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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Robert Caro Asks Us to Share His Obsession: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

Posted By on Thu, May 17, 2012 at 9:30 AM

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One of the fun things about Robert Caro's massively ambitious four-volume (so far) biography of Lyndon Johnson is the way the author invites readers to share in his obsession with our 36th president. Filtering vast research through a skilled, vivid narrative voice, Caro has spent 40 years on four volumes. The most recent of those, The Passage of Power, was released two weeks ago, and it finally makes a dent in Johnson's presidency; the second half of the book covers his first several weeks in office.

In the summer of 2002, I spent a week in the fresh mountain heat of Lake Tahoe but felt like I was actually in the dry vastness of Texas hill country. I was reading The Path to Power, the first volume of Caro's series. However, as far as the power and capacity of these books, being "transported" is only a fringe benefit. Caro's work goes beyond biography and reaches the highest level of literary achievement, superseding considerations of genre.

The task the author has set himself is to demonstrate avenues toward and the manipulation of political power in the United States. Lyndon Johnson is not simply a fascinating, contradictory personality whose life affords colorful anecdotes from the peaks and valleys of a political career; he is the embodiment of modern American political morality -- a master manipulator who achieved great heights before realizing the price of devious and precarious brinksmanship. Caro's books show that Johnson created the template of what we think of today as a consummate politician: ambitious, flawed, contradictory, and hard to love.

LBJ in the LBJ Ranch pool with grandson Patrick - WHITE HOUSE PHOTO OFFICE
  • White House Photo Office
  • LBJ in the LBJ Ranch pool with grandson Patrick

Caro's books have been described as Dickensian or Tolstoyan in terms of the robustness of their characterizations and the fineness of their detail. But to compare them with works of fiction is to divert attention from their true nature. They are as deeply researched as anything ever written. They are the product of investigation and determination. Caro has weighed the moral dimensions of his own effort, the relative qualities of truth in his sources, and he occasionally takes readers aside into a literary antechamber to discuss the ways in which historical truth can be misremembered, misinterpreted, or perhaps unavailable.

The traditions of the classical historians Herodotus (who prized the retelling of history through word of mouth) and Thucydides (who believed that history was available as a rock-solid body of facts to those who sought them) are fused in Caro's methodology. And his obsessiveness is intoxicating. Once you start reading the Johnson books, it's difficult to stop. Caro's unrelenting curiosity is evident on every page, in every endnote, in every telling and well-established detail of weather, make of car, style of furnishing, or political chit earned or owed.

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At age 76, Caro has invested more than half his life in The Years of Lyndon Johnson. With "two or three" more years before the (presumably) final volume is released, Caro will have lived at least 14 years longer than LBJ and will have spent more than 40 years writing about a 30-year political career. Would that American letters could boast of more writers with that sort of commitment.

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Casey Burchby

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