U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Does Biography Trump Ideas?

I am plowing my way through Robert Caro’s fourth volume of his projected five volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. I bought the book after reading an excerpt of it in a recent New Yorker in which Caro relates the moments that unfolded immediately before and after the assassination of John Kennedy.  Caro’s writing is crisp and confident and his mastery of details is awe-inspiring.  I have ambitions to write a biography and find my intentions sorely challenged when considering the research that went into this book.

Very early on in his six-hundred page tome, Caro hammers out his organizing principle.  He writes:

“[The book] tries most particularly to focus on and examine a specific, determinative aspect of that era–political power; to explore, through the life of its protagonist, the acquisition and use of various forms of that power during that half century of American history, and to ascertain also the fundamental realities of that power; to learn what lay, beneath power’s trappings, at power’s core.”

Caro contends that in a moment of “deep crisis” such as the transition of the presidency because of tragedy, the power of the presidency “can be observed in all its facets.”  Thus, power acts as a character in the book.  Almost independent of Johnson and the Kennedy brothers, power circulates through the Senate chamber, it’s out on the campaign trail in 1958 in advance of the 1960 primaries, and it resides in the families of these men.  To say that Johnson and the Kennedys had to contend with power would be to miss the relationship they appeared to have with a spectral force that made them into historical actors.

And yet, it stuck me as curious that Caro’s depiction of power seems nearly devoid of ideology and even, in a way, of politics.  Power is psychological, familial; it is fear-inducing, and confidence-building; but it is not liberal or conservative, radical or reactionary.  So Caro does not identify a relationship between power and ideology, at least through the 1960s primaries.  Johnson commands the Senate, he wheels and deals within Texas’s corrupt political machines, and he hates, cajoles, and flip-flops his way toward the Democratic convention in 1960.  Caro’s characterizations of the Kennedy brothers is similar in the faintness of ideology and prominence of psychological traits.

Is ideology, then, a casualty of biography?  In the index, among the largest entries under Johnson is one for “physical appearance of.”  The terms “liberal” and “liberalism” do not get mentioned either under Johnson, Kennedy, or as stand-alone entries.  Has Caro revealed something about biography, that the closer we draw a historical actor the less their ideas matter to us?

This disconnection between ideas and biography resonates with the results of the recent Indiana primary.  Richard Lugar, the longest serving senator in Washington today, lost to Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party backed insurgent who has won three state-wide elections in the last five years.  The one major difference in the run-up to the primary vote was that I knew Lugar as a person–his elder statesman persona preceded him–and knew Mourdock primarily through his ideology.  Even though Lugar obviously has ideas that define his politics, his biography had displaced the public’s perception of his ideology.  Mourdock is all ideology to most of us who voted on Tuesday, and his biography pales in significance to the public perception of what we think he stands for.  We know Lugar, thus his ideology fades; we don’t know Mourdock, and so his ideology radiates.

Does it then stand to reason that when intellectual historians focus on ideas we lose the people behind them; but the reverse happens when we chose to write a biography?  Do intellectual biographies achieve what they aim to create–a marriage of ideas and person?  And if so, how?

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. The problem with using The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and The Passage of Power specifically, as examples of this sort of dichotomy, is that its subject was profoundly anti-ideological for almost all of his life. He, like many men, ran from the ideas he was born into, without ever actually escaping, and grabbed for power in spite of whatever qualms he gave to his intimates.

    This is a biography of Lyndon Johnson as a law maker, whether in the house(only sort of and at first), senate, and even the presidency. His was the primary force for legislation passing in America in the latter two for his tenure in them. His life demonstrates in detail that the dominant ideology in America lacked power for much of the twentieth century and the reactionary minority wielded power far out of proportion to its size. Power and dominant ideas were not partners throughout much of the New Deal-Great Society period, at least viewed through the prism of legislative accomplishment. Given that almost all of the defenders of liberalism, the dominant ideology, were almost willfully ignorant of the ways to wield power in government, they earned their status as historical footnotes. Lyndon Johnson was the exception and not the rule, to the misfortune of all Americans.

    I would say that on the one hand these are profoundly anti-ideological books, given that the series’ intended purpose is to show the use of political power first and foremost, whatever form and purpose it might take, but also given the arguments that are made inside of the book, they are profoundly ideological because they are full of moral and political judgments. Considering that these are books about American politics I think that ambiguity is justified.

