Robert Dallek, Robert Caro & Randall B. Woods: Of catfights and liberal ideology

[Michael Nelson is a professor of political science at Rhodes College. Most recently he edited, with Richard J. Ellis, Debating the Presidency: Conflicting Perspectives on the American Executive (CQ Press, 2006).]

... [Robert Caro's] The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, which together told the story of Johnson's life through his first election to the Senate, in 1948, sold extremely well, and each volume won a National Book Critics Circle Award. The response of academic historians, however, was less positive. Two lines of criticism emerged, one worthy, the other not.

The worthy criticism was that, for all the new information about Johnson that Caro uncovered in more than a thousand interviews, his portrait of the man was cartoonishly oversimplified. Caro's Johnson was grotesquely Manichaean, with an angel at one ear fruitlessly urging him to do the right thing while a devil at the other ear persuaded him to do the selfish thing. Caro's Johnson also bore a clonelike resemblance to Caro's Robert Moses, the subject of his first book, The Power Broker, whose "bright gold" of idealism invariably succumbed to his "darker shadow" of "power for its own sake."

The unworthy criticism was that Caro's lack of academic credentials rendered him unworthy to write a biography of lasting value. "It is time for Lyndon Johnson to pass into the hands of historians," sniffed Lewis L. Gould, of the University of Texas, after dismissing The Path to Power as "overlong, tasteless in parts, misleading and flawed in its analysis." Gould even cried foul at Caro's "vigorous writing," which by stimulating readers to keep turning the pages might persuade them that they were reading something worthwhile. Robert Dallek, of the University of California at Los Angeles, acknowledged the "phenomenal amount of digging" that Caro did by conducting so many interviews — only to complain that Caro's reportorial diligence "gives his conclusions an air of intimidating authority." Turfmanship seldom gets more blatant or unattractive than when scholars criticize other authors for writing too well and digging too deep.

Not surprisingly, most academic historians were pleased when Dallek published his own two-volume biography of Johnson: Lone Star Rising, in 1991, and Flawed Giant, in 1998. Dallek was hailed as the anti-Caro by his colleagues — as far as I can tell, not a single adverse review of either volume by a historian appeared in any historical journal. Many reviewers mentioned Caro, almost always for the purpose of saying how much better Dallek was in his use of sources (archives, like a historian, not interviews, like a reporter — never mind that Caro usually can be found hip-deep in archival materials) and in the nuanced character of his evaluation of Johnson. Dallek and Caro even got into a minor hissing match. At a 1991 event timed by Dallek's publisher to coincide with the National Book Critics Circle Award banquet at which Caro was honored for Means of Ascent, Dallek criticized Caro for "terrible hyperbole, terrible bias." Caro's response: "Look at how many interviews Dallek did" (meaning very few).

In truth, Dallek's books on Johnson reflected both kinds of historians' criticisms of Caro, the worthy and the unworthy. Worthily, Dallek captured much of LBJ's complexity. Although the Johnson of Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant is almost as personally unattractive as Caro made him out to be, Dallek argued that Johnson's personal ambition served a larger lifelong cause: to integrate the South into the nation by developing its economy and ending racial segregation. In Dallek's view, Johnson's "liberal nationalism" went wrong only when he tried to extend it to Southeast Asia, where he committed 550,000 troops in a bootless effort to stop North Vietnam from bullying South Vietnam, and famously promised the north $1-billion to stop fighting and let him develop the Mekong River Valley in the same way that FDR had redeveloped the Tennessee Valley.

Unworthily, Dallek picked fights with Caro in that favored academic sniping ground, the footnotes, and sometimes seemed to think he had won just because he cited a fellow historian whose interpretation of an incident differed from Caro's. For example, in one case, Caro said Johnson's failure to support FDR vocally was unprincipled; Dallek quoted the University of North Carolina historian William Leuchtenberg as saying it wasn't unprincipled, and, Dallek seemed to think, that was that. In another footnote, Dallek said Caro was wrong to criticize Johnson's conduct as a naval officer because Caro was "ever ready to put Johnson in the worst possible light" — as if attacking Caro was enough to defend Johnson. Dallek went after Caro in his notes 13 times in Lone Star Rising, which was 13 more times than he criticized all of the other sources he cited combined.

As for Dallek's writing, "The rustle of index cards is always detectable behind [the] prose," noted Nicholas Lemann. Neither "vigorous" nor any of its synonyms has ever been used to describe Lone Star Rising or Flawed Giant. If Dallek is ever indicted for rushing readers to false conclusions with fast-paced prose, the evidence of his books will assure a speedy acquittal.

Now comes the University of Arkansas's Randall B. Woods with a new and well (if not vigorously) written biography of Johnson that calls and raises Dallek's hostility to Caro and appreciation for Johnson. Woods doesn't criticize Caro, as Dallek did; he simply dismisses him. "I do not quote him once," Woods said in an interview, and, reminded that he actually does cite him — once — replied, "I meant to take that out." (Interestingly, Dallek straightforwardly cited Caro in more than 150 footnotes.) Woods also says he refused to read any of Caro's books about Johnson, including Master of the Senate, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner that covers Johnson's years as Senate Democratic leader and lavishly celebrates his role in passing the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

Woods's reasoning is curious when it comes to Caro. Woods says Lewis Gould told him about research that Gould's historical-methods seminar at Texas had done on The Path to Power. From that account, Woods decided that Caro's "errors are so numerous and so egregious that I was afraid to read his material. When you read, you absorb things indirectly, and his work is just not trustworthy. And, too, he's such a compelling writer, and so that book is going to make an impression on you whether you want it to or not." As for Caro's subsequent two volumes, Woods says he relied on the word of the "laypeople I've encountered — doctors, lawyers, the kind of people who read historical biographies," who told him that those books offer more of "the same demon."

Woods's extravagantly positive portrayal of Johnson is embodied in the title of his book (which, he says, the publisher came up with but he likes very much) — LBJ: Architect of American Ambition. To Woods, "the term architect implies that Johnson was not just about opportunism and self-aggrandizement — that he had a vision of a more perfect society, and that he set about building that." As for "American ambition," Woods says, "he was ambitious for himself, but he was ambitious for the country. He was very much an idealist." Woods even chose Matthew 3:1-4, a passage about John the Baptist, as the epigraph for his book because "there's a certain prophetic character to Johnson. He was a man who had vision," was "rough-hewn" and "earthy," and "identified as much as any American president with the common man." "If there's any Jesus figure" in the book, Woods added, "it's his vision of a more perfect society."

Whew. Even Jack Valenti, the White House aide who famously claimed to "sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently, because Lyndon Johnson is my president," was never heard comparing LBJ to John the Baptist or the Great Society to Jesus. That said, one of the best features of Woods's book is that, more than any other biography, it takes seriously Johnson's religious beliefs as a motive force in his conduct of the presidency.

As Woods points out, the religion of Johnson's youth embedded in him the lifelong conviction that the duty of the strong is to help the weak. During his White House years, he surrounded himself with aides like Joseph Califano and Sargent Shriver, who were adherents of the Roman Catholic social-work tradition, and Bill Moyers and Harry McPherson, who were deeply thoughtful Niebuhrians and, as such, believed that even though human motives are impure and human actions imperfect, followers of Christ must serve the weak and poor as best they can. For Johnson, argues Woods, resisting communist aggression against the nonwhite people of South Vietnam was the flip side of helping the nonwhite poor people of the United States overcome segregation and discrimination....

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