Every biographer stands in awe of Robert Caro, or should. The fourth volume of his epic work on LBJ continues the story of this remarkable figure in American political history. This installment packs in the greatest concentrated drama in Johnson’s life, beginning with the humiliation of his vice-presidency, and culminating in the triumphant days of his early presidency, when all of the country seemed at his feet.
As a master politician, he deserves and received the attention of this generation’s master politician, Bill Clinton. In Clinton’s review of Caro’s fourth volume, he reads LBJ as reaching the nadir of his power when he leaves the power of his Senate leadership, becomes vice president to a younger, in his eyes more immature and undeserving Jack Kennedy, and relives the humiliation of his family’s poverty, his own inadequate social and educational schooling as he daily interacts with the Ivy Leaguer Best and Brightest in the Kennedy White House.
Like all of Caro’s books, the protagonist must duel with an antagonist, creating a dynamic conflict that drives the narrative forward. Here, Robert Kennedy plays the role of Johnson’s chief tormentor, an even younger Kennedy who distrusted and disrespected Johnson even from their days together on Capitol Hill. Now the president’s most trusted confidante, RFK used his power often gratuitously and cruelly to put Johnson down whenever possible. Ironically, Caro’s need to prop up this antagonism blinds him to a key moment in the JFK presidency when the two rivals saw eye to eye–the Cuban Missile Crisis. The president emerges as the hero, cooly keeping the war hawks at bay, while Johnson and Bobby and virtually everyone else counseled war.
The book implicitly reminds us that tragedy carries many implications. Virtually all Americans mourn Kennedy’s death as a national trauma, the first one we shared literally together thanks to national television, and our sense of a lost innocence that we buried with JFK. Many of us apply that sense of lost possibility forward, extrapolating that perhaps the waste of the Vietnam experience might have been lessened with Kennedy at the helm.
Caro reminds us that history resists such easy sentimentality about the past and its course. Johnson’s greatest glory, and arguably the greatest moment in modern American democratic liberalism–Johnson’s Great Society, the Civil Rights Revolution, and the War on Poverty–happened because of him, because of his legislative genius, because of the mandate that he received partly as a national commitment to Kennedy’s memory, but mainly because of the sheer vision and power of the man. Eight seconds in Dallas made all of that social change possible.