Saturday, January 10, 2015

Robert Caro on Lyndon B Johnson

I recently summed up my reading over the past few months, and signed off by mentioning I'd write separately about Robert Caro's magnificent biography of LBJ. So here we go.

A publishing-world fellow once told me there are two kinds of biographies. There's the kind where the author spends a decade immersing himself (or herself) in the life of their subject, reading everything they can find, listening to every recording and so on, and then tries to tell the full story of a life. The other way to write a biography is to single out an interesting aspect and write a short book focusing on that.

Robert Caro has taken a third track. He has dedicated a lifetime to telling about a life.

His first volume of what he then intended to be a 3-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson,   The Path to Power, was first published in 1981. I assume Caro had already been working on it at the very least five or six years, so he was no more than 40 when he started. 34 years later, approaching 80, he is still working on the fifth and final volume; so far, he's been publishing a volume each decade: Means of Ascent in 1990, Master Of The Senate in 2002, and The Passage of Power in 2012. (He wrote an earlier biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which I'm told is excellent, but I haven't yet read).

I fervently wish Caro many years of fine health and additional creativity, and I admit I admit I hope he's got a plan for the plausible case that as he enters his 9th decade his output slows down, but no matter what happens next, he has already spent about 40 years learning and telling about Johnson - which is about the time-span between Johnson's early adulthood and the end of his presidency. In other words, Caro is spending almost as many years on Johnson's life, as Johnson spent living it. To the best of my knowledge, this is unprecedented.

Fortunately, the result is well worth the effort.

Those of us who remember as children or teenagers how utterly reviled Lydon Bains Johnson was, may have had a sneaking suspicion over the years that President Johnson was actually a more important, and more positive president than our early memories indicate. Kennedy was Camelot and all that, and his sudden death was a trauma we can personally remember as an emotional peak of our childhood, but seen from the growing distance, the drab successor who derailed America into Vietnam may have been considerably more important. While Caro has not yet published the volume on the presidency, it's clear from the story so far that Johnson was not only more important than Kennedy, he has one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century.

And, perhaps, also one of the worst. The glory of Caro's biography is that he convincingly tells the story of one of America's greatest and most deeply flawed leaders; that he brings to life a giant of a man who combined unusual size ( almost 6ft 4), unusual intelligence, unusual cunning, unusual callousness, unusual political brutality, and a very unusual ability to wield the power of government for the benefit of society's downtrodden and weak. Ah, and corruption, cheating, cussedness, meanness, dishonesty and greatness of spirit. Those too.

Caro does all this with a style of writing which is breathtaking. There are sections of the books which are gripping page-turners of the highest order. The 100-pages or so in which he describes the machinations by which Johnson stole his election to the Senate in 1948 are easily as good as any legal yarn I've ever read. The description of LBJ taking control of the government in the hours and days after the assassination of JFK, even as the entire world was engrossed in the pageantry of the mourning and funeral, is riveting.

The title of the full biography is "The Years of Lyndon Johnson", and Caro often spends big chunks of his books to tell tangential stories. The first volume has a potted history of Texas, but a poignant detailed story of the Hill Country, the area which lured Johnson's forbears and then trapped them in back-breaking poverty. It also has a long and loving chapter about Sam Rayburn, the Texan who enabled Johnson's rise more than any other. The section about Johnson's earliest years in Washington, as the secretary of newly-elected Congressman Richard Kleberg, offer an understanding of the mechanics of the capitol which is both fascinating, essential to a political biography, and starts a strand of the tale which then explodes into view with the story of how in January 1964 LBJ knew how to pass legislation from the White House as none of his predecessors ever had.

There's an almost hagiographic chapter about Coke Stevenson, the governor of Texas who won the election to the Senate in 1948 which Johnson then stole; Caro contrasts the white knight from the past, with the dark political operator who portends the future in ways far greater than either of the two men personally. Senator Richard Russel of Georgia gets a biographical section of his own. There's a long section with a history of the Senate which needs to be mandatory reading for anyone who wishes to understand American politics. Actually, the entire third volume, the Master of the Senate, needs to be mandatory reading.

All of it leads to the cliff-hanging tension of the fourth volume. Johnson's weaknesses block him from doing his best to become president, and as Kennedy's vice president he slips ever deeper into irrelevance; in November 1963 the uglier aspects of his public life are combining to burst into public view in a manner which will certainly destroy him politically forever. Then, with a single fatal gunshot, his decades of preparations enable him to forge the presidency in the shape of his greatness with seven short weeks.

Read it. It may be the best political biography you'll read.

1 comment:

David said...

I remember LBJ well (I think that I am a few years older than you, Yaacov) and, although I came to hate his war in Vietnam, I have always, through all of my changes in political ideology, felt that he has never gotten proper credit for his enormous accomplishments. The battle for the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 was as furious as any political battle could be, short of producing civil war, and it was overwhelmingly Johnson who won it for the forces of decency. He had many soldiers in his army and the foundation of his victory had been laid by many others, of whom Martin Luther King is the archetypical figure, but it was Johnson who pulled off the final victory. Although many things in American society have improved since 1965, we have seen no step forward for American society of that magnitude since. For all of his mistakes and tortured soul, we owe him a debt of gratitude greater than any other president except for Lincoln, Washington, FDR, and maybe Jefferson.