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Robert Caro on Ascent APROFESSOR of mine once remarked that the serious scholar is insulted not when his work is criticized but when it is ignored. Clearly, Robert A. Caro should be in a good mood these days. Seldom does a member of the Fourth Estate, an ex-newspaper man, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author like Robert Caro attract so much attention. Caro has been the subject of profiles in two major maga. zines and the focus of countless articles and television news segments. Indeed, Robert Caro has achieved celebrity status. But Caro remains sincere, soft-spoken, and, most of all, sensitive to criticism. His latest work on Lyndon Johnson, Means of Ascent, has been widely assaulted for its positive portrayal of LBJ’s 1948 U.S. Senate opponent, Coke Stevenson. Stich august figures as David Broder of The Washington Post have criticized Caro’s treatment of the former Texas governor. Caro does not take such criticism lightly. He reads the reviews. And he said of the critical response to his latest work, “I sort of expected it.” “He’s a figure that’s lost to history,” Caro said of Stevenson in a recent interview at a downtown Austin hotel. “That does not mean he was not a major figure in history.” Broder and others have chastised Caro for elevating Stevenson as a “saintly figure of surpassing virtue and innocence.” In Means of Ascent, Stevenson’s tenure as governor is dealt with in summary fashion. Caro, for example, omits seemingly important details of Stevenson’s botched handling of University of Texas President Homer Rainey’s academic-freedom case and Rainey’s subsequent dismissal in the mid-1940s. Caro acknowledges that he does not consider the Stevenson governorship in great detail. He insists that his portrait should be seen within the framework of the 1948 election. Caro is not passing judgment on the Stevenson governorship, he said. Rather, he is pointing out that Stevenson was a broadly popular governor, a fact that is crucial in understanding a campaign that would make or break LBJ’s career. “I’m certainly not trying to portray Coke Stevenson as a good governor,” Caro said. “His governorship showed all the weaknesses as well as all the strengths of pure frontier conservatism. I said particularly that he was confounded by the narrowness of viewpoint.” “I read all the newspapers,” Caro said. “The feeling really was he was beloved. I had to paint this to show the obstacle that Robert Caro Lyndon Johnson had to overcome. Throughout his career in government [Stevenson] never deviated from his principles, and won. That does hot mean I think his principles are right, which in many instances I certainly do not.” What many of the reviews fail to mention, and what I found so striking in reading Means of Ascent, is how silly Stevenson actually appears. Johnson, in charge after charge, effectively distorts Stevenson’s record. But Stevenson does not fight back. Johnson is practicing the politics of the modern age the politics of day-afterday polling and negative advertisements while Stevenson seems naively confined by the old ways. In terms of campaign methodology,,Johnson is the innovator, Stevenson a man of the dark ages. “It seems unbearably stupid to me,” Caro said of Stevenson’s campaign methods. “To say the least, this is a very quixotic way to campaign. Except that he was the most successful campaigner in the history of Texas.” Perhaps, as Caro suggests, much of the reaction to this book has been shaped by ALAN POGUE our inability to believe the true character of our political system. Liberal journalists, for instance, refuse to embrace or accept a man as conservative as Stevenson. “The liberal journalists at the time mocked him,” Caro said. “They mock him now … He was a liberal. He was as liberal as Texas. He was what Texas wanted.” . And at the same time, many reviewers are unable to accept that so prominent a figure as LBJ could be so despicable, that power in America could be used so ruthlessly. Broder writes that Caro is unable to understand “that all politicians are a mixture of noble and ignoble traits, not classifiable as skunks or saints.” Said Caro: “That [1948] campaign illustrates the full destructiveness of the new media politics on the concept of free choice by an informed electorate. One reason for the initial controversy over the book was in each case the same, that the information was so shocking. That we don’t want to believe. We don’t want to believe this is our political process.” ALLAN FREEDMAN 18 APRIL 6, 1990