JEFF SHESOL, Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade (New York: Norton, 1997), 475 pp., $32.50 cloth (ISBN 0-393-04078-X).
How did the Lyndon B. Johnson-Robert Kennedy "feud" influence American politics in the years after 19687 According to Jeff Shesol, "The rivalry between [Johnson and Kennedy] was of [such] a magnitude" that it was "of greater importance than any of the postwar era" (p. 1). The personal bitterness between the two men formed the catalyst for divisions in the Democratic party. These divisions have remained and are pivotal to the conduct of Democratic party politics during the Clinton administration. "The long shadow of the Johnson-Kennedy feud looms above today's clash between `Old' and `New' Democrats. Johnson and Kennedy's struggle for power, a focal point of the Democratic search for identity, is a lens through which to examine these larger divisions" (p. 9).
Shesol begins by exploring the nature of the 1960 campaign for the Democratic nomination. Johnson, who had presidential ambitions, failed to take the necessary organizational steps to secure the nomination. Johnson's behavior confused RFK, who interpreted Johnson's conduct as manipulative. These feelings, in turn, contributed to bitterness between the two men before Johnson was offered the vice presidential nomination. The author does an admirable job of exploring the circumstances surrounding John F. Kennedy's offer of the vice presidential nomination to Johnson. Given the complexity of the events of 1960, this is one of the major strengths of this book.
Shesol presents excellent coverage of Johnson's transition from majority leader to vice president. Accustomed to the power of the Senate, Johnson sought to transform the vice presidency into an institution with major influence. Following the election of Mike Mansfield as the new majority leader on January 3, 1961, Mansfield, under Johnson's influence, "proposed that Johnson be invited to preside over all future caucus meetings" (p. 63). The proposal produced substantial opposition among the Senate Democrats. This pivotal moment was the beginning of Johnson's tenure as vice president, a period characterized by frustration. Shesol describes this as a conflict between the vice president and the "assistant president," Robert F. Kennedy.
Equally impressive, Shesol describes the dynamics of the power relationship after Johnson assumed the presidency. Initially, this took the...