Robert Caro And Our “Great Man” Fetish

by Alec MacGillis | May 7, 2012

Put me squarely in the camp of Robert Caro admirers, even if I’m woefully behind in making my way through the biographer’s LBJ canon. But it’s also been clear to me for some time now that Caro’s exhaustive, colorful depiction of Johnson’s rise to power in Washington has not exactly been helpful when it comes to our country’s weakness for the Great Man Theory of politics and history. How many times in the past few years did you hear pundits and liberals lamenting that Barack Obama was unable to get more of his agenda passed because he lacked the strong-arm, big-cojones gumption of ole LBJ? Never mind that the Congress of LBJ’s day was vastly less polarized by party (Southern Democrats had not yet flipped to Republican) or that the filibuster was reserved for only certain matters (say, blocking civil rights legislation) rather than as a matter of routine. No, all this country needs is a true ball-busting leader to save the day. It’s this mindset that’s driving these guys to search for a “radical centrist” candidate for president, and it’s the mindset that’s driven Wall Street donors to fall out of love with Obama and in love with their new hero, Chris Christie. “It’s the great man theory of history,” a former Obama administration official told me for my recent cover story on Obama and the hedge fund honchos, as he described their new infatuation with Christie. “They believed Obama was a great man, and—lo and behold—Washington is a complicated place, and they blame it all on him, and now they believe it’s going to be a former prosecutor who’s going to solve all their dreams.”

One could say in Caro’s defense that he should not be faulted for his books’ encouragement of this sort of thinking—he’s a biographer, after all, and biographies by definition promote a great-man view of the world. Except that Caro is also pushing this outlook in the promotion he’s doing for the fourth of the five planned LBJ tomes, The Passage of Power. From his new interview in the Wall Street Journal:

Indeed, Johnson’s “political genius” was a rarity, and Mr. Caro thinks we could use something like it. Although he has a “high opinion” of President Obama and rejects any attempt to read into his work a critique of the more hands-off president, he says the U.S. Senate “is a total mess today.” But the “people who say it’s an unparalleled mess just don’t know the history,” he adds. Asked what could break the partisan logjam in Congress, Mr. Caro admits, “I don’t know.” But he also predicts, “Someday a political genius will come along and make the Senate work.”

Sorry, no. The Senate’s problem is not a lack of “genius.” (After all, it has Chuck Schumer.) As Caro surely knows, the problem goes deeper than that—and has a lot more to do with what these guys are talking about. (And in fact, Caro arguably bears some responsibility when it comes to the Senate’s systematic flaws. The Journal interview notes: “In 2004, when Senate Republicans were threatening to end Democrats’ filibustering of judicial nominees by implementing ‘the nuclear option,’ Kennedy called Mr. Caro “out of the blue” and asked if he would come to Washington, D.C., and explain to the freshman senators the importance of preserving the filibuster.”)

So by all means read and enjoy Caro. But don’t expect another savior to come out of the Texas Hill Country, or anywhere else, for that matter.

*For a classic example of LBJ exaltation, look no further than Richard Cohen's column on Caro in Tuesday's Washington Post, headlined "What Obama Doesn't Know About Being President." After describing Johnson's love of pressing the flesh, Cohen writes: 

But Obama cannot or will not indulge in the sort of face-to-face politicking that Johnson so favored. He has not stroked important contributors — one bundler told me he never hears from Obama. As the New York Times put it recently in an article about his fundraising on Wall Street, Obama himself has “a reputation for being cold at small gatherings.” “I just don’t think he likes us,” one fundraiser is quoted as saying.

He doesn't kiss up to rich donors? What a snob! Cohen then ends with this scene, requisite for any column of this form: 

In 1957, the photographer George Tames snapped four shots of Johnson, then the Senate majority leader, working over the diminutive (and 90-year-old) Sen. Theodore Green. In the first picture, Johnson and Green are simply face to face. By the fourth shot, Green has been backed into a table and Johnson looms over him — physical, intimidating but oh so effective. This was called the Johnson Treatment and it was politics reduced to what it has to be — human relations. Bob Caro knows how it was done. Maybe he’s available for golf.

Right. And maybe Caro can also give Obama a lesson on the importance of the filibuster.

 

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis

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