Kaplan takes issue with Robert Caro's treatment in latest volume of his seemingly endless biography of Lyndon Johnson of the most dangerous nuclear confrontation in history to date, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Caro's latest volume is title The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. 4: The Passage to Power (2012). Caro has a strong reputation among our star pundits, who are no doubt gratified by the gossipy tidbits he serves up in abundance.
Kaplan apparently shared this admiration until now. In What Robert Caro Got WrongSlate 05/31/2012, he writes that Caro's multi-volume biography "ranks among the towering achievements in literary biography." Even of the latest volume, he says,"it is a terrific read. Caro paints palpable scenes and draws vivid characters."
However, he writes of volume 4, "Caro’s treatment of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—and of the roles that Johnson and the Kennedy brothers (especially Robert Kennedy) played in the crisis — is, on several levels, simply wrong." A big criticism, about which I'll say more below.
But first, I'm puzzled how Caro's reputation survived vol. 2, Means of Ascent (1990). Kaplan himself notes that it, "while deeply flawed, is a seminal study in corruption." Gary Wills reviewed the book in the New York Review of Books 37/7 (04/26/1990 issue) in a piece called "Monstre Désacré" and noted some of those "deeply flawed" aspects. This part made a big impression on me, from which I took the insight (which may not have been exactly what Wills intended) that biographers of unpleasant characters need to find a way to love their monster:
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.That volume covered Johnson's successful 1948 Texas Senate race, in which he defeated former Governor Coke Stevenson. Johnson won a narrow victory with the help of some questionable vote counting, earning him the enduring nickname of Landslide Lyndon.
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.
But while no amount of context can excuse vote fraud, the context was that Texas politics was corrupt as all hell, and Stevenson in at least his gubernatorial campaign seems to have indulged their own share of it. So far as I'm aware, neither of the two campaigns ever had a legal judgment against them on vote fraud, and the Senate accepted Johnson's election as legitimate. Historians, of course, are not restricted to drawing conclusions that have specific legal decisions to support them. Wills concludes, "Indeed, the history of the area suggests that if Johnson had not 'stolen' the vote, Stevenson would have won by just as artificial a majority." This kind of cautionary framing is important for a situation like Texas or Deep South states from roughly 1875-1965. Segregation and white supremacy produced some very deep-seated corruption in politics. Even Caro indicated that his hero Stevenson would have been ready to buy the same votes if he had been able to.
Stevenson was a nasty old fundamentalist and segregationist, but Caro presents him in saintly images. "Though Caro likes to present himself as a simple fact collector on a giant scale, he is actually a mythmaker, and what he gives us in this book is a night-marishly inverted fairy tale, one in which the dragon slays Saint George," Wills wrote. He refers to:
... the idyllic scene of Coke Stevenson’s retirement that ends the book. Married again, adored and adoring, at peace with the land and himself, Stevenson has rescued his humanity from the degrading spectacle Johnson made of Texas politics. One finishes this long volume with the fear, page by page, that Bambi will show up in the final paragraph to lick Coke's cheek.And Caro leaves out much of the actual larger political context. As Wills observed:
Stevenson's conservatism was not only states'-rights on racial matters but on fiscal ones as well. He took a pay-as-you-go approach to the state’s own budget, and wanted to keep the federal government out. He had always opposed the New Deal—a position Caro seems to prefer to Johnson's inconsistent support for Roosevelt’s programs. But the conflict of 1948 was not just one of campaign techniques. Johnson’s reliance on new means of communication and transportation resembled the "intrusive" technologies that Caro praised in the first volume of this biography, where the New Deal’s rural electrification was concerned.As all reviewers seem to note, Caro sorts through a vast amount of material in his work, and that will make his long LBJ biography an important reference for a long time to come, I'm sure. But in Means of Ascent, allows his obviously intense dislike for his subject to run wild to the point of distortion by emphasis and omission. Maybe Kaplan's phrase "literary biography" is getting obliguely at a similar point. "Caro paints palpable scenes and draws vivid characters," but his polemical mission may not make those literary portraits as carefully drawn as one should expect in history writing.
I won't try to relate here the various points on which Kaplan shows that Caro has done sloppy work in his treatment of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kaplan outlines what we know about the crisis this way:
The crisis began when U.S. spy planes detected Soviet ships carrying missiles to Cuba, as well as the construction of missile-launchers at secured sites on the island. At first, JFK and his advisers figured they’d have to bomb the missile sites—until they calculated the complexities and risks, at which point Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara suggested a naval blockade of the island as a way to buy time and give Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev a chance to reverse course. After 13 days of shrewd diplomacy, a deal was struck, and the missiles were withdrawn.And Kaplan is apprehensive about what this may promise for the projected fifth and final volume:
In the 50 years since, the story and the lessons of the crisis have gone through a fascinating evolution.* In the first phase, as reported by JFK’s favored columnists (and formalized in the books by palace guards, speechwriter Ted Sorensen's Kennedy and White House gadfly Arthur Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days), JFK won the confrontation through sheer threat of force. As one of the advisers was quoted as saying, "We went eyeball to eyeball with the Russians—and they blinked." (This quote, like much else in these accounts, was pure fiction.)
In the second phase, starting in 1982, on the 20th anniversary of the crisis, some of JFK’s top advisers—McNamara, Sorensen, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, and others—confessed, in a article for Time magazine, that Kennedy had made a secret deal: Khrushchev would take the Soviet missiles out of Cuba, and Kennedy, six months later, would take America’s very similar Jupiter missiles out of Turkey. It had always been known that Khrushchev offered such a deal, but the earlier accounts—including Sorensen’s book, and many other books based on it — had reported that Kennedy rejected it. In fact, the advisers now said, Kennedy accepted it, but told both the Russians and the handful of his own advisers whom he let in on the secret never to tell anyone. (The advisers decided to break their silence because they knew the Kennedy Library was about to release the tapes.)
The third phase began in 1987, with the release of the first tape transcripts, which revealed that the advisers had omitted one key fact in their now-it-can-be-told article for Time: They had all vociferously opposed the trade. JFK stood alone on making a deal with the Soviets - and, in the end, was redeemed.
Volume 5 of Caro’s series will deal mainly with Johnson and Vietnam, and I’m afraid that his treatment of the Cuban missile crisis in Volume 4 sets the stage for more false lessons. My suspicion, inferred from what really happened in those ExComm meetings, is that JFK would have pulled out of Vietnam—or at least would not have escalated so deeply. The lesson isn't that Johnson marked a departure from Kennedy’s men; it’s that, when it came to questions of war and Communism, JFK himself was departing from the views of Kennedy’s men. It would have been good — it might have made a big difference in world history — if Johnson had known that. And, for the life of me, I don’t understand why Robert Caro made the same mistake.I'm glad to see Kaplan's criticism. Since Caro's biography is so highly regarded among the punditocracy, its sloppiness may perpetuate itself in many iterations.
Tags: cuban missile crisis, fred kaplan, john kennedy, lyndon johnson, robert caro