  2. Caro is much more sophisticated about these issues than you give him credit for. This is clear in Master of the Senate and in the final section of the new book. Power is drawn from the ideology and interests that exist at the time. To attain and keep his position of power, LBJ must navigate the competing ideologies and interests of liberalism, segregationism, civil rights activism, isolationism, and anti-Communism while buying off various other interests.

  3. Ray, I really enjoyed this post.

    It reminded me of Jill Lepore’s amusing, incisive essay, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography” (JAH, vol. 88, No. 1, June 2001, pp. 129-144). She discusses the problem of selection and the constant temptation to valorize the biographical detail over what one might call the telling detail that allows one to understand and argue for the historical significance of one’s subject.

    I’m also reminded of Wickberg’s critique of “intellectual biography” as a privileged approach to intellectual history: “But the closer we get to the details of a life, the further we get from a broad set of other contexts.” This seems to me to be related to the questions you’re raising here.

    And as I think about your question, I’m struck by an odd and telling imbalance in my own reading list.

    Among the primary sources on my exam list are several works that either present themselves as explicitly autobiographical or that base/frame their arguments in a personal narrative — Franklin, Douglass, Addams, Buckley, and perhaps even Bloom would fit this category. The autobiographical mode as a way of thinking and writing has played an important role in American thought, and the few books on my list don’t represent the full range or resonance of the genre. (It would be interesting to read Buckley or Bloom, for example, in tandem with “conversion narratives.”)

    But among my secondary sources, there is only one biography: Kazin’s fantastic study of William Jennings Bryan. I included it specifically because of the way it models how the historian may and must understand the thinking of a subject whose views are not his or her own — it is a tour de force in the intellectual sympathy of good critical history. It is also a model of how biography can work as cultural and intellectual history. Bryan’s life is singular and yet illustrative; his “story” as Kazin tells it illuminates a larger historical context.

    It’s really a remarkable and commendable work. But as a biography, it stands alone on my reading list. (Menand’s Metaphysical Club strikes me as a special case.) This may say more about the idiosyncrasies of my list than it does about the field as a whole — though no one has (as yet) convinced me of any glaring omissions. But it does make me wonder why there aren’t more books like Kazin’s and Menand’s.

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    Andrew contends: “Power is drawn from the ideology and interests that exist at the time.” Indeed, this is an intriguing point because you seem to argue that Caro so thoroughly contexualizes ideology within the power struggles of Johnson’s storied career that there is not use trying to depict the evolution of his thought through various ideologies. I am reminded of another excellent biography (or biographies) Menand’s Metaphysical Club in which, as George Cotkin has noted, Menand doesn’t define the term “metaphysical.” Perhaps Caro’s great achievement is to melt ideology into a narrative about the exercise of it through power.

    I am impressed by these books, don’t get me wrong, but I am also amazed the Caro avoid discussing the different kinds of liberalism embraced by LBJ and JFK. I have the impression that experience campaigning and moving through the webs of power in American politics can, at once, make a historical actor appear acutely ideological or, as we get closer to that actor through a closely drawn biographical sketch, attached to people not ideas. As an intellectual historian, I am not so naive as to imagine that people wear their ideologies on their sleeves for the biographer to note. But as an intellectual historian it strikes me when Caro speaks about FDR or the New Deal he doesn’t attempt to draw distinctions between how Johnson and Kennedy positioned themselves in its legacy.

  5. Did JFK and LBJ embrace different kinds of liberalism? I thought that by 1960 their public positions were in agreement on nearly all major issues, much like Clinton and Obama in 2007-8.

  6. I think Obama and Clinton might share more in common ideologically than Kennedy and Johnson, mostly, it seems to me, because of their proximity to the titans of the Democratic Party in the late 1950s. Caro makes a great deal out of their different backgrounds–which could not have been more different–and their relationship to the New Deal and the early postwar political atmosphere. While Johnson is clearly a political animal for the Texas hill country he was also a New Deal Democrat who idealized FDR. JFK was something different and what I was curious about was how their different experiences led to different relationships with the dominant liberal ideology.

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