View Full Version : Robert Caro's multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson

05-08-2012, 07:00 AM

As a young man, Robert A. Caro was a newspaper reporter.

Caro is the painstaking, some would say obsessive (though he has always denied it) writer, whose first book, “The Power Broker, a 1,336-page biography of Robert Moses, took him seven years to complete — after which he turned to his true life’s work (perhaps even his true obsession), a multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson, the fourth volume of which, “The Passage of Power,” has just been published to great acclaim, reviewed in The New York Times by none other than former President Bill Clinton and which has been 36 years in the making. So far.

Working for a newspaper meant meeting deadlines, deadlines that, yes, allowed the paper to come out the next day, but also meant, all too often, compromises. Caro couldn’t repeat himself in a newspaper article; he couldn’t say the same thing five, six, seven times, until he was sure — absolutely sure — that the reader got the point. He couldn’t include all the many stray facts he had uncovered. Sometimes, words even had to be cut from a Robert A. Caro newspaper article — cut ruthlessly, mercilessly, by editors who didn’t understand the importance of those words, or the significance of those seemingly stray facts.

But once Caro turned to books, and, especially, once he began working on his L.B.J. biography in the mid-1970s, all the previous obstacles fell away. He would spend years — nay, decades — in the field, finding stray facts no one else had ever known existed. And then, when he started writing, he couldn’t stop. Other, lesser authors had deadlines, but not Caro. He turned in each volume only when he was ready, and sometimes a decade passed between volumes — so much time, in fact, that he began quoting his previous books in his newer books. Originally intended to be three volumes, written over maybe a half-dozen years, his L.B.J. biography eventually stretched to four, and then five. The fifth, which Caro has yet to write, is supposed to be the last one.

There was something unquestionably awe-inspiring about Caro’s quest to create a biography as big as Johnson’s life. The third volume, especially, entitled “Master of the Senate” — Caro’s 1,167-page account of Johnson’s years as the Senate majority leader — was immediately hailed as one of the greatest illuminations of power ever written.

But was there also something about Caro’s pursuit of L.B.J. that was just a little bit Ahab-like?

“I can’t imagine this being done or even attempted by anyone else,” his publisher, Sonny Mehta, told Esquire magazine. “He’s given over so much of his life to another guy.” Mehta meant it as a compliment, but it did make you wonder: Was any biography worth nearly half the writer’s life? To write his new book, which weighs in at a mere 712 pages, Caro spent 10 years recounting just six years, from 1958 to 1964, three in which very little happened, since, as John F. Kennedy’s vice president, Johnson had little to do. Yet every time you had a thought like that, you hit a chapter that reminded you anew of Caro’s literary powers. In “The Passage of Power,” for instance, Caro retells the Kennedy assassination — a story that has been written hundreds of times before. Yet Caro makes it feel completely fresh, spellbinding even.

There were other problems, however.

In the first two volumes, published in 1982 and 1990, Caro’s Johnson is a man with a “hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them,” as Caro wrote in “The Path to Power,” the first volume. Johnson has almost no redeeming qualities in the first two books. Yet how could this same man, at the end of Volume 4, push through the landmark Civil Rights Act as president? How does Caro square this great achievement — as well as all the other liberal achievements to come — with his portrayal of the power-mad Johnson in the earlier volumes?

In truth, he never really does. If the Johnson of Volumes 1 and 2 is the “bad” L.B.J., then the Johnson of Volume 4 is the “good” one. It is almost as if Caro is writing about two different people — as if, for all his reportorial skill, he can’t countenance Johnson being both ruthless and compassionate in the same volume. He has to be one or the other.

So here we are — and here he is, at the age of 76 — four volumes later, and there is so much more yet to tell. Caro still has the Goldwater race to cover, and the legislative achievements that follow. And, of course, there is still Vietnam to write about. Nearly half a life later, in other words, Caro is finally getting to the heart of the matter.

