The new instalment of an immense biography records how Lyndon Johnson survived political humiliation to become a president who shaped modern Americaby Sam Tanenhaus / April 23, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Lyndon B Johnson campaigning in 1964, to retain the office he assumed after the assassination of John F Kennedy
American publishers will release more than 300,000 books this year (throw in all manner of web-generated and electronic items, including Kindle one-offs and the like, and the number will be multiplied by at least ten), but the “industry” clings to hoary articles of faith. One such is that there are only two publishing seasons, spring and autumn, and that each yields at most a handful of reliably “big” books, almost always written by “brand-name” authors.
This season the biggest, easily, is The Passage of Power, the fourth but not final volume of Robert A Caro’s immense biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Its publication is not so much an event as an ordeal—for Caro, for his publisher, Alfred A Knopf, and for others too. Last winter, when galleys should have been available, they weren’t, because Caro was said to be combing over the huge manuscript in a final binge of perfectionism.
Although Caro is more celebrated for his research than for his prose—“I don’t know how good a writer I am,” he has said, “but I’m a very good interviewer”—he is fanatically attentive to each sentence he has written, both to its rhythms and to its look on the page. This is all the more impressive given the size of the project, which now exceeds 3,300 densely printed pages and is less a biography-in-progress than a campaign. It has been ten years since the previous volume, The Master of the Senate, was published and 30 since the first instalment, The Path to Power, appeared. Caro actually “writes fast,” he has said (the long years go into the research); still his approach recalls James Merrill’s lament, or boast: “We, though, were ancient foes,/ I and the deadline.” Caro has himself remarked that he and Robert Gottlieb, his longtime Knopf editor, “had a tacit understanding that the words ‘delivery date’ are never to be mentioned.”
Caro does as Caro likes—in large part because his passion for his project is all-consuming, and his work ethic beyond reproach, except by envious writers unable to match his tenacious discipline. But it can confound the plans of publishers in this moment of the “roll out,” in the dismal phrase, with its twin suggestion of the latest iPad dribbling off the assembly line and of the red carpet being frantically smoothed outside the entrance of a film premiere. When I spoke to Caro in April he seemed mystified by the conspiracies of 21st-century book publishing. “They want me to do everything,” he said—not only sit for interviews, but also to promote his labours via a website, Facebook page, Twitter chirps, and who knew what else. Even the prepublication excerpt in the New Yorker, an anointment for a normal author, was for Caro another tortured skirmish—tolerable only because he was paired with a seasoned editor, John Bennet, who is well-attuned to Caro’s fetishes involving dashes and semi-colons. Caro himself nurses the anachronistic ideal of “the Author” who might have a public identity, celebrated by his peers and embraced by the public, but remain a private citizen nonetheless. Not that Caro is a recluse. He is very much a Manhattan presence. He lives on Central Park West, the neighbourhood where he grew up (his father was in real estate; his mother died when Caro was a child). He lunches at the Century, the old-fashioned club on 43rd Street, popular with journalists (very few of them under 50, and many much older); dines in one of the front-of-the room red-leather booths at Ouest, the uptown Broadway restaurant favoured by eminent journalists and writers; mingles genially at the uptown apartment of Antonio Monda, the impresario from Rome who has become an energetic host to literary New York.
Caro is not prolific, but he is prodigious. The books keep coming, heavy volumes, densely written and meticulously sourced. The latest, at just over 700 pages, is of medium length for him. It explores, or excavates, six years of Johnson’s life, 1958 to 1964— covering his exit from the Senate, his miserable, deflating years as vice president, and his sudden elevation to the presidency, following the assassination of John F Kennedy. During five of those years Johnson did, more or less, nothing. The story ends before Johnson unleashes the tremendous revolutionising programmes of the Great Society, “the legislative embodiment of the liberal spirit in all its nobility,” Caro calls it, an American president’s last unembarrassed outthrusting of “government’s hand to help people caught in ‘the tentacles of circumstance.’” We know this will come, as we also know the catastrophes that will ensue: mounting racial violence, the Vietnam war and the discord it bred. Caro has all this firmly in mind. But his method is to luxuriate in each unfolding episode, and this book lingers, excruciatingly at times, on its subject’s indignities. Of all the great political offices, the vice presidency is the hollowest, and Caro pitilessly assesses its toll on Johnson, the feral, mighty presence, coarse and domineering, as devoid of shadow and nuance as the parched Texas Hill Country that created him, now stalled in his grimly purposeful ascent, a shrivelled figure of fun, “Rufus Cornpone,” in the cruel epithet circulated by Kennedy’s quick-witted Harvard adjutants.
