My wandering the library stacks produced Jeff Shesol's Mutual Contempt:Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud That Defined a Decade (New York: Norton, 1997).
I recall the general picture from the 1960s onward, and have seen details in other writing. What challenges conventional wisdom is the degree of absolute nuttiness found at the highest reaches of government. Yet there they are. While some of the stories may be shaky, there are too many of them to cause me to decide that my memory is faulty, or that the good reviews of Shesol's book are wrong.
Other material helps with the credibility. Johnson and Kennedy had no monopoly on the weirdness that can co-exist with high position. Richard Nixon deserves mention in these sentences, along with John Kennedy. Nixon we knew about in real time. John Kennedy's personal irregularities became widely known only some time after his death.
Some Israelis may admit that Yitzhak Rabin had his rough edges, even though they have been smoothed to nothing in the iconic treament since his assassination.
A political scientist has known at least since Harold Lasswell's Psychopathology and Politics (1930) that people getting close to the top are likely to be different than the rest of us.
Shesol is balanced in describing the flaws in both of his subjects. Johnson's were fear and paranoia, described in this book as concerned largely with Robert Kennedy. Kennedy's involved an overwhelming attachment to his brother, both when alive and then to his memory. At times it seemed that he assumed that John was still the president after November 22nd, and that Johnson remained an interloper for the rest of Robert's life.
Shesol not only describes the personal faults of both Johnson and Kennedy. He gives almost as much emphasis to troublemaking aides, supporters, and hangers-on. Politics attracts nuts not only to key offices, but may surround them with other nuts who crave passing on nasty remarks that an adversary said about the great one, and in some cases inventing them, perhaps to add to their own status in the eyes of the person they claim to be serving.
Yet another insight that Shesol provides, more often by implication if not explicitly, is that both Johnson and Kennedy functioned, often alongside one another, despite an enmity that was severe, and reinforced by no end of comments they made and--if they were not made directly one to the other--were passed on by others who heard them directly or heard about them from someone else.
Kennedy remained Johnson's Attorney General more more than a year with responsibility for issues of civil rights that the new president had put close to the top of his agenda. Kennedy and Johnson campaigned for one another in the presidential and New York senatorial elections of 1964. Both were careful to keep their feelings out of their public utterances, even while they were well known among Washington insiders and to journalists who did not keep those secrets.
Another aspect of coping?
Not at the macro-strategic level of Israel and United States coping with Iran and one another, but certainly at the personal level. Great issues were in the background, initially the Great Society and then Vietnam. Both men come across in Shesol's book as wavering on Vietnam as well as calculating what each statement or action would mean for their nemesis. Both had their doubts about Vietnam, but both began as firm believers in opposing the Communists. Kennedy--despite his eventual turn against the war in his 1964 presidential campaign--appeared even more than Johnson firmly committed to an strong anti-Communist posture initially, perhaps acquired along with other baggage from his father and his Catholic upbringing.
There are no clearly good guys and bad guys in this tale of personalities and politics at the top, except perhaps for the aides who could not resist pleasing their bosses and advancing themselves by spreading the bile they had heard being said by the other side. There were those who sought to make peace, and even wrote lengthy memos indicating how one or another of the principals might operate to bring about reconciliation. But the air was too spoiled, and the principals too twisted for any such thing to work.
There is no indication in this book, nor any other source that I am aware of, that the extreme personal animosity between Johnson and Robert Kennedy affected a major issue of public policy. Both were political professionals, which meant that they were experts at compartmentalizing and theatrics. They could cooperate in decisions of mutual interest while hating and/or fearing one another.
Both ended badly. Johnson announced his retirement mid-way through a primary campaign where he may have been embarrassed, and went down in history as fumbling the Great Society while going nowhere in a lousy war. A Palestinian killed Kennedy, even though neither Robert nor his brother were prominent as supporters of Israel.
Shesol notes several times that Johnson tried to prevent Kennedy's burial in Arlington Naitonal Cemetery, but the details suggest that it did not go beyond comments that could have been misunderstood, and were passed on by others in a way that added to the image of enmity. Johnson participated in the ceremonies alongside the widow. He kneeled on the grass with her and recited the Lord's prayer, and went along--some say relunctantly--with her request for a permanent memorial at Arlington (Chapter 18).
It is curious that Israel does not appear in Shesol's book. There are plenty of Jews in the story, most of them close to Robert Kennedy, but neither "Israel" nor "Jews" are in the index.
This absence may signify that Israel was no where near the place it currently occupies on the White House agenda. The personal contempt described in this book ends with Robert Kennedy's death in 1964. Then Israel was still a fragile and heroic place, more often idolized in the movies than condemned as conqueror and occupier. That came later, some years beyond 1967, when leftist worthies had gone beyond Nasser and Khartoum, and began idolizing Yassir Arafat.
For some, the 1964 version is still the Israel they idealize. I'll take the present country, warts and all.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at May 29, 2012 08:20 PM