Robert Caro’s Blind Spot
April 22, 2019 7:31 PM   Subscribe

Why does the exhaustive biographer overlook Lyndon Johnson’s virulent misogyny? Remarkably, Caro neglects to mention how LBJ repeatedly invaded the physical boundaries of his female employees by groping them. This curious omission by America’s preeminent biographer, whose work is otherwise so thorough and sensitive, points to the depth of the problem that the #MeToo movement is trying to redress—that the sexual violence endured by generations of working women has long been nearly completely buried.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis (27 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
[One comment deleted; this isn't the place for comments about Lyndon Johnson's weiner. Please exercise some judgment.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:39 PM on April 22 [30 favorites]


His magnum opus, Caro explains, says little about “the many women with whom Lyndon Johnson had had sex … because none of them seemed to have any significance to him personally or to have any connection with his political or governmental activities.”

Gosh. That in itself is telling isn't it, of Caro and Johnson both.
posted by smoke at 8:00 PM on April 22 [60 favorites]


Why does the exhaustive biographer overlook Lyndon Johnson’s virulent misogyny?

i dunno!
"At 26:45, @RobertACaro acknowledges that his wife is his entire research team - the only person he trusts - for all his work. @BrianLehrer suggests, "Maybe she deserves coauthor credit." Caro laughs and says, "Well, she doesn't do the writing." –@tiffjhaung
it's a complete mystery!
posted by entropicamericana at 8:16 PM on April 22 [157 favorites]


Yet Caro ignores that one of the prime movers of LBJ’s ambition was to exert more power over women—so that he could have more success in his attempts to exercise “Jumbo.” As George Reedy puts it, “Sex to Johnson was part of the spoils of victory.”

I wish the author of the article had actually gone into a bit more detail on what he means by "prime mover" and where he got it from (one of the other biographies he mentions, maybe?). I'm not saying that it's unbelievable that a sexual predator would pursue elected office just so as to be able to more effectively prey on their victims, but nor do I think it's so axiomatic that you don't need to argue it over against other motives - especially given the enormous evidentiary record Caro piles up for those other motives (from idealism to egomaniacal narcissism). How big a "part of the spoils of victory" was sex to LBJ would be an interesting question for a longer or more in-depth article to explore (albeit one that I'd have to take a shower after reading).

That this exhaustive chronicler who writes so movingly of Johnson’s other character flaws overlooks his virulent misogyny is startling—and points to a long-standing blind spot not just in presidential biography but in the culture at large.

But going by the other examples he cites in the article itself (the books by Woods and Dallek, for example) this element of Johnson's life has been showing up in biographical work. Granted, Caro's biography has basically the heft of Stonehenge at this point, so I'd agree that he could have carved out more space in the monolith for exploring this particularly dark facet of Johnson's life, but it does seem to be stretching to make a point that Caro is particularly important as a symptom here.

His magnum opus, Caro explains, says little about “the many women with whom Lyndon Johnson had had sex … because none of them seemed to have any significance to him personally or to have any connection with his political or governmental activities.”

Gosh. That in itself is telling isn't it, of Caro and Johnson both.


If they had no "significance to him personally etc." then Caro is just speaking to a particularly ugly truth about his subject. Is it difficult to imagine that Johnson genuinely didn't care about his victims? If the point here is that Caro as a misogynist is overlooking/hiding these women's significance to Johnson then again, that might have been an interesting point for the author to make in the article with some evidence to back it up.

I dunno - it's not exactly a hit piece, but it feels almost like the author wanted to talk about LBJ's predatory behavior and someone said, "cool, but let's spice it up with a jab at someone who's still alive."
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:20 PM on April 22 [10 favorites]


If they had no "significance to him personally etc." then Caro is just speaking to a particularly ugly truth about his subject.

Yes, the fact that a biographic subject didn't care about the women he assaulted totally justifies a biographer not mentioning them.

