Everyone knows what Robert Caro is noted for.
“The Passage of Power” is now out in bookstores, and is the latest installment of Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson. Caro has devoted a large part of his life to making the past come alive with meaning and context in relation to the 36th President of the United States. In fact, Caro is now spending more time writing the years of Lyndon Johnson than Johnson spent living them.
But the first paragraph below is the one that struck me as just somehow perfect when thinking about the historian that writes the flowing narratives and gripping political tales about LBJ.
Caro is the last of the 19th-century biographers, the kind who believe that the life of a great or powerful man deserves not just a slim volume, or even a fat one, but a whole shelf full. He dresses every day in a jacket and tie and reports to a 22nd-floor office in a nondescript building near Columbus Circle, where his neighbors are lawyers or investment firms. His office looks as if it belongs to the kind of C.P.A. who still uses ledgers and a hand-cranked adding machine. There are an old wooden desk, wooden file cabinets and a maroon leather couch that never gets sat on. Here Caro writes the old-fashioned way: in longhand, on large legal pads.
The new book is 736 pages long and covers only about six years. It begins in 1958, with Johnson, so famously decisive and a man of action, dithering as he decides whether or not to run in the 1960 presidential election. The book then describes his loss to Kennedy on the first ballot at the Democratic convention and takes him through the miserable, humiliating years of his vice presidency before devoting almost half its length to the 47 days between Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 (Caro’s account, told from Johnson’s point of view, is the most riveting ever) and the State of the Union address the following January — a period during which Johnson seizes the reins of power and, in breathtakingly short order, sets in motion much of the Great Society legislation.
In other words, Caro’s pace has slowed so that he is now spending more time writing the years of Lyndon Johnson than Johnson spent living them, and he isn’t close to being done yet. We have still to read about the election of 1964, the Bobby Baker and Walter Jenkins scandals, Vietnam and the decision not to run for a second term. The Johnson whom most of us remember (and many of us marched in the streets against) — the stubborn, scowling Johnson, with the big jowls, the drooping elephant ears and the gallbladder scar — is only just coming into view.
Johnson, who all along predicted an early end for himself, died at 64. Caro is already 76, in excellent health after a scary bout with pancreatitis in 2004. He says that the reason “The Passage of Power” took so long is that he was at the same time researching the rest of the story, and that he can wrap it all up, with reasonable dispatch, in just one more volume. That’s what he said the last time, after finishing “Master of the Senate.” (He also thought he could finish “The Power Broker” in nine months or so. It took him seven years, during which he and his wife, Ina, went broke.) Robert Gottlieb, who signed up Caro to do “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” when he was editor in chief of Knopf, has continued to edit all of Caro’s books, even after officially leaving the company (he also excerpted Volume 2 at The New Yorker when he was editor in chief there). Not long ago he said he told Caro: “Let’s look at this situation actuarially. I’m now 80, and you are 75. The actuarial odds are that if you take however many more years you’re going to take, I’m not going to be here.” Gottlieb added, “The truth is, Bob doesn’t really need me, but he thinks he does.”