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.
“[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?