Makes total sense.
posted by tocts at 8:33 PM on April 22 [40 favorites]


I love Caro’s books, but I agree this is a huge omission, and in a way a theft from the historical record, given the weight these books have. I feel similarly about Jon Meacham’s omission/elision of George HW Bush’s longtime affair with Jennifer Fitzgerald. It feels like “emperor’s new clothes”’ x “old boys club” x “things women gossip about aren’t significant historical events.” Caro clearly deeply respects Lady Bird Johnson (and same for Meacham and Bar Bush) and perhaps that’s also part of it, but part of passing from reality into history is your life becoming public property. Historians will study the minute details of your life to understand your significance and the people of your time; you lose the ability to filter out the uglier parts when you make the deal.
posted by sallybrown at 8:35 PM on April 22 [26 favorites]


Caro stresses Glass’ intellectual heft, noting that “she possessed a political acumen so keen that the toughest Texas politicians enjoyed talking politics with her.”

Y'all don't get it, the "bimbos" aren't relevant to the biography because their intelligence was either lacking or not recorded for posterity. If you abuse women of average intelligence, it's nobody's business but your own. /sarcasm

Also, the idea that the toughest Texas politicians enjoyed talking politics with Glass is evidence of her intelligence just tells you Caro doesn't know much about men or women. Apparently he's never heard of mansplaining? Because if there is one thing lots of men love, it's telling a woman about something in an authoritative tone of voice. Many men consider this to be conversation. And if you agree with them, they think you're smart. "She was smart, so men respected her" is not a self-evident statement.
posted by Emmy Rae at 8:38 PM on April 22 [17 favorites]


I think your reading of how Caro characterizes Glass is incorrect. Caro states multiple times in his biographies, and in his interviews, about how influential Glass was to Johnson; Caro basically argues that Johnson relied on Glass's counsel -- about policy, about who to talk to, about how he dressed and presented himself -- in order to become President. As a politician and a legislator, Glass was influential in her own right.

Caro also has said in interviews that Johnson either ignored or did not have Glass's advice when making decisions about escalating the Vietnam war, and it was those decisions that doomed his presidency and his legacy.

I agree that Caro does all but ignore Johnson's treatment of women (save for Lady Bird), and I find Caro's categorization of women as being either "influential" or "bimbos" (the latter Caro's word) to be distasteful. But Caro has also come under attack by Johnson loyalists (I know a few in Texas) for his extremely harsh portrayal of Johnson in the biographies, notably Master of the Senate (that's the one where Johnson forces his staff to take dictation while he's taking a crap).

I don't think including Johnson's supposed abusive or predatory treatment of women in the biographies would change Caro's overall thesis: Johnson was a flawed, complicated human being, an abuser and a tyrant who skillfully used his immense power to pass the most substantial civil rights legislation in a hundred years while planning a destructive war that would kill at least two million people.
posted by JamesBay at 9:05 PM on April 22 [7 favorites]


I just read Caro's new book "Working", and the new interviews (about half of the book collects old interviews with various magazines) seems to be an effort to provide Aina, his wife and collaborator, with at least some credit and recognition.
posted by JamesBay at 9:07 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]


Ina Caro conducted the research (driving to farms across rural Texas) behind the “Sad Irons” chapter about the Hill Country before electrification, which to me is the most remarkable thing in any of the books. I still don’t understand how those women survived life.
posted by sallybrown at 9:28 PM on April 22 [9 favorites]


If they had no "significance to him personally etc." then Caro is just speaking to a particularly ugly truth about his subject.

It's telling for a few reasons, I feel. Firstly, because any absence of perceived significance actually says a lot about Johnson's attitude towards women, sex. The fact Johnson saw it that way doesn't make it true, and that very opinion shapes what he does and how he does it.

Secondly, I would refute that his serial philandering and sexual harrassment had nothing to do with political and governmental activity. It was a political and governmental activity, when he was doing it as president, in the whitehouse, with who he hired and fired. I cannot think of a political scientist who would assert politics is only what happens on, and pertaining to the floor of the house.

Finally, the fact, that Caro seemingly straight-faced promulgates this antiquated "great man" historicity with that line, is disappointing (albeit not surprising, cause his life has essentially been a dedication to a 'great man's' history). The idea of Johnson, swimming through the tides of history like a shark,untouched by and untouching broader culture etc is silly, and one that Caro himself clearly doesn't subscribe wholly to, based on what's he's written in the actual books.

