This past weekend, the Wall Street Journal featured an interview with Robert Caro, who discussed the release of his fourth massive volume on the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Caro, whose biography of tyrannical urban planner Robert Moses (The Power Broker) is broadly considered one of the best examples of that genre of writing, seems just as preoccupied as ever with the question of authority, and the people who become obsessed with obtaining it. Some of his ‘insider chronicles’ make for amusing and unsettling reading:
After graduating from Princeton in 1957, he became an investigative reporter with the hopes of improving American government. “I felt that, in a democracy, power comes from the ballot box, so that the more people knew about how political power worked, the better their decisions would be,” he says.
Reality disabused him of this notion.
But Caro’s work is also a case study in what happens when charity becomes deeply linked to that highest earthly form of authority, government, and points to problems for a certain brand of progressive politics which sees the most effective charity being a function of overbearing power:
Mr. Caro discerns a key difference between his subjects. While Moses was an idealist whom power corrupted, Johnson wanted power for two reasons. “One,” he says, “was to bend people to his will.”
When Johnson was in college, for instance, he convinced the college president to let him assist in picking which students got campus jobs. As Mr. Caro writes in “The Passage of Power,” “The wages from a campus job were often a student’s only hope of paying his tuition.” Spitefully, Johnson wouldn’t recommend a student for a job unless he personally asked for his assistance.
Coexistent with this “naked desire for power,” however, was a wish “to help the lives of poor people, particularly people of color,” Mr. Caro adds. Consider Johnson’s year at the Welhausen School in Cotulla, Texas, where he taught Mexican-American students English. “If he caught them speaking Spanish, he’d go out and spank the boys, and he’d really yell at the girls,” Mr. Caro notes. Johnson even tutored the janitor. This experience led Mr. Caro to write that “no teacher had ever really cared if the Mexicans learned or not. This teacher cared.”
It’s a curious match, and it’s unclear whether this philosophy is durable. In any event, this is even more the case regarding the pairing of unabashed self-centeredness with an (allegedly) urgent concern for others’ welfare. The erosion of Johnson’s lingering conscience beneath his drive for power hints that, perhaps, his dualism (which does, it seems, come close to notions like those espoused by Ayn Rand) was not ultimately fruitful, but rather unsustainable; there was a God-or-Mammon choice to be made in the final analysis. Indeed, if authentic caritas involves a self-emptying, it seems contradictory (not merely paradoxical) to sustain and feed that libido dominandi–worse still to try and convince yourself that redemptive love will grow organically out of it.
Indeed, the interview goes on to concede: “Still, according to Mr. Caro, ‘ambition was the strongest force’ in Johnson’s soul.”