Page 13


p ho to by Lon Coop e r refused to compromise about Vietnam because he thought he was acting in the light of experience.” And so, like the mythic men of the Alamo, he vowed that “We shall never retreat.” “Hell,” he said, “Vietnam is just like the Alamo.” And he quoted a poem his mother had taught him: And Travis, great Travis, drew sword, quick and strong, Drew a line at his feet. . . . “Will you come? Will you go?” I die with my wounded, in the Alamo. It was Johnson’s political career that died with his wounded in Vietnam. Some of Dugger’s frontier and Alamo analogues are brilliant. The trouble is that he puts them and other ideas into essays that intrude on the story. His text leaps back and forth, not only from present to future, but from biography to analysis, from life-writing to expository writing. Part IV, for example, is all narrative, recounting Johnson’s years as a student at San Marcos and a schoolteacher in dusty Cotulla. It ends with Johnson on his way to Washington as a congressional aide. Part V, jumping ahead to the 1960s, is a collection of essays on such topics as “The Politician as Western Hero,” “Two Patriotic Cowboys” \(Theodore Roosevelt justment,” and the influence of Billy Graham and Baptist doctrine on Johnson the President. Part VI then takes us back to Johnson as a congressional aide and resumes his life story. And so it goes throughout the volume. Dugger even breaks in with editorial asides on the historical significance of Franklin Roosevelt and Truman. Dugger’s commentaries might work well as magazine pieces, but they are devastating in biography. For they disrupt the narrative flow with a discordant analytical voice, which destroys our sense of a man living his life the major purpose of biography. Worse still is Dugger’s writing style. His sentences are awkward, often garbled, even ungrammatical. An example: “A bachelor who read a lot and drank alone, Russell’s real home was the capitol.” And another: “Conducting the Senate’s observance of J. Edgar Hoover’s twenty-first anniversary as head of the FBI, McCarthy’s rhetoric. . . .” And another: “To understand how Johnson felt about John Bunton, an American who is not a Texan may wish to imagine having a greatgreat-uncle who was one of the American colonists who attacked Boston, signed the Declaration of Independence, and fought with Washington’s army the day the redcoats were whipped.” But worst. of all is Dugger’s slanted portrait of Johnson himself. Though Dugger concedes in his introduction that Johnson was many-sided, the character that emerges is a one-dimensional troglodyte. By the end of the book, Dugger’s Johnson, now the boss of the Senate, stands as a supreme example of “the politician as predator,” an arch villain who makes the government his hidden partner as he gallops hell-forleather toward the presidency. Frankly, I closed the volume wondering why Dugger would bother to write the life of a man he clearly loathes. Given his terrible urgency, why didn’t he simply present us with an expository ultimatum: Elect another demon like Johnson to occupy the White House, and we may yet have a nuclear war? As Frank Vandiver has said, the essential quality of a biographer is empathy. Dugger has no empathy for Johnson. What he has is indignation, and it shows in the malignant picture served up in The Drive for Power. Ronnie Dugger ASIMILAR PORTRAIT inhabits Robert A. Caro’s The Path to Power, the first of a projected three-volume biography. A New York City journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York Caro years ago set out after Johnson, interviewing scores of neighbors, friends, and associates and poring, over millions of documents in the Johnson Library. The resulting book has become a literary sensation: it has made the bestseller lists with some 150,000 copies in print, has been excerpted in The Atlantic, sold to television, awarded the Carr P. Collins prize of the Texas Institute of Letters, and promoted as the political biography of our time. Caro has turned up many fascinating new facts, particularly about Johnson’s intricate dealings with Brown & Root. But it is one thing to produce a work of investigative journalism. It is quite another to write a biography. And on that score Caro’s volume is severely deficient. His tortuous prose is almost as bad as Dugger’s. He bombards us with his own rhetorical questions, usually unanswered, that can go on for pages. And he has not mastered Robert Louis Stevenson’s art of omission. In his zeal to get in all his information, Caro loses sight of Johnson for entire chapters, burying the man himself in a cascade of details about such background events as the Populist Movement, the New Deal, and the Marshall Ford Dam. Moreover, Caro’s conception of character is as one-sided as Dugger’s. What motivated Johnson, Caro insists, was “a hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will.” Johnson’s lust for power was so “fierce and consuming” that he would let nothing not morality, or ethics, or principle get in his way. Everything the man did can be explained by his insatiable need to control, to dominate. Even teaching poor, runny-nosed Mexican children in Cotulla, Caro says,. gave him the sense of authority he so desperately craved. In Cotulla, Caro suggests, Johnson already had his eye on the one thing that might sate his awful hunger. “He told us,” recalled a former pupil, that “we were looking at the future President of the United States.” Right there is Caro’s central thesis. By the time he was in Washington, Johnson’s overriding ambition was to become President. He would do anything, use anybody, tell any lie \(he to gain the White House. Nothing else would satisfy him. And he had such a talent for secrecy that nobody not Sam Rayburn, not his other colleagues in the House, not even Franklin Roosevelt knew what he was scheming after. A master of deceit, Johnson exploited them all in paving his path to ultimate power. For Caro’s Johnson, it all begins in the harsh Hill Country where his paternal relatives come to make their fortunes. But its thin soil and deceptive grass are a trap, and the Hill Country breaks the Johnsons and most everybody else who tries to make a living from the land. The Hill Country breaks Lyndon’s father so completely that he turns to alcohol to assuage the pain of his poverty and shame. Young Lyndon, seeing all, forgetting nothing, rebels against his defeated father and all his ideals and principles. The boy competes violently with the man; he becomes sullen and hostile toward his mother, too, toward high-minded Rebekah who can never adjust to the Johnsons’ hardscrab THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21