The Lifer

He’s been at it for 28 years. Now his third volume of the longest biography ever written about an American is done (as far as I can figure, in all literature only Churchill has a longer biography). He’s reached 2,571 cumulative pages, but his subject, Lyndon Baines Johnson, isn’t even vice-president yet.

As much as one might admire Robert Caro’s effort (“a towering achievement,” it’s called in publishing talk), it’s also Guinness World Record stuff. A little bit of a freak show. Indeed, over the years of reading these books (part of his accomplishment, of course, is to have created no small number of other Johnson obsessives – me among them), you find yourself as transfixed by the psychopathology of the biographer as by his subject.

This isn’t normal biography. We are not here just to see a life revealed. There’s the added tension, and voyeuristic sideshow, of two guys working out their fraught relationship over thousands of pages (although, of course, one guy is playing both roles). Johnson the ignominious, Caro the redeemer. Johnson the monster, Caro the giant-killer. Johnson the sadist, Caro the masochist.

Not that I’d have it any other way. Having read the thousand-plus pages of the new book, Master of the Senate, in the 36 hours before arriving at Caro’s office on West 57th Street, I’m once again on an LBJ high – but is this from Johnson’s mania or Caro’s?

A man in shirt and tie and sweater vest answers the door.

He does not, on the face of it, have anything in common with his expansive, overblown, and, in his description, “cocky, confident, tough” subject (foolish, no doubt, to think he would – but there’s something about these gargantuan books and their exaggerated subject that makes you think that the writer must see himself as a sort of avenging superhero). He’s even lost the Clark Kent vitality of the pictures on his early dust jackets. Then there’s the portable typewriter on his desk (a blue-and-gray Smith Corona with wood trim – just like the one I used to have a generation ago). There is, too, a lost-in-time bulletin board covered with typescript pages – cut and pasted.

It gets more distressingly poignant: As I sit talking with Caro, his publisher calls to ask when he can send over a list of the people he wants to get advance copies of the new book. Just as soon, Caro says jauntily, as he crosses off the people who’ve died since the last one came out.

Even the office itself is uniquely depressing – better suited for a Broadway tax preparer.

So to the extent that I am seeing Caro’s own story as one of great literary hubris and arrogance, I am entirely deflated. Instead of being the biographer as force of nature, he suddenly seems like the sum total of every writer’s nightmare: a book project that takes over your life – and then you’re old and still not finished with it.

I ask as politely as I know how if it’s been worth it – really, he seems to have been martyred by Johnson. “Can we talk,” I say, “about the immoderateness of the enterprise and its economic consequences?”

“Immoderateness,” he says, as though considering the word. He starts to speak, but then retracts – pulls himself up into a ball, almost. “There’s always a kind of desperation.”

There was, even before Johnson, the immoderateness of Caro’s first book, the seven years and 1,246 pages of The Power Broker, his Homeric biography of the New York builder and planner and evil genius Robert Moses, begun when he was a Newsday reporter in the late sixties.

“Seven years of being broke – of not being able to pay the rent. I just didn’t know any place to get more money – just wanted to get back to a paycheck,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut.

But then The Power Broker was a great critical success and even an impressive financial one (and he and his wife thereupon moved from Roslyn to Riverdale). The Power Broker, however, was originally 1,050,000 words – he precisely remembers. But when he wanted two volumes, he says, “my editor, Bob Gottlieb, said while he might get people interested in Robert Moses once, he’d never get them interested twice,” so they cut it to 700,000 words – the largest size possible for the shelving of a trade paperback.

But Johnson, as a subject, because he was a president, was scalable – one book could be two.

Seven years later, the first volume, The Path to Power – which singlehandedly lifted Johnson from pathos and disrepute to supersize status – appeared. “The only problem was, I used the money for two books on one book,” Caro says, holding his arms tight around himself. The Path to Power was, however, another success; enough of a hit to finance another volume (along with a move from Riverdale to Central Park West). Except that a single episode from the next book – Johnson stealing the 1948 Senate election – became the whole book. But once again, with Means of Ascent another No. 1 best-seller, Caro could buy himself another volume.

Now, it is reasonable that someone – Ina, his wife, who’s done vast amounts of his research, or Gottlieb, his editor – might helpfully have said, “Enough!” And yet, I feel it, too, something about Caro’s Sisyphean resolve (or, could it be, his Scheherazadean wiles) that makes you want to support him. Even encourage him. I find myself saying, “It’s really a smart way to go.” Maybe it’s not so nutso. It’s a franchise. Having established the brand of Robert Caro’s LBJ, why not keep exploiting it and extending it?

