Kremlinology in Camelot

Kremlinology, as defined by the OED, is “the study and analysis of the Soviet Government, and subsequently the Russian government, and their policies”. A sharper definition would explain that in the absence of the sort of open information about the workings of the Soviet government, western observers of Soviet affairs would bring almost occult skills of analysis to whatever scant information they could get: a handshake given (or withheld) at an official ceremony would lead to elaborate extrapolations about the likely direction of policy; photos of the same ceremony issued by the state media might give rise to theories that such-and-such a general was about to be liquidated, or already had been; and so on. Frequently these extrapolations rested mostly on the imagination of the analyst, as I was reminded by a recent article on Iran which described the fanciful analyses produced by “the sublimated Kremlinology that passes for Iran-watching” in Washington.

What, I wonder, would a Kremlinologist have made of this photo?

Bobby Kennedy and LBJ

Francis Miller/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Click image for source

On the right is Lyndon B. Johnson, president of the USA. On the left is Robert F. Kennedy, attorney-general, and younger brother of John F. Kennedy, whose assassination in Dallas had given LBJ the presidency. The two men are at an official ceremony: the ground-breaking ceremony for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., December 1964.

The point of Kremlinology was that it made use of occult readings of scant information because the processes of Soviet decision-making were closed, secretive, and restricted to a party elite: in a one-party system with strict control of the media, Soviet citizens and western observers alike had no ready supply of information about how policy was formed. Second-guessing the existence of rivalries and power-battles by (over-)interpreting the public appearances (or disappearances) of the few people whose decisions mattered was all that was left. All of this, of course, was supposedly by contrast with the open workings of power in liberal democracies, where legislatures, executives, and judiciaries all operate according to publicly-known rules, their activities often public also, and all under the watchful eye of a free and independent media.

Did American citizens know how much Bobby Kennedy hated LBJ, though, or that only the national crisis after JFK’s assassination saved Johnson from a congressional probe that threatened to expose his extremely suspect financial dealings? It’s easy to imagine Soviet analysts drawing the same sort of insights into the inner workings of Camelot, JFK’s magic circle of bright young advisers, from the shrugs, sneers, handshakes given or refused. Consider this:

Bobby had a long history of trying not to see Johnson, of resenting it when forced to acknowledge his presence; and he loathed shaking his hand. It began with their very first recorded meeting, in 1953. Lyndon Johnson came into the Senate cafeteria for his customary breakfast there. He was trailing his entourage, radiating his power as minority leader. He passed the table of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was sitting near the entrance with three or four staffers, including a newcomer to his team, twenty-seven-year-old Robert Kennedy, who had just got this job through the influence of his father, a McCarthy supporter. Johnson knew about that arrangement, as he did all the things that went on in “his” Senate. Johnson had mocked Joe Kennedy all over town and despised Joe McCarthy as a loose cannon in the Senate. He also did not think much of the newly elected senator John Kennedy, whom he would soon be calling a sickly absentee from the Senate and “not a man’s man.”

Yet McCarthy, with his coarse affability, leaped to his feet when Johnson approached, greeted him as “Leader,” and shook his hand. His aides followed suit, all but one, who remained seated, with an expression of distaste. Bobby knew what Johnson had been saying about his father and his boss, and he always bristled at slights directed at his own revered family. He refused to get up, or even to look at Johnson. Johnson, whose own history of humiliations Caro has traced in earlier volumes, was just as quick to sense contempt, and determined to crush it if he could. He was a bully and a sadist, and he took the earliest opportunity to force Kennedy to submit to the dreaded handshake. He went right up to him, towering over him (he always put his height to use) and crowded at him with a half-extended hand. Finally, in the embarrassment of a growing silence, Kennedy rose and, with averted eyes, shook Johnson’s hand. Johnson felt he had made this lowly staffer crawl. It would prove to be a costly victory.

The depth of hatred between Bobby Kennedy and LBJ, in particular, and the influence it had during John F. Kennedy’s presidency and following his death, was remarkable. Here’s another handshake, this one from November 1963, after Johnson’s address to Congress following JFK’s assassination. (Bettmann/Corbis; click for source.) Have you ever seen a smile look more like someone wrinkling their nose at the smell of a fresh turd than Kennedy’s here? And it’s not so much a handshake as an awkward clutch: Kennedy looks like he’d rather be holding a red-hot iron, but Johnson has got him firmly in his grasp. “I’ll cut his throat if it’s the last thing I do,” he once told a friend.

Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson after Johnson’s address to Congress following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, November 1963Robert Caro has been writing his biography of Lyndon B. Johnson for decades: it is over thirty years since the first volume was published, in 1982. The fourth volume of a planned five came out last year, with this volume alone weighing in at over 700 pages: if ever a work of non-fiction deserved the adjective ‘monumental’, this is it. I don’t think I’ll ever have the time to read it; but I’m very grateful to Garry Wills and David Runciman for reading the fourth volume, at least, and writing long and thoughtful reviews of it in the NYRB and the LRB respectively. Wills focuses on ‘America’s nastiest blood feud’:

I doubt that Caro, when he began his huge project, thought he would end up composing a moral disquisition on the nature of hatred. But that is what, in effect, he has given us.

Runciman focuses more on Johnson’s own massively forceful, tortured personality—though both reviewers quote JFK telling one of his aides how to treat his vice-president:

You are dealing with a very insecure, sensitive man with a huge ego. I want you literally to kiss his fanny from one end of Washington to the other.

(Note for British readers: it means something different over there.) Both reviews make for compelling reading, in a grim, so-horrible-you-have-to-look kind of way. It sounds like the book does, too. I wonder if there are any retired Russian intelligence analysts reading it and nodding, thinking, “Yes—I was right all along”?

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