Robert Caro’s Curious Incuriosity: What About LBJ and the Kennedy Assassination? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Robert Caro’s Curious Incuriosity: What About LBJ and the Kennedy Assassination?
Eternal flame at grave of John F. Kennedy, Arlington National Cemetery (Bill Chizek/Shutterstock)

Released in 1964, the Warren Report, issued by a commission that had meticulously suppressed ample evidence to the contrary, asserted that President John F. Kennedy had been murdered by a nonentity named Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone. In 1977, after multitudinous holes had been punched into the Oswald story, a House subcommittee declared that the assassination had likely been a conspiracy — although it delicately avoided naming any possible culprits and explicitly cleared Cuba, Russia, the mafia, the FBI, the CIA, and the Secret Service. (Who was left? Monaco?) In the years that followed, innumerable books proposed various theories. I read Best Evidence (1980), a doorstop of a tome in which a writer named David S. Lifton, after (it seemed) systematically and soberly ruling out all other suspects, concluded that JFK had been taken out by the Secret Service.

I read Lifton’s book with astonishment. The Secret Service? Really? But was it utterly impossible? No. Somebody had to have done it. If not Lee, who? I knew civil servants weren’t saints. JFK himself had stolen the 1960 election; the CIA routinely committed international skulduggery.

Of course, if the Secret Service had whacked Jack, it was treason. But no Secret Service agent was ever arrested or tried for the crime.

And as the years passed, Best Evidence faded from my memory. Then along came Robert Caro, who in 1982, 1990, 2002, and 2012 published the first four massive volumes of his biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, which he’s always described as being about how political power works in America. (If the pattern holds, his final volume should appear in another year or so.) When his first LBJ book came out, Caro was already respected — not least by me — for his 1974 study of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. Reading his first two LBJ books, I admired more than ever his stately prose, eye for detail, and narrative gift. These things were page-turners. They read like novels.  

And as in any good novel, the protagonist, LBJ, was morally ambiguous. On the one hand, he was colossally corrupt in business, he cheated on an epic scale to win his first Senate election, and he refused to withdraw from Vietnam, at least in part because he was making a mint in payoffs from companies like Bell Helicopter. On the other hand, he was a civil-rights hero who cared deeply about the plight of poor blacks and Mexicans. 

This last bit, at least, is Caro’s view. LBJ, he’s always insisted, was a supremely complicated person who, for all his venality, was also magnanimous, his merciless crawl to power having been motivated, at least in part, by a heartfelt desire to help the underprivileged. If you buy Caro’s line, LBJ always had a profound “compassion for poor people” and for “people of color” but, gee whiz, he just wasn’t in a position to act on it in the slightest until he reached the top. “He cared,” Caro contended in one interview. “He always cared. This was always ready to be unleashed.” 

No. Virtue doesn’t work that way. Caro may write like a dream, and he may have spent most of his adult life in the company of LBJ’s ghost, but that doesn’t mean he understands him. On the contrary, he seems over the years (perhaps to make his lifelong job endurable, or to twist LBJ into the liberal-icon mold) to have fashioned an LBJ all his own — an LBJ whose company is more palatable than the real one.

Sorry, but it just won’t do. Unlike Caro, Roger Stone, in his 2013 book The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ, gets the real LBJ: “Johnson was a coarse, crude, loudmouthed bully…. Johnson was epically corrupt, greedy, vain, manipulative, ambitious, vindictive, and nasty. LBJ was a sadist who enjoyed the discomfort of the people who worked for him and reveled in being abusive to his rabidly loyal staff.” Endless anecdotes confirm this verdict. 

Recently, perusing volume two of Charles Moore’s three-volume biography of Margaret Thatcher, I read that, returning home from a diplomatic trip during her prime ministership, she stopped at a duty-free shop to buy gin and cigars for her husband, Denis. It’s the slightest of anecdotes, but like much else in Moore’s book, it underlines Thatcher’s probity: She and Denis lived on their salaries, exercised thrift, and practiced charity. For her, getting a good price on booze and smokes was a big deal. What a contrast to LBJ, who made millions in graft from oil-tycoon cronies!

Yes, like LBJ, Thatcher was one of the most powerful figures of the century. But she didn’t cheat and steal and lie to win that power, and she didn’t use that power to enrich herself. She really was out to serve her people — to lift them up from the rut in which post-war socialist governments had put them. How would Caro, who seems to reflexively link power with corruption and virtue with progressivism, explain Thatcher?

Caro Doesn’t “Turn Every Page” When It Comes to JFK’s Assassination

Somehow I missed Caro’s third LBJ book (about the Senate years). But I avidly perused the fourth, The Passage of Power — and I re-read several times the section about the day of the JFK assassination. I found it remarkably wanting, for reasons that, I discovered just the other day, were spelled out perfectly by John R. Coyne Jr. in his terrific 2012 review of that volume for The American Spectator. How curious, notes Coyne, that “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” in Caro’s book. 

You can say that again. Coyne observes that though the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone didn’t jibe with many of the facts, “these are not details that Caro, uncharacteristically, is interested in exploring.” Key word: “uncharacteristically.” Caro, in innumerable interviews, has described how he’s spent weeks tracking down minor specifics, how he and his wife moved to the Hill Country for three years to get a feel for the landscape of LBJ’s youth, and how he recognized that family stories told by LBJ’s brother Sam were invented and eventually persuaded Sam to correct the record. Why would such an endlessly inquisitive man not be at least slightly interested in trying to figure out who killed JFK — and thus put LBJ in the Oval Office?

