Magazine article The Spectator

The Evolution of Hatred

Magazine article The Spectator

The Evolution of Hatred

Article excerpt

On the afternoon of 9 July 1960, Jeff Shesol informs us in his massive exploration of politics and personalities and the paranoia that animated them for nearly a decade, Robert F. Kennedy consumed a late lunch consisting of a turkey sandwich and a glass of milk and expressed his preference for Washington Senator Henry Jackson as John F. Kennedy's vice-presidential running mate. So it goes for nearly 600 pages of relatively small print, and if you are fascinated by such matters as what Bobby Kennedy said to campaign aide Ken O'Donnell about Lyndon Johnson's possible effect on the 1960 Democratic ticket as he lay in the bathtub at 6.30 on the morning of 14 July 1960 or, for that matter, by President Lyndon Johnson's reluctance to allow the murdered Bobby to rest in Arlington National Cemetery next to the grave of his elder brother and what sort of expletives Johnson employed to characterise the most recently deceased Kennedy, then this is the book for you.

Mr Shesol, a graduate of Brown University and a Rhodes Scholar, has assembled a gargantuan record of the evolution of the hatred that Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson felt for each other, and in the process he has also assembled what is surely one of the most detailed, not to say pedantic, volumes on recent American political history ever written. The level of detail would be excusable if very much of it served to illuminate anything of importance in the eight or nine years that his book covers, but by the time one reaches page 475 one has long since despaired of any such hope. Mr Shesol has indeed explored some important episodes of the period - the Cuban missile crisis, the development of the Vietnam war, most of the political decisions of both Kennedy brothers and of Johnson himself, among others - but it is never clear why these explorations are best understood within the frame of the mutual hatred that is the author's theme, and, in the end, his effort does not seem justifiable.

Whether the differences and conflicts between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the substance of what they each believed about political issues were really driven by their personal dislike for each other or whether their dislikes were the product of serious political differences remains as murky as ever. At the beginning of his last chapter Mr Shesol finally confesses:

Issues divided personalities, grudges stoked policy disputes, honest differences created political opportunities and vice versa. Where a 'grudge' ended and an `honest difference' began was anyone's guess.

We did not need the preceding 464 pages to know this, and if Mr Shesol is unable to explain such endings and beginnings by that point, one is forced to demand of him what his purpose is.

Nevertheless, what does evolve from this large record is the barrenness of the 'liberalism' that underlay the political belief and policies that both Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson professed, and in that sense the exploration of the personalities that fed their hatred and their egos is productive. Their hostility derived from several things - the class, regional, and educational differences between the two men as well as their different temperaments and, of course, the circumstances by which Johnson acquired the presidency - but neither personality emerges as a healthy one. Some years ago, in reviewing the KennedyJohnson speechwriter Richard Goodwin's memoirs, I faulted the author for speaking carelessly of Lyndon Johnson's 'paranoia'. …

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