Robert Caro and American History

Robert Caro is a dinosaur, and we should be thankful.  So we have it from no lesser than Charles McGrath on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.  Caro’s work is brilliant.  So we have it from former President William Jefferson Clinton in the cover article of the New York Times Book Review.  In appearances all across America’s media, Robert Caro is praised and saluted for his most recent installment, the fourth, of his proposed five volume work on Lyndon Baines Johnson, who, according to Caro and most of the rest of the world, brought us as a nation so much good, though he may not have been.

Some of the effusive media elite may be too young or historically ignorant to know who Billie Sol Estes was, though Bill Clinton has neither of these excuses, as surely the 75-year-old Caro doesn’t, but the idea of writing what is extolled as being the definitive biography of this enormous figure and president, particularly with regard to the crucial years from 1958 to early 1964, without mentioning Billie Sol Estes is, simply, ridiculous, absurd, preposterous, astounding, dumbfounding, impossible, and…suspicious.

When such prominence in the headlines of the pinnacle of American media power is bestowed, and by a former president with his own questionable legacy and Shakespearean life story, at what point is it acceptable to think the sale of a bill of goods is being transacted?

Why should anyone consider mistrust in the face of two thousand pages of meticulous research and engaging prose?  Billie Sol Estes is only one of a number of very good reasons, but an excellent place to start.  Billie Sol was a close associate of LBJ from the hill country of Texas who went to prison and served 14 years for a variety of crimes that lead to his significant wealth and power.  There are a number of matters that require his presence in any biography of LBJ, but his appearance before the Robertson County Grand Jury after his release from prison in 1984 is possibly first among them.  There he testified that LBJ conspired to have a man murdered.
That will be a surprise to readers of the famed Caro oeuvre.  For some reason the basic principles of homicide investigation are lost on Mr. Caro, and stunningly, it is homicide, the most famous of the last century, that is at the heart of his most recent effort.  He takes us into the cars of the motorcade traveling through Dealey Plaza, and paints the picture of the atrocity from many of the participants’ personal points of view, including the man who any criminal investigator should have considered a prime suspect, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

But he doesn’t get to Dealey Plaza until he has demonstrated in complex detail all of the reasons why LBJ, not wanted or desired, or would have considered, but needed to have JFK dead.  In the course of a senatorial investigation by that body’s most honest and tenacious truth seeker, Delaware’s Senator John J., “Whispering Willie”, Williams, Maryland insurance broker, Don Reynolds was being pre-interviewed and producing documents which disclosed LBJ’s insurance kickback corruption as the bullets entered JFK’s body.  Life Magazine was preparing an expose on where LBJ’s $15 million came from on a public servant’s salary.  Caro presents seemingly every one the lurid details of the corruption streaming from LBJ’s de facto ownership of media outlets in Texas.  And, Kennedy was dumping him from the ticket in 1964.  The historical record on this score is plenty complicated, but Caro cuts through it all and leaves very little doubt of the fact in the end, that LBJ’s one chance of a place in the White House, for every one of the wonderful purposes only the diehards and obdurates would not concede were his goals, was vanishing as he sat waiting in inactivity in his vice presidential office, the nation and the world humming with adulation for the man who then held the reigns of power and LBJ’s future disgrace in his very hands.

Caro puts all of those numbers, with riveting detail, on the board, but then decides not to add them up.  He says his searches have found nothing, but he also alludes to books that paint LBJ as the father of the conspiracy.  Why are we not allowed some view of what might be contained in those books, assuming it is not imaginative or imaginary?

In Philip Nelson’s book, LBJ, The Mastermind of JFK’s Assassination, we learn, most significantly, that in 1998 Malcolm Wallace’s fingerprint was matched to a latent fingerprint lifted from Box A that was part of the sniper’s nest on the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository.   That is important to an understanding of LBJ’s role in the death of JFK because Malcolm Wallace was, according to Billie Sol Estes and a whole lot of other evidence, the man who did LBJ’s dirty work, a man who was convicted of first degree murder in Texas in 1947 but was given probation. Estes was part of the conversation between Wallace and Johnson which led to the death of Agricultural Inspector Henry Marshall by five gunshots and a beating to the head, creatively termed “suicide” by the Johnson-friendly Justice of the Peace, without an autopsy.

Nelson also shows us another piece of evidence directly relating to LBJ, JFK, and Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963.  James Altgens was a photographer who happens to have snapped the picture that froze the moment of the beginning of the assassination of the president.  He stood on the overpass of the Stemmons Freeway and shot back up into Dealey Plaza and captured, not just JFK as he reacts to being hit with a bullet in the back while every other person, to a man or woman in the motorcade, sits unaware, expressionless, smiling, or waving to the crowd, but obviously clueless as to what has just at that instant taken place…except one.

Three cars back, in the vice presidential limousine, close inspection reveals the driver of the car behind the wheel, Secret Service Agent Youngblood in the front passenger seat, Senator Ralph Yarborough, very much against his will but at the insistence of a not-to-be-denied President Kennedy, as admirably recounted by Caro, in the left back seat, Lady Bird Johnson in the middle of the back seat, and….nothing.  Which is to say, there is no one visible in the right back seat where LBJ unquestionably was.  Which is to say that LBJ was ducking down out of harm’s way, or tying his shoe, or scratching his ankle, or any of the other innumerable other possible explanations that he or his defenders might want to suggest, were it ever to become an issue, which is absolutely not going to happen as long as Robert Caro gets to do his work in support of the New York Times sadly-unraveled offering of American history, with all of the substructure of media obeisance that that implies..

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