Page after page vitality ebbs from LBJ. He writhes in mute agony at cabinet meetings, his opinion unsought even on the legislative matters he knows better than anyone else. He pleads with Kennedy’s appointments secretary to have his name added to White House banquets. And he cringes with deference toward the younger man he once dismissed, in their Senate years, as a lightweight and playboy. “On the increasingly rare occasions when he was in the Oval Office, with Kennedy leaning back, relaxed and at ease in his chair, Johnson, sitting facing him in a chair beside his desk, would be on the edge of his seat, leaning forward as he talked, his pose that of a schoolboy trying to win a teacher’s favour.” He tries to assert his will in the Senate, where he so recently ruled with leonine dominance, but he is ignored there too, because none now fear him. Even the newsmen who once gathered like lemmings stop phoning. An old friend from Texas comes to visit, “and Johnson said, ‘You know, I feel like I’ve got nothing to do. I don’t even have an office in the White House. Let’s go out for a while.’… Dropping by for another visit six months later [the friend] found nothing had changed. ‘He was completely at loose ends. He had nothing to do. He said, ‘We might as well get out and see the country,’ and in the middle of the day they drove down to Fairfax, Virginia, to see a facsimile of George Washington’s will.”
On it goes, a catalogue of deepening immiseration dug from the recesses of the mountainous archives Caro has buried himself in since the late 1970s. Had he written Waiting for Godot, it would be longer than Wagner’s Ring, yet with its own idiosyncratic magnificence. Because there is a method behind it all. Caro knows that the exhaustive study of power must also explore its opposite—powerlessness, weakness, the inertia instantly convertible into dynamic action, when the moment arrives. Caro also knows the metabolism of readers. He can pile up the torments because we know they won’t last, because in fact they didn’t last, thanks to Kennedy’s death, which inches ever nearer. Caro’s account of the fateful day, excerpted in the New Yorker, is a sinister tour de force of hyperrealism and of slow-motion, cinematic “storytelling”:
“It seemed as if it was going to be a Kennedy day. As Air Force One touched down at Dallas’s Love Field, at 11:38 am, everything seemed very bright under the brilliant Texas sun and the cloudless Texas sky: the huge plane gleaming as it taxied over closer to the crowd pressing against a fence; the waiting, open presidential limousine, so highly polished that the sunlight glittered on its long midnight-blue hood, which stretched forward to two small flags on the front fenders. There was a moment’s expectant pause while steps were wheeled up to the plane, and then the door opened and into the sunlight came the two figures the crowd had been waiting for: Jackie first (‘There’s Mrs. Kennedy, and the crowd yells!’ a television commentator shouted), youthful, graceful, her wide smile, bright-pink suit, and pillbox hat radiant in the dazzling sun; behind her the president, youthful, graceful (‘I can see his suntan all the way from here!’ the commentator announced), the mop of brown hair glowing, one hand checking the button on his jacket in the familiar gesture, coming down the steps turned sideways just so slightly, to ease his back. A bouquet of bright-red roses was handed to Jackie by the welcoming committee, and it set off the pink and the smile.”
The blunderbuss repetitions of sunshine and light, the voyeuristic image of Kennedy’s “familiar” gestures, the steps “turned sideways,” as if toward the assassin’s bullet, Jackie’s pink outfit soon to be caked in blood. Any number of writers could manage this. But few would so knowingly exploit our hunger for the frisson (the “moment’s expectant pause”) of the assassin’s bullet. The dynamic of power requires not only submission, but also complicity, and in our impatience we conspire in the trauma Caro labels, simply, “Dallas.” This is the dark genius of his art, and it has very little in common with the judicious siftings of the record found in the work of the “presidential historians” he is often mistakenly lumped with: David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, Robert Dallek. All are excellent scholars and expert writers, but Caro is not one of them. He is celebrated as a narrative writer—the Austin-based novelist Stephen Harrigan has called The Path to Power, Caro’s first volume, “the basic text of the history of modern Texas”—but he is more consciously a dramatic one. The sweep of his story presses along steadily narrowing lines of conflict and confrontation. This is why in each book he gives Johnson a single outsize antagonist—in this new one it is Robert Kennedy, the president’s younger brother, as visceral as Johnson himself, the two bound in a fever of mutual loathing.
