The undiminished power of Robert Caro

I am 532 pages into Robert A. Caro’s The Passage Of Power, the fourth installment of what was originally meant to be a three-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. Caro is now doing five volumes in all…or at least that’s what he is saying at the moment. A sixth book would not be out of bounds, on the precedent of Dumas Malone’s series on Thomas Jefferson, but five will probably do the trick. Johnson did not have the fascinating, full post-presidential life Jefferson did; he seems to have practically sprinted toward death after he was driven out of the White House.

There has been some discussion of Caro’s LBJ series as possibly the last of its kind—the multivolume biography whose creation takes up half or more of the life of a master prose artist. I find the idea funny. In their real lives, monumental figures like Johnson, or even much less accomplished and ambitious leaders, unthinkingly consume the time and energy of hundreds of bootlicking devotees. Nay, any simple count of just the people who died premature deaths because of Johnson’s policies would smash upward through six digits pretty quickly. And what of the American lives altered in the meantime by the programs of the Great Society? Hint: that would be literally all of them.

Can it really be too much to ask, then, that an independent thinker and gifted historian like Bob Caro should spend forty years studying Johnson? If forty men spent forty years on the task, that would not seem like too much. And anybody who has read the first three books in The Years of Lyndon Johnson knows that the series is not just the story of a remarkable individual: it is the story of the 20th century, near-essential reading for anyone who wishes to comprehend the United States Congress (and particularly the Senate), the nation-within-a-federation known as Texas, or any of a dozen other topics. Volume Four contains, for example, the clearest practical explanation I have ever seen of why the U.S. vice-presidency is such a nullity—why it could not be turned into a power base even by a genius like LBJ, who had literally spent his whole life transforming crappy ceremonial jobs like “Speaker of the Little Congress” into overwhelming political fortifications. Given the vice-presidency, he couldn’t pull it off again. It nearly drove him mad. It was an unsquareable circle.

Volume Four also reveals new details of the overrehearsed history of the Kennedys, authoritatively establishing the facts of Johnson’s blood feud with Bobby and showing how Johnson was reluctantly added to the 1960 presidential ticket (despite Bobby melting down and spending an entire day, probably behind his brother’s crippled back, trying to persuade Johnson not to accept the offer). It goes behind the scenes of the assassination drama, showing how Johnson began to build a new administration before Air Force One even left Love Field on Nov. 22. While still at Parkland Hospital waiting for the final word on the wounded president, for example, LBJ sent an aide to go find Jack Valenti, a Houston public-relations man Johnson remembered mostly from a few rhapsodic newspaper columns. Valenti boarded the plane, got into the famous photo, followed Johnson to Washington, and parlayed a few thousand words of kiss-ass into four decades of running Hollywood.

For the first time, one of Caro’s books has been released with a slight whiff of hype, with dueling (and oddly overlapping) profiles of the maestro appearing more or less simultaneously in Esquire and the New York Times Magazine. Both articles fetishize Caro’s antiquated, intricate creative process: gosh, can you believe he wrangles all those documents and interviews without even using a computer? Well, pardon me, but duh. We already knew you didn’t need a computer to be Macaulay or Mommsen or Ranke. What these articles tell us, despite themselves, is that if Caro found it natural to use a computer, he would probably find it quite helpful. He insists that he writes quickly, and while this is obviously a fib, computers would reduce the time he does spend on pure cross-referencing and document flow.

His successor will find it thus, anyway. And there is bound to be one, irrespective of how the internet has changed publishing-business models and reader habits. Historians of Caro’s type and calibre are never common, and have rarely if ever paid their own way on a pure commercial basis. All the same, the English-speaking world has spit them out pretty reliably, at long intervals, since Gibbon. In fact, while we’re speaking of Gibbon, let’s recall that the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in an England of seven million souls, about half of whom could not write their own names. Kind of puts the “challenge” of finding room on the shelf next to the Xbox in perspective, doesn’t it? It’s a simple matter: you just have to be able to write like Gibbon. Or like Caro.

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