Somewhere just before the publication of the fourth book in Robert Caro’s planned five-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, it became clear that Caro had emerged as the only superstar biographer in the world. The ecstatic level of anticipation, attention and appreciation for The Passage of Power was not grounded so much in fascination with Lyndon B. Johnson as in fascination with Robert A. Caro.
This is not because Lyndon B. Johnson was not fascinating; he is incredibly so. It’s because we’re all aware that we wouldn’t know how fascinating Lyndon Johnson was if we hadn’t read Caro’s earlier volumes, The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master Of The Senate, three sharp works of analytic interpretation that transform biography into something new, a tour de force of structured political opinion writing.
The masterpiece of the bunch remains the third volume, Master of the Senate, the story of LBJ’s engineering of the historic 1957 Civil Rights Bill, which broke a terrible political stalemate that had lingered since the American Civil War. The big breakthrough occurs at the end of the book, following a long beginning sequence about the United States Senate’s history of domination by Confederate-state obstructionists. In the middle of the book, Lyndon Johnson is painted at his aggressive worst, sucking up shamelessly to older politicians and destroying the career of one earnest do-gooder whose plans to improve energy infrastructure in poor sections of the country disturbed the business prospects of Johnson’s Texas sponsors. But this is all a wind-up to the book’s glorious ending, in which Johnson manipulates every section of the US Senate for a goal that turned out, miraculously, to be close to his heart: breaking the South’s stranglehold on civil rights legislation just enough to help usher in a new era of racial integration.
Robert Caro writes biography with a free and loose hand. Not many authors would have had the nerve to tee up a book about a Senator with an extensive, multi-decade history of the Senate itself, and it’s precisely because Caro dares narrative leaps like this that he is acclaimed as the best biographer working today. In his new The Passage to Power, which covers LBJ’s years as John F. Kennedy’s Vice-President and his first year as President, Caro takes his signature storytelling liberties to new heights, so much so that I became frustrated with sections of the book. Why, I wondered as I plodded through a long, long, long discussion of John F. Kennedy’s health problems as a young man, was I reading about John F. Kennedy when I wanted to be reading about Lyndon B. Johnson? The answer turned out to be that, again, a wind-up was taking place. The dire extent of young Kennedy’s health struggles were unknown to his fellow Senator and sometime-rival Johnson, and this caused Johnson to underestimate Kennedy’s strength of character. Caro needed to spend all those pages on Kennedy’s medical history to construct his point in exactly the way he wanted to construct it. This is just the way Caro works.
I also became frustrated at what Robert Caro chose to leave out of this volume, which roughly covers the years from 1960 to 1964, but somehow manages to skip the entire year of 1961. I recently read Frederick Kempe’s Berlin 1961, so I know that Vice President Johnson traveled to Berlin during the momentous Berlin Wall global crisis. The trip to Berlin doesn’t appear in Caro’s book, and in fact the entire crisis doesn’t appear in Caro’s book. Why? I really can’t imagine. But once The Passage to Power swings around to the story it wants to tell — Johnson’s bitter rivalry with the President’s younger brother Robert Kennedy, his humiliating social ostracism as an old cowboy in youthful Camelot-era Washington DC, and finally his swift and skillful assumption of Presidential authority immediately following Kennedy’s assassination — I was ready to forgive all the book’s excesses. Again, this is just how Robert Caro works.
As much as I enjoy and learn from Caro’s LBJ volumes, I will always remain fondest of his first biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Because I was born in New York City and grew up in suburban Long Island, I’m familiar with the amazing legend of Robert Moses, the innovative builder of highways and bridges and beaches and parks who dominated New York’s city and state government from the 1930s through the early 1960s. The book may not be as interesting as the LBJ series to non-New Yorkers, but it does tell thrilling tales about the conditions of Manhattan playgrounds in the 1920s and the invention of Long Island’s Jones Beach. It is also the earliest demonstration of the Robert Caro method. The Robert Moses story and the Lyndon B. Johnson story have a lot in common.
Both men were masters in their fields, and both maintained powerful political careers of unusual longevity. Both were “bosses” — BIG bosses — and it’s no accident that the word “Power”, clearly Robert Caro’s favorite word, appears in the title of the Moses book and two of the Johnson books. Indeed, the Moses and Johnson biographies can be read together as a matched pair, and a single theme emerges: the insidious ways that clever politicians can gather and abuse power — sometimes for good, sometimes for evil — in a modern democratic society.
But Robert Caro loves and admires his subjects, even as he slashes at their offenses and crimes. He probably loves Lyndon Johnson a little more than he loves Robert Moses, because Moses’s selfish and arrogant excesses were sometimes cruel or sadistic, while Johnson’s were merely highly obnoxious (for example, Moses disinherited his own brother and ruined his life, while Johnson only forced his Senate aides to take dictation from him while he sat on the toilet). But Caro also goes the extra mile to emphasize positive characteristics: Johnson truly cared about helping poor Americans, and the invincible Robert Moses appears to have once allowed himself to lose a public battle over park policy, because the beneficiary was a Shakespeare festival he secretly liked.
If I had time, I would write a parody biography of Robert A. Caro, in his own signature style, called The Power To Empower Criticism of Power. I’d include lengthy sections on seemingly tangential episodes in his life or the lives of his acquaintances, and I’d make him appear both miraculously good and terribly evil. I’d emphasize Caro’s own abuses of power — because, in fact, this brainy journalist has emerged as more powerful than either Lyndon B. Johnson or Robert Moses. Their stories for posterity have now been written by him, and I doubt either of them would be thrilled with what he had to say. That’s just the way Robert A. Caro works.