The Wages of Hate
The fourth volume of Robert Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson has appeared to rapturous reviews. Garry Wills joins the chorus in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. Here’s how Wills begins:
Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson—this is the fourth volume of a planned five—was originally conceived and has been largely executed as a study of power. But this volume has been overtaken by a more pressing theme. It is a study in hate. The book’s impressive architectonics come from the way everything is structured around two poles or pillars—Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy, radiating reciprocal hostilities at every step of the story.
Wills gives this stunning reading of Bobby bounding on to Air Force One when it landed in Washington carrying the body of his dead brother and the all too quick Lyndon Johnson:
Johnson, newly sworn in as president, had just come back to Washington on Air Force One from the terrible death of John Kennedy in Dallas. Robert Kennedy sped up the steps to the plane and rushed fiercely down the length of the cabin through everyone standing in his way (including the new president) to reach Jacqueline Kennedy. Understandable that he would first of all want to comfort the widow? Yes, but. This was the first of many ways Bobby (called that throughout) tried in the first days to ignore the man who had ignominiously, in his eyes, supplanted his brother by a murder in the man’s own Texas. Caro understands that Bobby was determined not to see Johnson, even if he saw him—so he did not see him. But Johnson saw him not seeing, and hated him the more. That is how hate narrows one—narrows what one wants to see, or is able to see, in order to keep one’s hatred tended and hard.
And, in a finale that may be but prelude to what is still to come, Wills writes:
I doubt that Caro, when he began his huge project, thought he would end up composing a moral disquisition on the nature of hatred. But that is what, in effect, he has given us. Hate breeds hate in an endless spiral. Clausewitz, discussing hate as the necessary fuel of war, says it is always on supply, since foes undergo a Wechselwirkung, a back-and-forth remaking of each other, one hostile act prompting a response even more violent, in a continual ratcheting up. That is what Johnson and Bobby are engaged in doing in this book; and Caro has given us many clues to their continued venomous interaction to come in his next volume.