Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Work of the Biographer

I've been reading Robert Caro's multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson and enjoying it immensely. This is a bit of a surprise to me, as LBJ is not someone I would otherwise have had much of an interest in. I was eager to sink the time into reading William Manchester's similarly massive multi-volume biography of Churchill. But that, then that was Churchill. Prior to reading Caro's biography the three things that sprang most to my mind in relation to LBJ were:

1) His lifting a beagle by the ears and announcing to reporters that "they really like this"
2) The report that he'd never won an election honestly in his life (So far the Caro biography certainly backs that up) and
3) His propensity for using the toilet while meeting with staffers

However, I was drawn to the books by a blogger's detailed summaries as he was reading them and I've found them to be wonderful examples of the biographer's art. Caro has done a meticulous job of talking to every possible person connected with his subject, and the result is a narrative which is both well rounded in its treatment of the primary subject (we get a strong sense of Johnson's incredibly hard work, the forces that shaped him, and his complete lack of principles) and also in its development of a fascinating cast of side characters, people who were supporters or opponent of Johnson during his personal and political life.

In the second volume, which I just finished, nearly half the book is taken up with a portrayal of Johnson's 1948 campaign for the Democratic nomination to a US Senate seat. (This being 1940s Texas, the real contest was the Democratic primary, not the general election.) Johnson's opponent in that race was former Texas governor Coke Stevenson, and in this article defending that portrayal Caro talks about how his research led him to a whole new understanding of Stevenson.
No writer can be certain that he knows all the facts about private financial affairs dating back 50 years and more. But I tried to ascertain as many of those facts as possible, and after doing so I was convinced -- and am convinced -- that Coke Robert Stevenson was a public official of extraordinary personal integrity.

Stevenson has also recently been portrayed anew in a number of articles as merely a "typical" ("typical" was a word I heard a lot), totally unexceptional Texas right-winger, just another in the long line of the state's extremely conservative public officials -- unintelligent, narrow-minded, bigoted, a segregationist and an isolationist.

This, as it happened, was the impression of Stevenson I myself received when I began research on my book in 1975, and for some years thereafter I had no reason to doubt it. By 1975 Stevenson was a forgotten figure, a man all but lost to history. Two biographies -- one by an aide, the other by two of Stevenson's Kimble County neighbors -- were both so slight, not only in length but in research, as to provide little insight into the man or his career. The literature on Texas history during the era in which Stevenson served in the state government is, as one writer puts it, "notoriously spotty"; moreover, most of it is written from a point of view antithetical to his. In the few books on the era, he was generally given scanty treatment, and even that concentrated on his gubernatorial record, not on his pre-gubernatorial record in government or on the story of his life as a whole.

Apart from these sources, Coke Stevenson had been described -- briefly and harshly -- primarily in biographies of Lyndon Johnson. Interviews would normally be helpful in learning about a man, but Stevenson was 87 years old when he died. He was almost the last survivor of his generation in Texas politics; only a very few of his friends and political allies -- indeed, only a few handfuls of Texas politicians who knew him more than passingly well -- were still alive.

When, almost 30 years after the 1948 campaign, I began hearing about it in interviews, the description of Stevenson available to history was very largely a description furnished by a younger generation in Texas politics -- the Johnson generation, the bright young Johnson campaign aides who helped him defeat Stevenson in 1948 and thereby rose to power in Texas -- as well as by Johnson supporters and allies and by one-time Texas "Loyalists" (Democrats loyal to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal and the national party) and their spiritual descendants in the Texas political, academic, intellectual and journalistic community, a group to whom Stevenson had been a symbol of much of what they hated. It was they who, in interviews with me, in oral history interviews given to representatives of the Lyndon Johnson Library and in opinions repeated in Johnson biographies and other books, described Stevenson as typical, and it was during my interviews with them that I was told that like so many other Texas public officials, Stevenson was just another officeholder on the take (witness those "phony oil leases").

There was, in fact, nothing unusual or significant about the 1948 campaign as a whole, I was told; Johnson had simply made use of the "issues" in the race -- these were identified to me as Stevenson's isolationism, his racism, his alleged identification with the ultra-right Texas Regulars -- to persuade a majority of the voters to vote for him. That was the accepted image of Coke Stevenson and of his last campaign, and for a long time I had no reason to think the image incomplete or inaccurate.

I was planning to make the 1948 campaign only a single long chapter in "Means of Ascent" (as I did with Johnson's 1941 campaign in "The Path to Power"), and I wasn't doing extensive research on it or on Johnson's opponent in it. I was learning about Stevenson only incidentally, during the course of interviews about other aspects of Johnson's life. Moreover, since these interviews were almost entirely with people who ridiculed and despised Stevenson, they only reinforced the picture of the man that I had obtained from the history texts. (I never interviewed Stevenson. He died in June 1975, just about the time I was making my first trips to Texas; at the time I had no idea that he would be a figure of any particular significance in my work, and I had never tried to contact him.)

After a while, however, my circle of interviews about Johnson's life began expanding so that I was talking to political figures from the 1930's and 1940's who had been outside Johnson's orbit. At the time, I wasn't interviewing these people about Stevenson or the 1948 campaign; the necessity of learning about that campaign in detail had still not sunk in on me. But although my interviews were primarily concerned with other subjects, sometimes the person I was interviewing would bring up Stevenson's name -- and slowly (very slowly, I must admit) I was beginning to realize that from these new sources the picture I was being given was quite different from the picture I had been given before.
The whole NY Times Book Review piece linked to is fascinating reading, as Caro describes the plodding research into finances, the long interviews, and the reading of primary source documents which gradually led him to the fascinating portrayal of Stevenson in the book, a portrayal in which the reader becomes so invested (as did, clearly, Caro) that at the end of Means of Ascent Caro provides an epilogue chapter of sorts in which he describes Stevenson's latter life, after Johnson's clever use of the federal courts successfully stonewalled an investigation into Johnson's blatant vote stealing which turned Stevenson's victory in the primary into Johnson's and thus put LBJ on the path which would lead to the White House.


Joseph Moore said...

Wow. I have long viewed LBJ with a sort of perverse admiration: he is unsurpassed as modern Machiavellian, on the one hand befriending every cub reporter while on the other cutting the most ruthless deals to get whatever he wanted. What he did was deplorable and vile - but he did it so well.

But this is all based on a superficial knowledge of the man, mostly anecdotes that show up elsewhere. This gives a bit more terrifying meat to the story.

Doubt I'll live long enough to read a 3 volume biography of the man, however.

Darwin said...

I'll admit, if I had to devote sit-down reading time to it, I don't know if I'd get through it either. I've been listening to it on audiobook while commuting. But it really is worth it. "Unsurpassed as modern Machiavellian" sums it up pretty well.

Timotheos said...

To give you an idea of the sorts of wheeling-and-dealing that Johnson would do on a regular basis, my great-grandfather, who was the owner of the general store in Brenham, quite the leadership role in a community of German-Texan farmers, was able to use his connections with then 10th Texas district US House Rep LBJ, which at the time covered the Austin and surronding Hill country area, to be able to get a waiver to buy my teenage grandmother a new car during the height of the WWII rationing period; he, I believe, had been a loyal supporter of the Johnson campaign in one of the key demographics of that area, the German-Texans, and this was a routine way for him to thank his supporters.