And then there’s Caro’s rationale: It’s really not just a biography of Johnson. And it isn’t. Volume one is the story of rural America – the electrification of the Texas Hill Country is a seminal tale. Volume two is as vivid a portrait of political corruption as exists – you could steal an election with volume two as your manual. And now, volume three is the most complete portrait of the Senate ever drawn – it is, in its depiction of the South’s hold on the Senate, a picture of why apartheid in America lasted so long. The work, told within the framework of the life of Lyndon Johnson, is really an epic history of the twentieth century.

Except, what about Lyndon?

The effect of Caro’s epic is to make Johnson seem like the centerpiece of the century. It’s Lyndon’s world we’ve lived in.

“His is a watershed presidency,” says Caro (although, in the narrative, we still haven’t reached the White House). But is it this many volumes more of a watershed presidency than, say, Roosevelt’s or Lincoln’s?

It’s not just an issue of who’s bigger than whom. The true distorting effect of this many pages and this much attention, the inevitable result of this magisterial (in blurb talk) tome is to turn a crum-bum into a hero.

Caro doesn’t so much disagree that Johnson is a crum-bum as express hope that he might be something more. He recounts one incident of Johnson being nice to a janitor once.

But what I know about Johnson (and there are few historical figures I feel I know as well) I know from Caro (and if I have known much of anything else about Johnson, that has mostly been crowded out by Caro’s books). And on that basis, I can only see Johnson as not just a crum-bum but possibly the greatest crum-bum who ever lived.

It isn’t only the vast financial corruption (although he spent his entire life in politics, by the time Johnson became president, Caro estimates, his net worth was $20 million; Caro does note that Johnson turned down an offer of oil riches as a political payoff from his Texas backers because he believed oil money would impede his national political ambitions – in other words, his opportunism transcended mere graft). It’s not just stolen elections. Nor is it even the mesmerizing dishonesty of his beliefs (he merely wanted everyone to believe that he believed whatever it was they wanted him to believe at any given time – he held both Hubert Humphrey, the Senate’s leading liberal, and Richard Russell, the Senate’s leading southern racist, in his thrall at the same time).

He is so much more monstrous than your average corrupt politician and everyday crude fellow (he famously made his aides talk to him while he sat on the toilet).

He is, in Caro’s telling, as narrowly focused on his own needs, to the exclusion of almost every other consideration, as any character, fictional or real, ever rendered (and when he’s not lying or cheating, he’s humiliating Lady Bird for the fun of it).

“He’s a complicated human being,” Caro says. But this does not seem to be true at all. Johnson seems to be almost pure in his lack of inner conflict. He wants what he wants because he wants it – when he wants it.

Caro is the conflicted party. He’s the brother or the son who’s stuck with having to explain and bear witness to this human relative who is an animal.

It comes back to Caro – this mannerly, even fragile, guy in the sweater vest. His life’s work involves two subjects – Johnson and Moses – and they’re both thugs.

His justification for both lives, and for the attention he’s lavished on both lives, is that they had outsize accomplishments. Moses built the greatest city in the world; Johnson wrought a revolution in social justice (Caro, in scornful terms, talks about the lack of accomplishment of all other modern presidencies – he especially dismisses Clinton’s performance).

Civil rights is Caro’s justification for Johnson and for the many volumes he’s devoted to him. Not that he believes Johnson wasn’t a racist – indeed, Caro says, foreshadowing volumes to come, Vietnam was in no small way about Johnson’s distaste for “yellow people,” with Johnson picking the bombing targets (on top of everything else, in other words, he’s a genocidal war criminal). But, says Caro, “I don’t believe anyone else could have gotten those civil-rights laws.”

The point is about power. He had the power to pass civil-rights legislation, and it was to his advantage to do so.

So, power. The Power Broker. Then The Path to Power. “He possessed power,” Caro writes about Moses, as though power were a talent or commodity. “The whole life of Robert Moses, in fact, has been a drama of the interplay of power and personality.” And power, indubitably, is the primal theme of Johnson’s life: “A hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will.”

Power is what Caro has fallen for. It’s what we’ve all fallen for. Power is the currency – power gets us hot. Power as something independent of class, morality, beliefs, region, family, wealth even. (LBJ’s Management Secrets: Lessons From the John would be a smart spin-off title.)

“Power reveals” is Caro’s formulation. But this isn’t necessarily true. Power, I think it can reasonably be argued, is the ultimate disguise – you can be anything with power. But having Lyndon Johnson revealed may not be what we’re interested in anyway. We’re interested – and it is what Caro is actually doing – in having power itself revealed. That’s the elusive thing: How you get power, how you leverage it, how you keep it.

I sometimes think my interest in Caro’s Johnson is a dirty interest – it’s power porn. But I can’t shake the compulsion.

Caro is 66. He still has ahead of him Johnson’s struggle with the Kennedys, the civil-rights movement, the Great Society legislation, and Vietnam. I hope he’s working fast.


The Lifer