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…

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