Books: Little pricks of conscience

MUTUAL CONTEMPT by Jeff Shesol Norton pounds 23.50
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The Independent Culture
THE GOOD, the Bad and the Ugly" was how some commentators summed up the triumvirate of President John F Kennedy, his brother Robert the Attorney General, and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson during the years 1960- 63. But which was which? For some political analysts, Bobby is the white knight, while for others Johnson is the great underrated 20th-century president. Not the least of the qualities of Jeff Shesol's book is that he never declares a preference. Both Bobby and LBJ were hard to like. Johnson liked to reduce those around him to jelly; Bobby has more admirers but it was not only in Lyndon Johnson that he provoked extreme dislike and irrational paranoia.

It was an open secret in Washington that LBJ and Bobby loathed one another. Many tributaries flowed into the mighty river of their hatred: there was the antagonism of the down-home Texan for the Ivy League Bostonian; the distaste of the WASP for the Catholic; and the legacy of the Civil War, still producing bitterness between North and South 100 years later. Most of all there was simple chemistry: visceral antipathy of the "hate at first sight" kind which is always difficult to explain or analyse. And there was a massive chasm of sensibility between the two men with, on one hand, the uxorious LBJ and his "Lady Bird" and, on the other, the philandering Bobby. To this can be added a difference in education, culture and milieu: Bobby's allusions were classical or literary; Johnson's were obscene or scatological. Shesol quotes many such LBJ obiter dicta in the text: "Now I know the difference between a caucus and a cactus. In a cactus all the pricks are on the outside."

With a wealth of detail that sometimes impedes readability, Shesol traces their antagonism in the years 1960-68. Bobby never forgave LBJ for running against his brother in the Democratic primary in 1960 when he had promised not to; LBJ regarded Bobby's appointment as the most blatant nepotism. Relations were uneasy right until the fateful day of 22 November 1963 in Dallas. Bobby considered that LBJ went to pieces during the missile crisis of 1962 and despised him for it. He was fond of telling intimates that, of 13 men in the Cabinet room that October, seven (including Johnson) would have plunged the world into nuclear destruction.

After the Kennedy assassination there was a widespread perception that Johnson was a usurper, a kind of cuckoo in the presidential nest who had got into the Oval Office only because the real President had been shot. LBJ was in a dilemma: to sack Bobby was to forfeit his legitimacy as president while to keep him on was to forfeit his identity. A war of Chinese whispers ensued. Bobby believed LBJ was to blame for his brother's death in that JFK went to Texas only because Johnson had failed to patch up a quarrel within the Democratic party there: in William Manchester's words Governor John Connally and Senator Ralph Yarborough "were stalking each other with shivs." LBJ retaliated with the canard that the Cubans had killed JFK in retaliation for CIA murder plots against Castro which Bobby had approved as Attorney General.

By the summer of 1964 LBJ concluded it was safe to ditch Bobby, for he had got through Congress a Civil Rights bill more far-reaching than John Kennedy could have managed. Bobby won an election as senator for New York and soon the gloves were off. Even as Bobby tried to build a power base from which to challenge LBJ, the President hit back with anti-Kennedy alliances: with FBI director J Edgar Hoover; with Mayor Wagner of New York; and with New York's Tammany Hall machine politician J Raymond Jones. Yet the first big clash came when LBJ sent the Marines into Santo Domingo in 1965 to pre-empt a wholly imaginary "Communist takeover". In so doing, he not only jettisoned JFK's Alliance for Progress with Latin America, but also the 30-year old Good Neighbour Policy which had governed Washington's relations with its Spanish-speaking neighbours.

Far worse was to come. Bobby had originally supported the war in Vietnam but after 1965 became an increasingly vociferous critic of the conflict. Meanwhile, as Shesol notes: "For LBJ, doubts about the war were not a matter of conscience; they were an act of malice." Johnson privately told his cronies the Vietnam war was unwinnable but publicly declared that for the USA to pull out was unthinkable; he poured in 500,000 troops and billions of dollars of "aid". His motive, as Shesol explains it, was twofold. He feared that if he withdrew from Vietnam, a right-wing backlash would dismantle his "Great Society" programme; but most of all he feared that Bobby would then pose as a hawk and claim that Johnson had betrayed JFK's commitment to "pay any price, make any sacrifice" to contain communism.

Matters came to a head in March 1968 when Bobby announced that he was a candidate for the presidency. Fifteen days later Johnson withdrew from the presidential race. Cause and effect? Shesol thinks so, and produces a mass of convincing evidence. By this time the unpopularity of Vietnam was tearing the country apart, and it was evident that a Democratic candidature contested between Bobby and LBJ would simply allow Nixon and the Republicans to win. LBJ was at the end of his tether, especially as Bobby could not be manipulated by his famous Texan "treatment" - a mixture of charm, flattery and brutal intimidation. Most Democratic politicians, and especially Hubert Humphrey, were afraid of Johnson, but Bobby was not. It was this very fearlessness that brought LBJ's deepest fears, insecurities and self-destructive tendencies to the surface. The irony was that by his needless antagonising of Bobby, LBJ brought about the thing he most dreaded: a challenge for the presidency in 1968 rather than 1972.

The story of the hatred of Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson has a mythic quality about it, almost as if they were Hector and Achilles or Arjun and Karna. Their antagonism puts in the shade the deadly rivalry of Canning and Castlereagh or Gladstone and Disraeli. Almost the only parallel I can think of is the loathing felt by Bernadotte for Napoleon. For LBJ, Bobby was a spoiled Bostonian brat, born with a silver spoon, a man without scruple, utterly ruthless and actuated either by electoral considerations or sordid motives of hatred and revenge. For Bobby, LBJ was the glad- handling, deal-making, old-style political boss, venal, grotesque, a liar, phoney, cheat and moral coward. The irony, as Shesol points out, is that each man was more complex and nuanced than this and also amazingly similar to the other. They could never coexist, for at root both were autocrats in competition for the same space.