But when it comes to some women, he obviously does. Women's voices, women's experience's (especially unworthy women) getting shut out of history once again, leaving gaps that will be papered over and forgotten in decades to come. Not really good enough, especially when it's from definitive history. It's 2019 for goodness sake.
posted by smoke at 9:59 PM on April 22 [32 favorites]


It does seem to be stretching to make a point that Caro is particularly important as a symptom here.

You plainly know that Caro's work on Johnson is basically regarded as magisterial and (inevitably, given the size) nearly exhaustive; yet you balk at attributing any cultural significance to his refusal to engage with this undeniable aspect of Johnson's character which affected his behavior throughout his life.

Men, before you rush in to defend your heroes, could you maybe just...breathe through it for a minute?
posted by praemunire at 11:18 PM on April 22 [39 favorites]


If they had no "significance to him personally etc." then Caro is just speaking to a particularly ugly truth about his subject.

It's telling for a few reasons, I feel. Firstly, because any absence of perceived significance actually says a lot about Johnson's attitude towards women


smoke and tocts said it well already, but the problem is that Caro isn't speaking to it. He doesn't (at least according to the article, have not read the whole biography so maybe I shouldn't comment, but...), he doesn't say "What was going on with LBJ that these women seemed to have so little importance for him? What does that tell us about how he saw women, what he believed about men, how he might have reacted to (say) women in the Senate, what his attitudes to laws involving women's issues might have been?"
And so on and so forth. The Civil Rights Act outlaws sex discrimination as well as racial discrimination; how did Johnson's mind work to make this work for him? etc etc. What about Lady Bird, and Texas concepts of womanhood? and so on.

It's interesting, in general human nature terms, and it would tell us something extra about LBJ. "insignificant to him" can still be "significant to his biographer" or those reading his biography.
posted by huimangm at 11:22 PM on April 22 [10 favorites]


sallybrown: It feels like “emperor’s new clothes”’ x “old boys club” x “things women gossip about aren’t significant historical events.”

That’s a really good point. What follows from that is that if Caro had written about Johnson’s predation in earlier novels, the media and intelligentsia of the time wouldn’t have afforded them the status they now have. At the time, the books would’ve been criticized for being “tawdry”.

After the sea change of the last few years, however, this feels less like an oversight than a moral failure for Caro’s whole project. And it should be, because even though Caro was to a degree simply following the diktats of his time and place, deciding that the suffering of women isn’t worth thinking about is a moral failure.
posted by Kattullus at 1:36 AM on April 23 [14 favorites]


I think your reading of how Caro characterizes Glass is incorrect. Caro states multiple times in his biographies, and in his interviews, about how influential Glass was to Johnson

Speaking for myself, I am commenting on Caro's view of Glass compared to other women, not her actual influence on Johnson.

I don't think including Johnson's supposed abusive or predatory treatment of women in the biographies would change Caro's overall thesis


If the specifics of how Johnson lived his life don't matter, these books are a colossal waste of Caro's time.
posted by Emmy Rae at 5:08 AM on April 23 [15 favorites]


I don't think including Johnson's supposed abusive or predatory treatment of women in the biographies would change Caro's overall thesis

In saying this, you're functionally saying that Johnson's sexual harassment of and sexual assault of women of no real importance to understanding his character or his motivations. You're defending Caro for not including it because you believe that Caro would not have come to any different conclusion by considering it -- not even a more extreme conclusion on the side of the euphemistic "flawed" assessment. By this argument, the fact that he was a serial groper who pressured women who worked for him into sexual relationships is no more revealing of his nature than his favorite color.

To be blunt: that's some fucked up shit.
posted by tocts at 5:30 AM on April 23 [20 favorites]


It's also worth considering, to acknowledge an important historical figure has engaged in infidelity, assault, harassment, is not anything new when it comes to writing biographies or histories. I mean, plenty of historians have written about JFK and all of the women he was sleeping around with, hell, there are histories about various Popes in the past that have had all kinds of fucked up affairs and scandals.

