifelong experience of humiliations, says the real reason was a fear of being defeated. I suspect that this gun-shy trait is a premonition of the withdrawal from the 1968 race that Caro will be treating in the next volume.

The reason Johnson hesitated was that reports were reaching him that the Kennedy machine had a reach far outside of New England. And one of those racing around to recruit Catholic city bosses was Bobby, the lowly aide he had despised. After years of greeting Bobby as “Sonny Boy” when they passed each other in Senate corridors, he had seen him prove a tough investigator of organized crime on the McClellan Committee. When Johnson did lunge for the nomination, too late, he knew the man he had to fear. He said he needed John Connally on his campaign team because only he was “tough enough to handle Bobby Kennedy.” (Connally, as we have seen, showed that toughness in the press conference on Kennedy’s Addison’s disease.)

But even while he began to fear Bobby, he had to take every possible opportunity to humiliate him. When Jack sent Bobby to Johnson’s ranch to sound him out on the race, Johnson forced him to go deer hunting, and gave him a powerful shotgun whose recoil knocked him down. Johnson helped him up with the condescending words, “Son, you’ve got to learn to handle a gun like a man.”

When it became clear to Johnson that he could not reach the top of the ticket, he began to consider the second spot. He had his staff look up how many presidents in the previous hundred years had died in office—five out of eighteen, giving him a better than 20 percent chance of reaching the presidency that way. When Clare Boothe Luce later asked him why he would accept the nomination to be number two, he answered: “Clare, I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.” He said much the same thing to trusted journalists. So it was clear why Johnson would run with the “sickly” John Kennedy. He knew about the ailments that could threaten his life. But why would Kennedy want him?

Kennedy was Johnson’s quieter equal at calculating his advantages and disadvantages. He realized he needed the South, but that a liberal Catholic from Massachusetts would get few votes there—unless. What if he had with him a master of Southern politics, one with multiple ties on many levels throughout the area? He knew he would have to face opposition from his own supporters—people like Joseph Rauh and Walter Reuther and Arthur Schlesinger—who still considered Johnson a crude racist, and who would feel their candidate was betraying all the ideals they had imputed to him. Most of all, he would face the shock of his idolizing brother if he brought the very devil of Bobby’s universe into their circle. Jack could not budge that mass of hatred. So he decided to play on it. He told his brother that he did not mean to offer the second spot to Johnson. He had just made a pro forma suggestion, and Johnson had seized it, treating it as a firm offer, and now Jack could not get out of that imprisoning embrace.

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