But Johnson’s principal antagonist, it has been said, is Caro himself. More than one critic has accused him of having confused the biographer’s office with that of judge and executioner. “There is something eerily obsessive about Caro’s stalking of his villain,” Garry Wills wrote in the New York Review of Books of the second volume, Means of Ascent. “It is the inverse of gilding the lily, this continual tarring of the blackguard.” It is indeed the weakest of the books, verging on mythomania. So intent on exploring the chicanery in Johnson’s theft of his first Senate victory, he glorifies Johnson’s vanquished opponent, Coke Stevenson, presenting him as a facsimile of Gary Cooper in High Noon, “the big man sitting so erect and calm on the prancing horse,” while barely mentioning that Stevenson was a diehard segregationist and religious fundamentalist.
Caro doesn’t complain about his critics. It would be poor grace, given his lifetime parking space atop best-seller lists and the many accolades he has received—including the coveted gold medal for biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But he does remark, with some frustration, that reviewers seem to have taken each book as a self-contained panel, rather than as part of the vast stretched canvas of Johnson’s life. The adulatory pages on Stevenson, for instance, are counterbalanced by Caro’s chilling portrait, in Master of the Senate, of LBJ’s mentor, Richard Russell, the Georgia legislator who plied his command of parliamentary procedure to ensure the perpetuation of racial apartheid, decade after decade, until Johnson himself ended it with his own superior conjurations.
When we spoke in April, Caro, though his back is ailing, stood up from his straight-backed chair to demonstrate how, even in the tiny railroad “shack” built outside the Russell family residence to spare Russell’s father the trouble of travelling to the station everyone else used, a barrier separated white from black. He recounted too how his research had turned up the ugly facts about Russell: even as he squashed anti-lynching laws, insisting they were unnecessary, racial murders were being committed 11 miles from his home, one of the victims “a 26-year-old war veteran who had served in Africa and the Pacific.” Such atrocities are well known. But the sadism hits us fresh when condoned by Russell—idolised by his fellow senators and by the press in his day, who marvelled at his scholarly devotion to Livy, Thucydides, and Tolstoy, and at his stern abjuration of racial epithets. “You’ve got to find the right person,” Caro told me. “When you do you can show so much. You want to show the horror that those Southern [Senate] committee chairmen perpetrated in this country.”
Capacious in so many ways, Caro’s growing epic is not rich in ideas or analysis. It will be interesting to see, when he relates the story of Johnson’s Great Society initiatives, whether he takes into account the scepticism they met with at the time. This arose not only from conservative adversaries—who believed that Johnson had not so much eliminated “the tentacles of circumstance” as beaten into them the iron shackles of “big government”—but from a disillusioned liberal like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, worried about the growing “dependency” of the underclass, and from those on the left who feared LBJ was the cheerless superintendent of the air-conditioned nightmare of postwar America. Norman Mailer, speaking at the University of California at Berkeley, the citadel of campus protest, on “Vietnam Day” in May 1965, theorised about “Lyndon Johnson’s real secret vision of a Great Society… antibiotics in every glass of drinking water, tranquilisers added to the television dinners, birth-control pills in the booze… The colleges would look like factories, the housing projects would keep looking like prisons, the corporation office buildings would be indistinguishable from the colleges, and not even an airline hostess would know where the airport ended and the motel bedroom began.” These misgivings are still with us today: they continue to mark the battle lines in American politics, as ideological armies regroup for the 2012 election.
Caro was a 30-ish newspaperman in the mid-1960s, at work on a series of articles on urban planning for Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, when he conceived his first book, a study of Robert B Moses, who for many years had held the innocuous titles of city parks commissioner and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, but was in reality the artificer of Manhattan’s municipal growth, overriding a reluctant public. “There is a philosophical assumption that power comes from the ballot box,” Caro says. Moses disproved it. “Here’s a guy who’d never been elected to anything, but he had more power than anyone else.”
Caro speaks slowly, almost haltingly, squeezing his eyes shut when he searches for a phrase, before releasing it in warm New York City tones and in a pavement accent—“coudna” for “couldn’t have”; “sore” for “saw”—unsmoothed by his education at Horace Mann, one of the city’s most prestigious and rigorous prep schools, and then at Princeton, the most genteel of the Ivy League universities. More than once he reached for a copy of one of his books (“I wrote it good”) rather than try to recall a scene or incident.