As if aware that readers will want something on the topic, Caro, notes Coyne, tacks an “extraordinarily long paragraph … on to his chapter on the Warren Commission,” in which he acknowledges public skepticism about the Warren Report and mentions the 1979 House probe. Caro, Coyne points out, could very well have gone on to cover the assassination debate with his usual meticulousness, “in the process giving LBJ a powerful motive.” But instead Caro closes the chapter with the curt assurance that “nothing … in my research” implicates LBJ at all. Period. 

How on earth can that be? Stone, like other researchers, has uncovered mountains of evidence that suggest LBJ’s culpability. He quotes testimony by witnesses who were pressured to change their accounts to conform to the Johnson administration’s desired narrative. And he cites a powerful proximate motive: A few days before Nov. 22, 1963, LBJ learned that the cover story of the Dec. 1 issue of Life magazine would be an elaborate, damning exposé of his corrupt business dealings. He knew that if the article appeared, he’d be forced to resign the vice presidency and probably end up in prison. 

But Caro won’t go near any of it — which, as Coyne says, is “perfectly understandable.” For if LBJ turned out to be culpable, “the four volumes he’s devoted his life to producing would have no historical credibility.” Caro would cease to be a liberal-establishment darling. No more Pulitzers or National Book Awards. From cultural hero, he’d become that dreaded 2023 phenomenon, a “conspiracy theorist.” Now 87, he’d almost certainly lose his partnership with Robert Gottlieb, now 92, his editor for half a century. And last year’s hagiographic documentary about their working relationship, which is currently available on Viaplay, would never have happened.   

That documentary, directed by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie, is entitled Turn Every Page — a motto Caro picked up from a newspaper editor when he was a tyro reporter, the point being not to let a single piece of possible evidence go unexamined. Needless to say, it’s a hilariously ironic motto, given Caro’s manifest determination to ignore the mass of evidence connecting LBJ to Dallas. But nobody in Turn Every Page seems to mind that he dances around the mystery of Dealey Plaza. 

In fact, every one of Ms. Gottlieb’s odd gallery of interviewees, from Ethan Hawke to Conan O’Brien to Knopf managing editor Kathy Hourigan (who calls Caro “the greatest political writer-thinker of our time” and Gottlieb “the greatest editor of his time”) to Bill Clinton (also a Gottlieb author), showers both Caro and Gottlieb with praise. (During Clinton’s appearances, one wonders: Aside from the Lolita Express, what other matters did Gottlieb help ol’ Bill slither past in My Life?)

I’ve mentioned Lifton’s theory about the Secret Service. I hadn’t thought of it for years. Then it became clear that Hillary Clinton and leading members of the Deep State — including FBI, DOJ, and CIA honchos — had plotted to destroy President Donald Trump. It seemed almost incredible. Then I remembered Lifton. And that’s what made me finally order Stone’s The Man Who Killed Kennedy — because it seemed to me that given everything we’ve now learned about the Deep State, it was about time that I checked out his supposedly far-fetched arguments about the JFK assassination.

I won’t go into great detail about Stone’s book, the hypothesis of which is that “LBJ was the lynchpin [sic] of a plot that included the CIA, military intelligence, organized crime, and big Texas oil” — all of which had longstanding LBJ ties while, for their own reasons, hating JFK. The CIA abhorred JFK’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis; the Mafia, long chummy with Joe Kennedy, had helped Jack win Illinois in 1960 only to find itself targeted by Bobby’s DOJ. As for Oswald, Stone feels he’s proven “that Oswald was a U.S. intelligence asset who had worked for both the CIA and FBI and that both agencies lied to the Warren Commission about their previous knowledge of him and his activities.” In Stone’s view, the Book Depository shooter wasn’t Oswald — whom he considers a patsy — but an old LBJ hand named Malcolm Wallace, whom multiple witnesses linked to the crime only to see their testimony brushed off.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t know if Stone is right. But he’s done his work, and I urge you to read his book for yourself. I’ll just say that the deeper I got into it, the more Caro’s motto, “turn every page,” sounded like a sad joke. Yes, Caro has every right to reject arguments put forth by Stone and other authors who claim to know who killed JFK. But why hasn’t he ever addressed the information they’ve adduced and explained why he doesn’t buy their conclusions? In the present atmosphere, when political elites and their book-writing courtiers (the names of Jon Meacham and Michael Beschloss spring to mind) seem to specialize in misrepresentation on a monstrous scale and dismiss dissidents from the approved narrative as peddlers of conspiracy theories, Caro’s curious incuriosity is, shall we say, exceedingly suspect.  

After all — and this little detail seems at times to get lost in the whole dispute — somebody killed John F. Kennedy. But who? Yes, it’s clear enough that Oswald’s presence at the Book Depository that day wasn’t an accident, and that he was, in one way or another, part of a larger scheme of which he himself may or may not have known the details. But was he one of those who actually fired gunshots? Or was he a fall guy? Stone says the latter. Other researchers fiercely disagree. Sixty years later, a fully open and informed debate on the topic has yet to take place. And the most striking fact in this whole riddle is the absolute failure of Robert Caro — this universally lauded biographer, who’s famous for digging assiduously to find even the smallest missing piece of even the least interesting puzzle — to show even a modicum of curiosity about the central mystery of his subject’s life.

Which also (hello!) happens to be the central mystery of 20th-century American history.

Sign up to receive our latest updates! Register

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: The American Spectator, 122 S Royal Street, Alexandria, VA, 22314, You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Be a Free Market Loving Patriot. Subscribe Today!