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A One-sided Johnson

May 2024
6min read

In the autumn of 1940 President Franklin Roosevelt was spending what seemed to Washington insiders like a remarkable amount of time in the company of the congressman from the Tenth District of Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson. The thirtytwo-year-old legislator’s reasons for cultivating the President of his party were not hard to ascertain, but FDR’s evident fondness for the big-eared Texan was less easily understood. To be sure, Johnson had first been elected to Congress three years earlier as a champion of the President’s doomed Court-packing scheme, and he had more recently demonstrated, as an assistant to the Democratic Congressional Committee, a precocious ability to find big money and distribute it where it would do the most good during the fall elections. Still, most of those whom Roosevelt sought out in his private moments were men of his own class and upbringing, not graduates of Southwest State Teachers College in San Marcos, Texas.

Later LBJ was uncharacteristically modest when asked to account for his youthful proximity to the President. Eleanor was often away, he explained; FDR was simply lonely, so “He’d call me up” and “I used to go down sometimes and have a meal with him.” But Washington teemed with young men equally eager to help fill the President’s lonely hours. FDR himself hinted at a likelier explanation in a private talk with his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. Johnson, he said, reminded him of himself; he was just “the kind of uninhibited young pro” he might have been if he “hadn’t gone to Harvard.”

For all his outward geniality FDR, like LBJ, was a hard-eyed judge of his fellow politicians, and his words came back to me often as I reread The Path to Power , the first volume of Robert A. Caro’s monumental but disturbing The Years of Lyndon Johnson , and then moved on to its new, no-less-compelling, no-less-troubling sequel, Means of Ascent (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95).

Caro is a tireless, resourceful researcher and a fine storyteller. There isn’t a dull passage in either book, and his second volume is filled with fascinating new information about the seven fallow years Johnson endured between the Senate race apparently stolen from him in 1941 and the one he surely stole in 1948. Like its predecessor, it is riveting when describing the mechanics of campaigning and untangling the intricate, clandestine links between government and business. No one interested in history or government should pass it up.

But as a full-scale portrait of its protagonist, it seems to me unpersuasive. Caro’s Johnson never changes, never grows. Just a quarter of the way through his first volume, when LBJ is still just twenty-two, a big man only on a very small campus, the author asserts that he was already set in his nefarious ways, characterized by a “lack of any discernible limits. Pragmatism had shaded into the morality of the ballot box, a morality in which nothing matters but victory and any maneuver that leads to victory is justified—into a morality that is amorality.” Whether or not the real Johnson ever sought to move beyond that pattern even for a moment, Caro’s Johnson never does, and the reiterative, relentless indignation with which he tells us so eventually palls.

Caro has said elsewhere that he is “not interested in writing the biographies of famous men. I’m interested in how political power works.” But surely we cannot understand power unless we first fully understand the complex individuals who wield it, and that is where I believe this great engine of a book has gone off the tracks. For the Johnson who strides through its pages—bullying subordinates and fawning upon superiors, misrepresenting enemies and selling out friends, willing to sacrifice anyone and anything in the interest of his own aggrandizement, displaying throughout what Caro calls “utter ruthlessness … and a seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit, deception and betrayal"—is a uniformly evil genius, a monster without redeeming social value.

I have no doubt that Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson really existed; he has skillfully marshaled far too much fresh and appalling evidence for there to be any doubt about that. And without access to the Texas-size mountain of documentary material from which he continues to carve his smaller-thanlife portrait, it is impossible to demonstrate that other LBJs ever existed alongside him—Johnsons capable of occasional kindness, interested in public issues for more than the private good or ill their exploitation could do him, worthy of at least some of the admiration and affection shown him by all the able associates who worked for him through the years.

I can’t prove those other Johnsons existed, but I have no doubt they did, and Caro’s refusal—or inability—to discern them has yielded a book that is more prosecutorial than biographical. When we try to understand what’s gone wrong, the similarities FDR saw between himself and Johnson may prove helpful, for many of the charges Roosevelt’s contemporaries leveled against him during the pre-presidential years were eerily reminiscent of those Caro has compiled for his indictment of LBJ.