Caro’s book took seven years to complete—including one spent on a Nieman fellowship (for professional journalists) at Harvard University, where he educated himself in urban planning. The deeper his research went the more intractable the project seemed. “I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I’d never written anything longer than a newspaper article.” It was then he contrived the ruthlessly efficient method he uses to this day: the careful labelling and cross-referencing of files, the copious outlines of individual chapters pinned on the corkboard like navigational charts. He extruded a manuscript of one million words, and wrestled it down to 700,000. Entitled The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974), it remains, many think, his best and most original book—Zola-like in its depth and breadth. It is not so much a biography as a monumental study of the arcana of municipal governance, filled with the intricacy of public bond issues and civic charters, of engineering feats and contractual sleight of hand, of civic blackmail and corruptions, small and large. The story rested on a simple theme: Moses’s greatest creation, or monstrosity, was not the highways and parks that bore his name, but the web of power he contrived. Out of its filaments Moses (the name itself was a godsend) spun out a latticework of bridges and highways, expanding Manhattan’s cramped island reach even if it meant the obliteration of whole communities and reduced the daily lives of inhabitants into a kind of post-industrial serfdom. So authoritative was Caro’s account, so comprehensive in its record of malefaction, that many today do not realise Moses was still alive when the book was published. When he died, seven years later, it seemed an afterthought: Caro had already entombed him.
The timing of Caro’s first book was important. Published in 1974, it seemed to predict New York’s financial collapse a year later. The timing was good for another reason: the 1970s was the decade in which “nonfiction narrative” emerged as a major literary form, supplanting the naturalistic novel as a fresh medium of suppressed social truths. A wave of brilliant journalists drew on the stylistic breakthroughs of the 1960s’ “New Journalism”—its blending of reportorial fact with narrative techniques drawn from fiction—to create counter-histories of the American dream: Garry Wills’s Nixon Agonistes (1970), Gay Talese’s Honour Thy Father (1971), David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972). The Power Broker, published in 1974, placed Caro in this company, one of a generation of writers born during the Depression, members of the 1950s “silent generation,” with its ethos of obedience and docility, inspired by the new culture of protest. All these writers were outsiders, either Roman Catholics (Talese and Wills) or Jews (Caro and Halberstam). All had worked at newspapers. All but Wills grew up in New York or its provinces. Their books rewrote the country’s foundational scripture—and defied precious myths of American institutional authority: the family (Talese), the political establishment (Halberstam), the theology of the free market (Wills). Caro, his subject the mechanics of power, was, and remains, the most old-fashioned in the group, still attached to the sentiment that if only the public can be shaken out of its apathy it might rise up against its “power brokers” and “masters” and restore democracy to the “ballot box.”
Caro’s devoted readers almost immediately turn to the notes at the back. They register his pride in his achievement. The new book includes some 80 pages of “Debts,” “Sources,” crowded alphabetic lists of interviewees (about 800) and of oral histories (printed in type so small I didn’t even try to count). There is also a grateful tribute to John F Kennedy’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen, who died in October 2010 aged 82. Neighbours living near Central Park, the two spoke many times. Caro, en route to his office, would stop off at Sorensen’s grand apartment with its windows overlooking the Park, for conversations about Johnson’s first months as president. “I realised that he was taking a remarkable amount of time and trouble for me,” Caro writes. “I felt he was doing it because he believed it was important that he find precisely the right words—because it was important that history got it right.”
Not Caro, but “history.” In his mind there is no difference. He is history’s oracle—or avenger. It is a presumption very few professional historians would dream of making. But then Caro, in some sense, isn’t really a historian. He is a mythographer, “the most Dreiserian of our chroniclers,” as Murray Kempton once wrote. Dreiser too had been a newspaperman, for whom the true record of the republic is its scandals, public and half-hidden, and the important business is transactional. Caro has thoroughly absorbed the craft of historical research—and in many respects carried it further than other professionals, with his dogged interviewing and the cumulative years he has spent living in Texas—but his animating passion is the investigative reporter’s. Caro’s truth is “the story behind the story,” the forged letter, the unlogged phone call, the off-the-record confession, the post-dated cheque—above all the secret transfer of cash. It is not an expansive view, but is more dependable than most, anchored as it is in the changeless human economics of appetite.
Indeed to immerse oneself in Caro is to begin, irresistibly, to see the world as he does, in its bold colours and thick outlines, free of murky complication. At the same time his passion, or fetish, for the documented detail invades one’s own mind, and with it the anxiety that one will surrender all ability to distinguish the important datum from the merely available one. Whether Caro himself can tell them apart is a matter of intense debate. While some admired the hundred page prolegomena on Senate history in his third volume, Master of the Senate, others, such as Marshall Frady, objected to what seemed yet another of Caro’s “profusely detailed but strangely weightless stretches.” But few question the heroic labours he has performed.
