Published for www.commentarymagazine.com, May 25, 2012

In his review  in the New York Review of Books of the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, Garry Wills focused on the relationship between Johnson and Robert Kennedy. It was, in Wills’ words, “a study in hate … radiating reciprocal hostilities at every step in the story.” Their interactions were “venomous.”

“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,” writes Wills.

Hate is a complicated topic. For one thing, hate itself is not in every instance wrong. The Hebrew Bible makes it clear that there are things that God Himself hates (see Proverbs 6:16-19 for more). But for those of us who are mortal, hate can be a destructive thing.

Its wellsprings vary, from sadism to an irrational aversion to someone or some group of people (which often manifests itself as racial or ethnic prejudice) to a response based on fear, injury, or having been on the receiving end of a great injustice. A father, for example, will probably feel hatred for a person who harms his child, for reasons we can easily identify with. But the revulsion and rage between Johnson and Kennedy was far less understandable and much pettier. And in many ways it consumed them. They attempted to humiliate and destroy one another.

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