The Quiet Power of Robert Caro

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.

8 Responses

  1. Not the only superstar
    Not the only superstar biographer – the other is Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of “Team of Rivals” (reportedly central to Obama’s choices for his Cabinet, although this is probably just the administration’s wishful thinking) and current Meet the Press panelist.

  2. While it is certainly curious
    While it is certainly curious how Caro seems reluctant to actually include the numeral “1961,” it is inaccurate to suggest that Caro skips the year 1961. He depicts the Kennedy inauguration, Johnson’s rather sad powerless presence in Washington, his desperate grab for some remnant of his Senatorial powers, his invitation to a meeting on Cuba in April, his physical decline after the Fourth of July, Johnson’s foreign trips in the summer (to the Taj Mahal, but Caro does indeed skip over Berlin), and so forth. Obviously it’s power that interests Caro first. And Caro would probably maintain that LBJ was fairly powerless in Berlin. (He certainly says that this is the mode he was in during his summer trips.) Any great biographer (and Caro certainly is one) is going to be selective. And I think you may be ignoring the thrust of the book in your effort to rabblerouse Caro fans such as myself. Why should Caro have included Berlin, Levi? How is this important to our understanding of LBJ?

  3. Jon Stewart interviewed him
    Jon Stewart interviewed him on his show not too long ago. Featured the Lyndon Johnson book.

  4. Thanks for pointing that out,
    Thanks for pointing that out, Alexander — I haven’t read her other books, but Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” was absolutely awesome. I guess I’ll try one of her others soon.

    Ed, well, like I said, I happened to have just read “Berlin 1961” by Frederick Kempe before reading “The Passage to Power”. This book emphasized three events in 1961 as a fulcrum of the Kennedy presidency — the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Kennedy’s disastrous meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna, and the building of the Berlin Wall. I was looking forward to reading a new perspective on this tumultuous year through the eyes of the Vice-President, and I was simply amazed that Caro chose to ignore the whole sequence of events. (While the crisis was mainly Kennedy’s, not LBJ’s, elsewhere in “The Passage to Power” Caro crosses the line between Kennedy’s story and Johnson’s freely and repeatedly).

    Is this omission because, as you say, it doesn’t feed into Caro’s interest in LBJ’s use of power? Maybe it is, and that’s why I’m mentioning it. As I wrote above, Caro writes biography with a free and loose hand. It’s interpretive political opinion, co-mingled with straight storytelling.

    But I’m not complaining — isn’t it obvious that this blog post is an enthusiastic endorsement of Robert Caro’s works? I was frustrated by parts of the new book, but this is the frustration of a longtime fan who knows what he wants and sometimes doesn’t get it. I’m always happy to “rabblerouse” (as you say) but in this instance I don’t think that’s what I was doing!

  5. Thanks for this. I have
    Thanks for this. I have mentioned this over the years here that I’ve found myself reading more biography than anything else.

    I was not familiar with Robert Caro, so thanks for turning me on to him.

    Robert Moses is a hugely important figure, one of the most powerful influential persons of the 20th century and he was not a politician and didn’t hold elective office.

    It’s always interesting to see what a biographer emphasizes compared to what he downplays or leaves out. I’m Californian so know Moses mainly with regard to the World’s Fair where Disney developed and presented at least three attractions that later moved to Disneyland (and there was a sculpture by a Disney artist called Tower of the Three Winds that never made it to Disneyland and is sadly probably lost forever).

    The other thing is Moses causing the Dodgers to move to LA because he would not allow Walter O’Malley to build a new stadium in Brooklyn. (O’Malley had been working on the design with, among others, Buckminster Fuller).

    But Moses wanted the stadium in Queens.

    How much does the Caro Moses biography cover this?

  6. TKG, that’s cool that you
    TKG, that’s cool that you knew about the legend of Robert Moses all the way over there on the west coast. I didn’t realize his fame had spread so far.

    Regarding the World’s Fair, he was very involved with the 1964-65 World’s Fair, which defined modern Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (my favorite park in NYC still!) … though I bet it was the earlier 1939 World’s Fair that influenced Walt Disney. I think Moses was also involved with this one, but not as directly as the later one. But, yes, the baseball stadium incidents do make it into the book.

    About whether or not he was a politician — well, I don’t know if the word fits in the strict sense, but I thought it fit well enough in the broad sense of the word — politics and public policy was his life’s work. Also, he did once run for Governor of New York State as a Republican, but lost!

  7. Interesting. I’d not known
    Interesting. I’d not known Moses ran for Governor. He probably did better — ie had more actual power — in unelected positions.

    The 1964 World’s Fair in Queens (its remnant made famous by the cover of the Queensboro Ballads LP) had a huge Disney component.

    Disney did four exhibits and one large sculpture, The Tower of the Four Winds.

    It was at the 1964 Worlds Fair that Disney first presented It’s a Small World, which was a Pepsi sponsored UNICEF exhibit. Disney did the audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln there first as the exhibit for the State of Illinois. They also presented the Carousel of Progress and the People Mover.

    Disney worked closely with Moses on the fair and butted heads with him as well.

    This link has a nice short article about Moses and Walt Disney.

    As far as O’Malley and the Dodgers, it seems Mose made it clear that the town wasn’t big enough for both of them, so O’Malley left.

    New York got the Mets and Shea instead of the Brooklyn Dodgers in a Buckminster Fuller designed stadium/convention center.

    I love history.

  8. According to Robert Caro, he
    According to Robert Caro, he was definitely better off in non-elected positions — he was very popular with New Yorkers, but he totally flopped as a candidate for Governor. He was bossy and impatient with the press, and cold and inaccessible to voters. Campaigning was not his thing.

    As for the Dodgers and the (eventual) Mets — it was sad to lose the Dodgers, but we’re happy with our Mets — whose new stadium was modeled to look like Ebbets Field!

    I hope you read the book, TKG — yes, I love history too. Thanks for remembering my Queensboro Ballads record.

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