I love a good biography. But even so, when contemplating a multi-volume, 3,000-pages-and-counting study of a US president, I might have been tempted to cheat a bit, and skip straight to the one about the subject’s time in the White House.
That’s not really an option with Robert Caro’s epic The Years of Lyndon Johnson series. Decades into the project, and currently writing what he sheepishly describes as ‘the fifth of a projected three volumes,’ Caro, at 84, has yet to publish the book that covers the bulk of Johnson’s presidency.
There’s something appealing, in this era of short attention spans, about a work that has consumed the better part of a writer’s lifetime. And Caro has been showered with awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes.
So, after being beguiled by his 2019 memoir Working, I decided to dive into Caro’s life of Johnson at the beginning. Before the beginning actually, since Caro, early in Volume 1, The Path to Power, tells of LBJ’s great-grandfather’s arrival in Texas fifty years before the future president was born.
That fact goes some way toward answering the question Caro says he is often asked: What’s taking so long?
I got an even clearer answer – a glimpse of this biographer’s unmatched thoroughness – when I reached his deep dive into the botanical properties of the native grass that covered the Texas Hill Country when Johnson’s forebears arrived.
That may sound dry. (It’s not. Caro can write!) But it holds the key to why land that looked lush and fertile would soon reveal itself to be thin and poor, leaving subsequent generations to scratch out miserable lives there.
And that has everything to do with the powerful demons haunting the man who would grow up to catastrophically escalate the Vietnam War, while also dramatically expanding America’s social safety net and securing passage of its most important civil rights laws.
Caro’s toolbox holds no rose-colored glasses. His portrayal of his subject is utterly unvarnished. LBJ, in his telling, was a man devoid of belief in anything other than his own all-consuming ambition, shameless in flattering the powerful and brutal in his treatment of the loyal aides he delighted in humiliating, and whom his inhuman demands sometimes drove to physical and emotional collapse. (He made such demands of himself too, with similar consequence). The Johnson Caro describes was ready to betray any ally, to adopt any view that would advance him and to rig an election if he couldn’t win it fairly.
The Path to Power is as much a work of journalism as history. Caro started out as a newspaperman, and in Working, he recounts the reporting advice an editor gave him early on: ‘Turn every goddam page.’
In this case, that would have meant 32 million pieces of paper in the Johnson presidential library alone. Even with the help of his wife and research partner, Ina, that was clearly impossible.
But those words guided Caro. Previous biographers had described the young LBJ as a figure beloved by his peers. Caro sensed something wasn’t right about the anecdotes Johnson’s college classmates recited in interviews. He pushed for more, and eventually punctured the hagiography it turned out Johnson himself had constructed.
The future president, Caro learned, was despised by most of his classmates. There was clear evidence in his college yearbook, but Johnson had arranged for the offending pages to be torn out of hundreds of copies. Caro, of course, found an unmutilated one.
By its nature, a presidential biography inevitably participates in a ‘great man’ approach to history. But Caro’s work is also so much more. In explaining the importance of Johnson’s achievement in delivering electricity to rural Texas, he shows us what life was like without it. His focus is on the unending toil of the Hill Country’s women – their shoulders rounded from carrying water, their long hours doing laundry, cooking and canning over blazing fires in unbearably hot tin-roofed rooms.
The project of Caro’s life has been the study of political power – how it is won, how it is exercised, and how it shapes, for good and ill, the world we live in and the possibilities that are open to us.
There’s no doubt that an urge to escape the frightening turbulence of the news is part of the reason I find myself reading a lot of history lately. But the past holds many echoes of our troubled times too. With another – even more toxic – narcissist now in the White House, and another Johnson ensconced in Downing Street, The Path to Power offers a great deal to chew on. And I’ve got plenty more reading to do while Robert Caro finishes the (supposedly!) final volume of his extraordinary work.
Image © Berkeley Lab