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Robert Caro’s well-received volume on LBJ’s vice-presidency and early presidency opens up an unexpected can of worms.
(Page 2 of 2)
Literary techniques can be effective. But they can also raise questions when used in writing history. In a novel or drama, they help maintain a measure of suspense, setting up a series of expectations that lead to a satisfactory conclusion. Viewed in that way by a reader who has no special knowledge of the events of the period (it all happened, after all, half a century ago) The Passage of Power might well seem to have accomplished just that—a vivid narrative that, by dramatizing Johnson’s lust for the presidency, seems structured to lead us to one inescapable conclusion: LBJ had something to do with bringing on the act that brought him the presidency.
BUT THAT, OF COURSE, is not what Caro wants at all. He intends to write history, not drama, and the deus ex machina, the assassination that allowed LBJ to get on with his career and Caro his chronicle, having served its purpose, is wheeled quickly offstage. There’s a dutiful bow to the work and composition of the Warren Commission and its conclusion that the assassination was the work of a lone gunman, a washed-out Marine who had worked and married in the Soviet Union and had ties to organizations like the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a mediocre marksman who just managed to qualify on the rifle range, but who apparently decided to take a difficult shot with an unfamiliar rifle at a moving target.
But these are not details that Caro, uncharacteristically, is interested in exploring, although he does seem to feel, perhaps belatedly, that he’s opened a box that needs to be closed. In one extraordinarily long paragraph running for two pages, and tacked on to his chapter on the Warren Commission, he briefly summarizes alternative theories and acknowledges a lack of public confidence in the commission’s findings. A report of a House Select Committee to restudy the assassination, he tells us, released in 1979, “concluded that John Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy, but…said it was unable to identify who had been involved in it.”
He reviews the polls taken on the subject, in which the percentage of Americans who don’t accept the lone gunman theory has remained steady, at about 75 percent. “In no poll was there consensus about the conspiracy’s origins or members: in a 2003 Gallup Poll 18 percent of Americans felt Lyndon Johnson was indeed involved.”
However, having unintentionally but in dramatic fashion provided the grounds for a potential reairing of the whole assassination debate, and in the process giving LBJ a powerful motive, Caro assures us that “nothing that I have found in my research leads me to believe that whatever the full story of the assassination may be, Lyndon Johnson had anything to do with it.”
He leaves it at that, and it’s perfectly understandable that he does so. If there were any sort of LBJ involvement, the four volumes he’s devoted his life to producing would have no historical credibility.
He concludes this volume with LBJ’s elevation to the presidency; success in persuading the Kennedy advisers to stay on, arguably his first major mistake; and adoption of the Kennedy agenda as his own, his second mistake. By so doing, he set the government off on a disastrous spending spree (the War on Poverty has now morphed into the War on Obesity, and the bills are still rolling in) and an adventure in southeastern Asia that got totally out of hand, and which would require a tough new realistic president with a grasp of geopolitics, Richard Nixon, to put it right.
The observation by Theodore Draper on the Kennedy Bay of Pigs fiasco, quoted by Caro, might well also be applied to Vietnam: “one of those rare events in history—a perfect failure.”
Caro’s final volume, advertised as the last in the series, will cover Vietnam in depth; the 1964 campaign and the defeat of Barry Goldwater, who ran against a ghost; the indiscriminate wash of legislation LBJ pushed through Congress; and the last dismal days of the Johnson presidency—a failed one, fast fading from public political consciousness.
Will he get it done? And will there still be people sufficiently interested to plow through it? It took 10 years to finish this one, there’s a great deal more to write about, and Caro will turn 77 this year.
In the end, as with LBJ, it may all hang on a roll of the dice.
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H/T to National Review Online