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TYRRELL: Taking the measure of Lyndon Johnson
Caro biography presents unvarnished view of Texan in the White House
Question of the Day
One of my favorite controversialists is back - Bob Woodward - with his sidekick, Carl Bernstein. Sunday in The Washington Post, they wrote that Richard Nixon was more hideous than we have heretofore known. The 37th president conducted five wars while in office, according to the boys, and those do not even include his minor fracases, the Cold War against the Soviet Union and the Vietnam War.
I say Mr. Woodward is a controversialist. You might recall his controversial “interview” with CIA Director Bill Casey conducted on Mr. Casey’s deathbed when no one was watching. It made it into Mr. Woodward’s book “Veil,” saving its author from the embarrassment of admitting that Bill had kept Mr. Woodward utterly in the dark about Iran-Contra and so much else during their more conventional interviews earlier.
This time, Mr. Woodward somehow circumvented Bill’s CIA guards, his doctors and nurses, his wife and daughter - one of whom was in the hospital room at all times - to get his incomparable interview. Moreover, Bill had completely lost the power of speech, his face being a mask of terrible deformity, as his friend Bert Jolis reported within days of the “interview.” Mr. Woodward overcame every hurdle to extract from the dying man a confession of involvement in Iran-Contra about which Mr. Woodward knew nothing while writing the book. Possibly, he had disguised himself in Bill’s hospital room as a cockroach.
So Mr. Woodward has returned, and on the very same weekend when I was huffing and puffing my way past Page 353 of Robert A. Caro’s new 714-page treatment of Lyndon Baines Johnson, “The Passage of Power.” Despite the pious tosh that you hear from the enthusiasts of dying liberalism, the book is a shabbily written monstrosity, but not without its usefulness.
To begin with, Mr. Caro’s sentences judder along as though they were translated - badly - from the original German. His endnotes are so chaotic as to be useless to casual readers or even to scholars. Many of them are from secondary sources. For instance, Mr. Caro speaks of Camelot as though John F. Kennedy’s White House was always called Camelot. Actually, the administration did not receive the appellation until after the president’s assassination. Then a distraught Jacqueline Kennedy arranged an interview with journalist Theodore White and therein conjured up Camelot for future generations. If readers are unaware of this they can be excused, for Mr. Caro includes no citation. What exactly he thinks is unknown. Later he cites “detente” so vaguely that he might be referring to a policy of the New Frontier, though it was a policy of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon - again he gives us no endnote. I really do not know what Mr. Caro knows either about Camelot or detente.
Richard Nixon, that name again. The reminder of him provokes a fugitive thought: How would Mr. Woodward, or, for that matter, Mr. Caro, compare Nixon and Johnson? Nixon labored to end the war that John Kennedy created and Lyndon Johnson bungled at massive expense in lives and treasure. Nixon was on track to save South Vietnam before he was driven from office. Nixon did save the state of Israel even as he was fighting off impeachment. He and Mr. Kissinger played the Soviet Union and China like a Stradivarius, ending the performance with China as a virtual ally. All and all, it was not a bad record.
Then there is Johnson. Among Mr. Caro’s many infelicities, lazy research is not one of them. He faithfully records how Johnson turned the purchase of a $17,500 radio station into a vast media fortune through the manipulation of such federal agencies as the Federal Communications Commission.
By middle age, he - a lifelong government employee - was a millionaire. He stole his first election - in high school - his Senate seat in 1948, and the State of Texas for his running mate in 1960. That last race being against Nixon, who would not contest the results. Then there is his psychological makeup. He was insecure, unstable, often a wreck. As vice president, he was an emotional ruin from run-ins with the Kennedys until that sad day in Dallas, when in a car ahead of him, John Kennedy was shot. Almost eerily within minutes of the president’s death, Johnson underwent a kind of emotional epiphany, rising to his former bluff, albeit phony, self. Very rudely, within a half-hour of Robert Kennedy’s discovery of his brother’s death, President Johnson called to conduct business. The insensitivity is shocking.
Yet ever since Nixon was driven from office, we have been led to believe Nixon was squirrelly and a threat to our democratic ways, and Johnson was - well, what was Johnson? We are on the road to national bankruptcy because of his poorly funded policies today. I say, wherever he is, bring back Nixon. Nixon’s the one.
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor in chief of the American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. He is the author most recently of “The Death of Liberalism” (Thomas Nelson, 2012).
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