It builds a bigger and more truthful picture about the figure I'm reading about and it also lets me know that these giants of history are human and have just as much a capacity to be a terrible shitshow of a human as the person next to me.
posted by Fizz at 5:49 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]


I guess the title "'Serious' White Man's Project Started 40 Years Ago Does Not Include Perspective That Only a Subset of 'Serious' White Men Started Caring About 2 Years Ago'" didn't make it out of the Slate pitch meeting.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 6:47 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]


It's also worth considering, to acknowledge an important historical figure has engaged in infidelity, assault, harassment, is not anything new when it comes to writing biographies or histories.
I think that part of it is that Caro was/is trying to elevate the biography, which has often been considered a lesser historical genre. He was trying to make a case for its seriousness, in an era when great-man history was under attack. And I assume that to him, that meant downplaying the parts of LBJ's biography that he would consider purely personal, not to mention tawdry and soap-opera-ish. This is biography as political history, and it focuses on the things that Caro sees as political. And it's now clear that it was an oversight, and perhaps an unforgivable oversight. We now recognize that interpersonal violence is political, that men's personal abuse of women is inseparable from the ways they wield power elsewhere in their lives. But that's a new insight for powerful men like Caro. Maybe it will make its way into the last volume.
If they had no "significance to him personally etc." then Caro is just speaking to a particularly ugly truth about his subject.
Yes, of course. It is, in fact, the exact kind of particularly ugly truth about his subject that you would expect to be discussed in an exhaustive, five-volume biography. That is the very fucking point.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:48 AM on April 23 [14 favorites]


The best the new can often hope for from the old is an acknowledgement that they did the deed and got away with it. Depressing. But Caro is not dead yet, and nothing must be static. We move, regardless of but regarding him.
posted by Going To Maine at 7:15 AM on April 23


In saying this, you're functionally saying that Johnson's sexual harassment of and sexual assault of women [...]

I said no such thing.
posted by JamesBay at 7:45 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]


In what way is your own statement, "I don't think including Johnson's supposed abusive or predatory treatment of women in the biographies would change Caro's overall thesis", not saying, explicitly, that any predatory treatment of women is immaterial in the final accounting of Johnson, per Caro?
posted by tocts at 8:05 AM on April 23 [6 favorites]


The books don't completely ignore Johnson's problematic treatment of women. The first scene of the first book is of the married Johnson and another congressman on a booze and prostitute-filled yacht cruise in Florida during the late 1940s where Johnson tells his fellow senator that he is going to stop taking bribes and sweetheart deals because he doesn't want them to interfere with his chances to be President.

But yes, overall, the article is absolutely right. It is a glaring omission in a monumental work of biography. It's a pity Caro is so old and unlikely to change his views, because it would be great to see his unusual mind tackle this problem. At this point I have serious doubts that Caro will even finish the final book. Despite this and other flaws, his books are works of art and unlike anything else out there.

So then, other experts on LBJ, where can I fill in the missing holes on what Caro leaves out? What do you recommend?
posted by seasparrow at 11:29 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]


Emphasizing that two negatives are understood to resolve to a positive, I am saying that a sexual predator would pursue elected office to have more access and more power over sexual targets. Sex is one of the perquisites of power.
I'm not saying that it's unbelievable that a sexual predator would pursue elected office just so as to be able to more effectively prey on their victims, but nor do I think it's so axiomatic that you don't need to argue it over against other motives - especially given the enormous evidentiary record Caro piles up for those other motives (from idealism to egomaniacal narcissism). How big a "part of the spoils of victory" was sex to LBJ would be an interesting question for a longer or more in-depth article to explore...
Caro's disregard for LBJ's obsessive sexual predation is quaintly old-fashioned. A fully nuanced biography would treat his behavior as part of his larger-than-life ambition. The gender-integrated workplace is a history of sex and power.

Highly aggressive, competitive men navigate life & work as a sequence of power-struggles, with the winner experiencing increased testosterone. "Having" or "taking" a woman also represents a victory.

"Sexual coercion was an entrenched feature of chattel slavery, domestic service, manufacturing and clerical positions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries... men imposed sexual relations-ranging from assault to all manner of unwanted physical or verbal advances- on women who worked for them."

Catharine MacKinnon, in Sexual Harassment of Working Women,wrote that "sexual harassment seems less than an ordinary act of sexual desire directed toward the wrong person than an expression of dominance laced with impersonal contempt, the habit of getting what one wants, and the perception (usually accurate) that the situation can be safely exploited in this way-all expressed sexually. It is dominance eroticized."

