Should LBJ Be Ranked Alongside Lincoln?

Robert Caro, the esteemed biographer of Lyndon Baines Johnson, talks on the Shakespearean life of the 36th president

Caro’s hunt for the soul of LBJ has become a thrilling race against time. (Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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“When they meet in the [Senate] cafeteria,” Caro tells me, “Bobby Kennedy is sitting at Joe McCarthy’s table and Johnson comes up to him. And Reedy says this thing to me: ‘You ever see two dogs come into a room and they’ve never seen each other but the hair rises on the back of their neck?’ Those two people hated each other from the first moment they saw each other.”

It’s very Shakespearean, this blood feud. The Hamlet analogy is apt, Caro told me. “The dead king has a brother and the brother has, in Shakespearean terms, a ‘faction’ and the faction is loyal to the brother and will follow him everywhere and the brother hates the king. It’s...the whole relationship.”

When it comes to Shakespeare, though, the character Caro thinks most resembles LBJ’s dividedness and manipulative political skills is Mark Antony in Julius Caesar.

“Is there an actor you think played Mark Antony well?” Caro asks me.

“Brando?” I ventured. It’s an opinion I’d argued in a book called The Shakespeare Wars, referring to his performance in the underrated 1953 film of Julius Caesar.

“I’ve never seen anyone else do him just right,” Caro agreed. “No one can figure out what he’s like, he loves Brutus, but you can see the calculation.”

It occurred to me only after I left to connect LBJ with another great Brando role, as the Vietnam-crazed Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Will LBJ become Caro’s Kurtz?

One of the great mysteries of character that haunts Caro’s LBJ volumes is the question of Johnson’s true attitude, or two attitudes, on race. I know that I am not alone in wondering whether Johnson’s “conversion” from loyal tool of racist obstructionists in the Senate to civil rights bill advocate was opportunistic calculation—the need to become a “national” figure, not a Southern caricature, if he wanted to become president. Or whether his heart was in the right place and it was the obstructionism in his early Senate years that was the opportunistic facade.

But it’s clear in this book that Caro has come to believe that LBJ deserves a place alongside Lincoln (who also had his own racial “issues”) as a champion of equal rights and racial comity.

Caro traces LBJ’s instinct, his conviction, on the point back to a story he dug up from 1927 when LBJ was teaching in a school for Mexican kids. “Johnson’s out of college,” Caro told me, “He’s the most ruthless guy that you can imagine. Yet in the middle of it he goes down to teach in this Mexican-American town, in Cotulla. So I interviewed some of the kids who were there and I wrote the line [that] summed up my feelings: ‘No teacher had ever cared if these kids learned or not. This teacher cared.’ But then you could say that wasn’t really about race. That was about Lyndon Johnson trying to do the best job he could in whatever job he had....

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