Like the young Johnson, the youthful FDR threw his weight around, acting like an important man long before he was one, and in so doing alienated a good many of his contemporaries. They found him slippery, self-obsessed, unreliable. Asked how young Franklin’s work was going during his mercifully brief career as a Wall Street lawyer, a Groton classmate answered simply, “Frank? Work ?”

Roosevelt routinely exaggerated his own accomplishments and, when there were none to exaggerate, cheerfully fabricated them. “The facts are that I wrote Haiti’s Constitution myself,” he assured trackside audiences during his 1920 race for Vice-Pr»sident, and when it quickly became clear that these were not the facts, he took refuge in the trapped politician’s standard excuse: The press had misquoted him. Early enemies and allies alike mistrusted Roosevelt, and with good reason; even a close friend admitted he was “not particularly steady in his views.” Having championed American participation in the League of Nations as his party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1920, for example, it gave him only momentary pause to oppose it a dozen years later in order to win the party’s presidential nomination. And the roster of powerful mentors whom FDR deserted in the interest of his own career—Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Josephus Daniels, and Al Smith were just the most prominent among them—was even longer than Johnson’s.

Caro is particularly devastating about Johnson’s gaudy version of his wartime experiences. A single combat mission, lasting precisely thirteen minutes, was transformed by LBJ’s shameless bragging into months spent under fire and a suicide mission that saw fourteen Zeros shot down around him. But FDR, too, misrepresented his record; he never managed to make it into uniform during World War I, but on the basis of a larkish inspection tour of the western front, he claimed nonetheless to have seen more of the fighting “than any other American” and asked that his name appear among those of the “first division” of Groton graduates who had served their country.

The charges critics leveled against FDR are eerily reminiscent of those Caro has compiled for his indictment of LBJ.

Roosevelt did not systematically use his political power to enrich himself, as Johnson evidently did, and I know of no evidence that he ever personally conspired to steal votes, but his reaction to LBJ’s loss in 1941 demonstrates a certain familiarity with the gamier side of local politics. “Lyndon,” he told the sheepish loser, “apparently you Texans haven’t learned one of the first things we learned up in New York State, and that is that when the election is over, you have to sit on the ballot boxes.”

I point up these parallels with LBJ not to denigrate Roosevelt—the survival of the American experiment during the Great Depression provides the strongest possible evidence that his strengths far outweighed his weaknesses—but rather to suggest that all of Johnson’s flaws were not uniquely his. Clearly, Johnson was a far more turbulent, insecure man than Roosevelt. No one would ever have said of LBJ, as Robert Sherwood once said of FDR, that he seemed to have been “psychoanalyzed by God.” But even madmen are complicated, and like Roosevelt, Johnson must have been far more than the sum of his flaws.

In one of the essays in a shrewd little compilation called 27 Masters of Politics , long out of print, FDR’s former aide Raymond Moley sought not to excuse his former boss so much as to explain him, in a passage that could usefully be applied to Lyndon Johnson as well: “I have been asked many times by those who know of my long association with Roosevelt:… was he … ‘sincere’?

”… I always answered that sincerity, as a quality known to the generality of people, is not fairly applicable to a politician. Or to put it another way, in a category of virtues appropriate to a politician, sincerity occupies a less exalted place than it does among the qualities of a novelist, a teacher or a scientist. And that is in no way damning the politician, for he may exalt virtues such as kindness, understanding and public service far beyond those who sniff at his lack of sincerity. …

‘The politician creates illusions. His words must be selected not because they are the most forceful or descriptive in conveying exact facts and situations, but because they will produce, in the minds of hearers or readers the reaction desired by the speaker or writer. What therefore, does sincerity, as we talk this virtue to our children, have to do with the calculations of a politician?

“Ultimately, the considerations of a politician are not based upon truth or fact; they are based upon what the public will conceive to be truth or fact.”

Unpalatable as that truth may be, it seems to me that one cannot fully understand politics or politicians— or power—without first trying to digest it.

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