Our conversation was in Caro’s office, in a building near Central Park and Carnegie Hall, where he has worked for many years behind a door with a gold nameplate (“ROBERT A CARO”) identical to the others along the hallway, though he believes he is the only writer left in the building. The others have all left, unable to afford the rent. The New York Review of Books had offices there, but moved downtown some years ago. Caro, however, has been moving up. He used to be on the tenth floor, but is now on the twenty-second. One flight below is the suite occupied by Andrew Wylie, the literary agent. Caro remembers when Wylie had just one office and no staff to speak of. He now manages a bustling team. “If I drilled a hole,” Caro said, “I’d hear how much money I should be making.” Not that he is wanting. Impeccably dressed in a charcoal wool suit and silver-buckled black shoes, with a hint of style in his tortoise-shell glasses, his hair greying but lush for a man of 76, he exudes worldly success. And he’s well “agented” too, by Lynn Nesbit, a formidable figure in Manhattan publishing. It was she who got him his start nearly half a century ago and was there too when he set off in pursuit of Johnson—larger quarry, since his rise from backroom legislative bumpkin to the presidency amounted to a textbook case in “how political power works in a democracy on a national scale.”
“How far have you gotten?” Caro asked me, about his new book, after he had hung my jacket up in the small closet and handed me a cup of coffee he had waiting. “Wait till he goes down to Texas.” The chapter is a delight, rich in surreal comedy. Only a month into his presidency, LBJ, itching to put his own stamp on the office, invites a small army of reporters down to his ranch to see him in his native surround. When another guest, Ludwig Erhard, the chancellor of West Germany, arrives, Johnson stages a welcome in Fredericksburg, settled by Germans in 1846 and almost 120 years later “a tiny replica of Germany in the midst of the remote Texas Hill Country. The state dinner is held in a ‘little country gymnasium,’ but the ‘entertainment was all Texas’—what Philip Roth, in another context, once called ‘pure American Dada’”:
“The master of ceremonies was ‘Cactus’ Pryor, ‘the George Jessel of Texas’; he apologized to the chancellor ‘because they had been unable to find a way to barbecue sauerkraut.’ There was a Mexican mariachi band, square dances by the Billyettes, a precision dance team (not all that precise) from Fredericksburg High School and then German carols sung by cowgirls—the St Mary’s High School choir in full cowgirl regalia: Stetsons, blue skirts, white blouses and red neckerchiefs—under the direction of a nun in head-to-toe black habit. They closed with “Deep in the Heart of Texas”—and that was in German, too. (‘Die sterne bei nacht sind gross und klar/Tief in das herz von Texas…’)”
The high humour will dissipate once Caro begins the story of LBJ’s presidential rise and fall, his election to a full term (in 1964), when he enjoyed colossal majorities in both houses of Congress and completed much of the unfinished business of FDR’s New Deal through legislative miracle-working, only to embark on a ruinous course in Vietnam. “If I can show how Vietnam happened, I can show the dark side of a nation when it gets power,” Caro says. It is difficult to imagine how he’ll cram it all into a single book. Even if he does, the book won’t be completed before 2020, to judge by his progress to date. At that point, the biography will be long past its fortieth year and Caro himself in his eighty-fifth. And the page count will exceed 4,000 pages. One reason for Caro’s impatience with the rituals of book-promotion is that he is already deep into volume five; typed pages of the outline are neatly push-pinned on his corkboard. His desk is shockingly pristine, and he has fingertip access to the vast documentary arsenal meticulously kept in two small towers of black cabinets against one wall and other drawers beneath his desk. He easily retrieves folders to show me the cross-referenced files, the completed pages, with a vertical line carefully straight-edged down the middle “when I’m satisfied.” He drafts and redrafts on long wide tablets, then types each word himself on an electric Smith Corona. He doesn’t use a computer or a tape recorder, instead taking notes in a shorthand of his own invention.
After 90 minutes, I got up to retrieve my jacket from the closet. On its back panel is a monthly calendar with numbers written on it in black ink—his daily record of the number of words he has written (300, 1200, 900). He tries to write three pages a day and can see his way, at last, to the end. “This should do it,” he told me, about the fifth volume. And then, as if to rouse himself to the day’s work: “I know this will do it.”