One could imagine other writers managing to squeeze it all into the one final volume being contemplated. But Robert A. Caro? Not a chance.


“The Passage of Power,” the fourth installment of Robert Caro’s brilliant series on Lyndon Johnson, spans roughly five years, beginning shortly before the 1960 presidential contest, including the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis and other seminal events of the Kennedy years, and ending a few months after the awful afternoon in Dallas that elevated L.B.J. to the presidency.

Among the most interesting and important episodes Caro chronicles are those involving the new president’s ability to maneuver bills out of legislative committees and onto the floor of the House and Senate for a vote. One of those bills would later become the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

You don’t have to be a policy wonk to marvel at the political skill L.B.J. wielded to resuscitate a bill that seemed doomed to never get a vote on the floor of either chamber. Southern Democrats were masters at bottling up legislation they hated, particularly bills expanding civil rights for black Americans. Their skills at obstruction were so admired that the newly sworn-in Johnson was firmly counseled by an ally against using the political capital he’d inherited as a result of the assassination on such a hopeless cause.

According to Caro, Johnson responded, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

This is the question every president must ask and answer. For Lyndon Johnson in the final weeks of 1963, the presidency was for two things: passing a civil rights bill with teeth, to replace the much weaker 1957 law he’d helped to pass as Senate majority leader, and launching the War on Poverty. That neither of these causes was in fact hopeless was clear possibly only to him, as few Americans in our history have matched Johnson’s knowledge of how to move legislation, and legislators.

It’s wonderful to watch Johnson’s confidence catch fire and spread to the shellshocked survivors of the Kennedy administration as it dawned on them that the man who was once Master of the Senate would now be a chief executive with more ability to move legislation through the House and Senate than just about any other president in history. Johnson’s fire spread outward until it touched the entire country during his first State of the Union address. The words were written by Kennedy’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen, but their impact would be felt in the magic L.B.J. worked over the next seven weeks.

Exactly how L.B.J. did it was perfectly captured later by Hubert Humphrey — the man the president chose as his vote counter for the civil rights bill and his Senate proxy to carve its passage.

Humphrey said Johnson “knew just how to get to me.”

In sparkling detail, Caro shows the new president’s genius for getting to people — friends, foes and everyone in between — and how he used it to achieve his goals. We’ve all seen the iconic photos of L.B.J. leaning into a conversation, poking his thick finger into a confidant’s chest or wrapping his long arm around a shoulder. At 6 foot 4, he towered over most men, but even seated Johnson commanded from on high. Caro relates how during a conversation about civil rights, he placed Roy Wilkins and his N.A.A.C.P. entourage on one of the couches in the Oval Office, yet still towered over them as he sat up close in his rocking chair. And he didn’t need to be in the same room — he was great at manipulating, cajoling and even bullying over the phone.

He knew just how to get to you, and he was relentless in doing it.

If you were a partisan, he’d call on your patriotism; if a traditionalist, he’d make his proposal seem to be the Establishment choice. His flattery was minutely detailed, finely tuned and perfectly modulated. So was his bombast — whatever worked. L.B.J. didn’t kiss Sam Rayburn’s ring, but his lips did press against his bald head. Harry Byrd received deference and attention. When L.B.J. became president, he finally had the power to match his political skills.


Robert Caro talks about The Passage of Power, book four of his monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson. It follows Johnson through both the most frustrating and the most successful periods of his career—1958 to1964, when traded his powerful position as Senate Majority Leader for what became the powerlessness of the vice presidency in an administration that didn’t trust him, and then had the presidency thrust upon him when President Kennedy was assassinated.

05-08-2012, 07:02 AM
Anyone read these books? Sounds fascinating and exhaustive.

05-08-2012, 06:31 PM
I've read the reviews in the Wall Street Journal and, I agree, they sound fascinating. If and when my local library gets them, I may check them out.


05-10-2012, 06:42 AM
I wonder if there will be a nice limited edition boxset released with the final volume? :)