Presidential history can't separate the social from the sexual. It's necessary to take into account the primal sexual impulse.


Warren G. Harding boasted to a group of reporters: “It’s a good thing I’m not a woman. I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no.” Even during his Presidency, there were reports of mistresses, dalliances with young aides, and even illegitimate children. Seymour Hersh's biography of JFK details the "sheer number of Kennedy's sexual partners, and the recklessness of his use of them, [which] escalated throughout his presidency."
posted by ohshenandoah at 12:43 PM on April 23 [7 favorites]


From the FPP: "Remarkably, Caro neglects to mention how LBJ repeatedly invaded the physical boundaries of his female employees by groping them."

Carl Rowan, in a January 1998 piece on Bill Clinton:
In 1965, when I headed the U.S. Information Agency, I was approached by a shaken White House employee who told me of her first duty trip to the Texas ranch where President Johnson often retreated. She said she awakened in the wee hours of her first night there in terror, certain that someone was in her room. When a little pencil flashlight was shone on her face, she was too terrified to scream. Then she recognized Johnson's voice saying, "Move over. This is your president." She said that, intimidated, she moved over.

"She insisted that she didn't want to file charges or expose LBJ. She just wanted a comparable federal job where she would be beyond the president's predatory reach. I telephoned Johnson's aide, Bill Moyers, and within 24 hours that woman had a good new job in a major federal agency.
From Simeon Booker's "Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter's Account of the Civil Rights Movement":
Lyndon was always so casual and relaxed at the ranch, which, much more than the real White House, he considered his own space, where he could do as he pleased. According to his aides in earlier years, this included nocturnal wanderings with a flashlight into staff bedrooms.
[Bolding mine.]

[In first link, Rowan also noted: "It was said that during the Nixon administration everyone speculated on who was doing what to whom; during the Johnson administration everyone knew who was doing what to whom; and during the Carter administration everybody knew that there wasn't anybody doing anything to anybody. That was meant to express the boredom of the Carter years, but it ought to be seen as a compliment, because Jimmy Carter and Harry Truman are the only presidents during my time covering Washington who seemed never to let power throw their libidos out of control."]
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:15 PM on April 23 [17 favorites]


Ina Caro conducted the research (driving to farms across rural Texas) behind the “Sad Irons” chapter about the Hill Country before electrification, which to me is the most remarkable thing in any of the books. I still don’t understand how those women survived life.

That chapter was my first introduction (I read the book in high school) to a whole bunch of things - environmental devastation and the poverty trap, the grueling experience of rural life, especially for rural women - that I'd never seen before and which I often haven't seen portrayed with that much unflinching depth and grasp of the way all these things interact. The way debt and erosion combined to turn what looked like opportunity to the original settlers into entrapment for generations of their descendants was - I mean, it's a great explanation for a real historical situation, but almost also felt like a metaphor for many other facets of ordinary Americans' experience then and since.

And yeah, clearly I need to start referring to The Caros rather than Caro, going forward.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:24 PM on April 23 [10 favorites]


His magnum opus, Caro explains, says little about “the many women with whom Lyndon Johnson had had sex … because none of them seemed to have any significance to him personally or to have any connection with his political or governmental activities.”

Put like that, it does indeed seem to be a damning indictment of Caro's blind spot. But what Caro actually says, in Working, is slightly different:

I had been intending to deal in only a few lines with the many women with whom Lyndon Johnson had had sex. This was less because of some ethical or moral conception of my responsibilities as an author than because, although these affairs were numerous, none of them seemed to mean anything to him personally or to have any connection with his political or governmental activities.

Then, however ..


And he goes on to explain how he re-evaluated this judgement after discovering Johnson's affair with Alice Glass. In other words, he is admitting his own blind spot and explaining how he tried to correct it.

Having read the first four volumes, I agree that Caro underplays Johnson's predatory treatment of women. It will be instructive to see if he tries to redress the balance in the final volume (assuming he lives to finish it) when he writes about Johnson in the White House. But in the meantime, let's at least do him the courtesy of judging him by his own words and not by the selective quotations in this Slate article.
posted by verstegan at 3:50 AM on April 25 [4 favorites]


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