Bobby and Lyndon

David's Bookclub: Mutual Contempt

The epic feud between Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy is a story that reflects credit on nobody, except the author who has so minutely related it. Jeff Shesol served as a speechwriter to Bill Clinton, and that governmental experience may have inoculated him against the pro-Bobby romanticism that has biased so many other tellings of this story, including Robert Caro's most recent volume of Johnson biography, published 16 years after Shesol's study. Shesol's Mutual Contempt by contrast makes no excuse for the petty behavior exhibited by both men - and draws convincing conclusions about the harm done the country by their indulgence of their feud.

The Kennedy brothers arrived at the Democratic convention of 1960 with a careful war plan that came to a dash thirty dash at the moment the roll call was clinched. John F. Kennedy had given scant thought to his vice presidential choice.

Political logic pointed to Johnson as the inescapable choice. To win in 1960, the Democrats needed to regain Texas, once a solid-South state that had defected to Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. If elected, Kennedy would then face the same impediment to governing that had bedeviled Franklin Roosevelt after 1938 and Harry Truman over his whole term: a Senate controlled by Southern conservatives and reactionaries. As Democratic Majority leader, Johnson had extracted results from that Senate for President Eisenhower, whom he admired. There was no guarantee he would work as hard for a President Kennedy, whom he notoriously did not admire - unless, that is, he were brought into the administration under presidential control.

On the other hand, a Johnson pick might help win the presidency and enact an agenda, but it threatened trouble inside the Democratic party. The major labor unions - then at the zenith of their political power - disliked Johnson. Liberals dismissed him as just another Southern reactionary himself. Civil rights groups suspected that Johnson had willingly eviscerated the 1957 civil rights bill.

What to do, what to do? Kennedy struggled so indecisively with his choice that his advisers compared him to Adlai Stevenson - fighting words in a political team that so deeply disdained their party's previous nominee. In the end, John F. Kennedy did settle on Johnson. He entrusted the task of sounding out Johnson to his brother, who handled the process in a way that Johnson regarded as demeaning - and who then, over the rest of the campaign and 1000 days in office, found ways again and again to remind Johnson that the insult was deliberately intended and deeply felt.

Robert Kennedy hated Johnson's grossness, his lies, his bullying of staff, his self-indulgence with whisky and food. (When President Kennedy over-indulged, of course, he over-indulged elegantly, with women and with luxury spending.) As the president's closest adviser, Robert Kennedy demeaned and disparaged the vice president at White House meetings. His friends and subordinates ridiculed Johnson at their parties. Kennedy schemed to have Johnson removed from the ticket in 1964. Johnson heard it all, and mischief-makers, flatterers, and his own paranoid imagination then invented even more.

In later years, Robert Kennedy would identify the Cuban missile crisis as the moment that convinced him that Lyndon Johnson should never be president. In Kennedy's later telling, Johnson kept silent through most of those terrifying days, then advocated the most aggressive - and most dangerous - of all the options: an air attack on Soviet installations in Cuba.

This, however, was pure self-flattery. As later scholars have confirmed, all of President Kennedy's advisers lined up for the most hawkish position, Robert Kennedy very much included. Here's Fred Kaplan's fine summary in Slate:

On the last day of the crisis, when Khrushchev offered the Cuba-for- Turkey trade, Robert Kennedy argued against the deal. “I don’t see how we can ask the Turks to give up their defense,” he said. “God, don’t bring in Turkey now. We want to settle [Cuba first],” he said later on. JFK sent his trusted brother Bobby to the Soviet ambassador to accept the deal, though not in writing. But even then, he did so reluctantly. Talking casually with McNamara after the ExComm session, as the tape runs out, Bobby says, “I’d like to take Cuba back. That would be nice.”

From start to finish, and on several occasions, RFK can be heard on the tapes, and read in the transcripts, arguing not only for an air attack but for an air strike followed by an invasion of the entire island of Cuba. Sheldon Stern, the library’s former chief historian, who has studied the tapes and transcripts more thoroughly than anyone, writes in his forthcoming book The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myth versus Reality: “RFK was one of the most consistently hawkish and confrontational members of the ExComm.”

Yet there's no doubt that Robert Kennedy did react with almost overpowering rage to every Johnson overture in the days and weeks after the Dallas assassination. On Shesol's telling, Johnson behaved almost immaculately after the murder of his predecessor. Certainly that was Jacqueline Kennedy's view. Many of Robert Kennedy's grievances - that Johnson moved too quickly into the Oval Office - seem irrational and even irresponsible. In those tense years of Cold War, the country could not dispense with a fully operational presidency for even 24 hours, much less the indefinite period of mourning that Robert Kennedy seems to have had in mind.

Shesol puts an insightful finger onto what may have been the real source of Kennedy's anti-Johnson fury: guilt that his own support for anti-Castro assassination attempts may have somehow provoked the killing of his brother. Neither Johnson nor Kennedy was satisfied by the Warren report. Kennedy felt guilt; Johnson knew it - and used it.

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Dislike and resentment of Johnson reshaped Robert Kennedy's politics after 1963. The Robert Kennedy of the 1950s looks (to our contemporary eyes) a very conservative Democrat: friendly with Joe McCarthy, staunchly anticommunist, deeply mistrustful of organized labor. In the Johnson years, Robert Kennedy's distance from the bulwark institutions of the post New Deal Democratic party positioned him to Johnson's left. He wanted to fight communism Vietnam, yes, but not a big-unit, heavy artillery war: he imagined special forces executing nimble decapitation missions while US aid supported a better functioning government and civil society in South Vietnam. He imagined a "war on poverty" that bypassed the Democratic urban machines and channeled resources directly to self-organizing poor communities. He pressed for companies to relocate plants into inner cities where they could hire locals without regard to existing union obligations.

Robert Kennedy's distaste for bureaucracy resonates gratifyingly in contemporary ears. But the familiar sound of his critique should not deceive us: his affirmative ideas, when not hopelessly hazy, were outright terrible. And Johnson's competitive urge to adopt and co-opt Kennedy's agenda led to some of the worst programs of the Great Society, from community action to Model Cities. The most enduring and popular of Great Society initiatives, Medicare, was exactly the kind of idea Robert Kennedy had no interest in.

Nothing in Shesol's study reads as quaintly as Johnson's concern for the good opinion of "intellectuals." The mid-1960s marked the apogee of American liberalism, and Johnson worried as painfully that Kennedy might get to his left as John Boehner today worries about challenges from his right. Yet Johnson never ceased to worry that Kennedy might triple-cross him - and traverse back to his "right" for a 1968 battle over "who lost Vietnam." It seems incredible that a military fiasco as costly and complete as the Indochina war can be explained by a petty personal feud. Yet if that feud did not explain all of Johnson's decision-making on Vietnam, it certainly seasoned and intensified his thinking.

Closing the page on Shesol, I was left thinking that Johnson was not altogether wrong, either. The Robert Kennedy of his portrait is not a man driven by personal ambition. On Shesol's telling, it's hard to imagine Robert Kennedy running for president had his brother lived to serve two full terms; it was hard enough to goad Robert Kennedy to run even after the assassination. He didn't much want the job, he was more fulfilled as Jack's confidante that he was ever likely to be as Jack's heir. But he knew who he didn't want to have the job, and that was enough - enough for him, that is, but not nearly enough for a movement, a party, or a country.

Mutual Contempt is a deeply dismaying book about how politics is driven; all the more dismaying because of course, with only changes of names, dates, and details, it will all happen again - and is indeed happening now.