Robert Caro has a new book out. If you’re a serious Caro fan like me, that is both good news and bad news. Good because anything by this master storyteller is bound to be terrific. Bad because it means he hasn’t been spending every minute of his dwindling time on Earth finishing the project of his life: his epic biography of Lyndon Johnson.
The first volume came out in 1982, the second in 1990, the third in 2002 and the fourth in 2012. We fans have been eagerly waiting – and waiting and waiting – for the final instalment. Caro is 83 years old. As much as we might look forward to Working, a reporter’s memoirs about how he unearths the nuggets that fill his books, we can’t help wanting to yell: For God’s sake, get on with it, man.
I am a recent convert to the Caro cult. I work in the city hall bureau of The Globe in Toronto. A few years ago, a colleague brought in a weathered copy of Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first book, The Power Broker. It lay on the desk like a Bible in a church. After eyeing it warily for some time – life is short and Caro’s books are long – I took it home. I was swept away. The story of how Robert Moses built the parks, bridges and expressways of New York like some modern-day pharaoh is simply mesmerizing. Every time I see a new expressway, I think of Moses sailing around New York in the back of his big chauffeured car, furiously writing memos about his next gargantuan project.
I lent The Power Broker to my son, and we marvelled together over how Caro piles detail on detail on detail, story upon story to weave his tale. For my birthday last year, he got me all four volumes of the Johnson biography. Again, I was daunted. The shortest book runs to 552 pages in my paperback version. Again, I was captivated.
For some reason, I started with Caro’s fourth volume, The Passage of Power. His account of the Kennedy assassination and how Johnson was transformed almost visibly into a president in those awful hours is the best I’ve seen. His look at the years, before Dallas, when Johnson was vice-president, shows Johnson alone and isolated in the Kennedys’ glittering Camelot, a back-slapping Texan among the slick Harvard boys who formed the president’s inner circle.
Next, I skipped back to the second volume. Means of Ascent covers Johnson’s years as a young congressman with a thirst for success and few scruples. Caro tells how a shameless Johnson exaggerated his slender record in the Second World War, which consisted principally of one scary flight as a passenger in a U.S. warplane in the Pacific theatre. He shows how the shy Lady Bird Johnson survived her husband’s browbeating to become a shrewd, capable ally. And he shows how an inexhaustible Johnson managed to beat a favourite son of Texas, Coke Stevenson, to win a seat in the Senate.
Bombing around the vast state in a helicopter, he touched down in every hamlet with a landing spot, waving his Stetson and hollering to the startled people below, “Come to the speaking!” Even an excruciating illness didn’t stop him. Perhaps only Caro can spin gripping drama out of a politician’s battle with a kidney stone.
I’m stuck into the first volume now. The Path to Power tells the story of how a big-talking, manipulative, desperately ambitious young man with father issues claws his way to the seat of power in Washington. It is unputdownable.
How on earth does Caro do it? Part of the answer is simple elbow grease. Caro plowed page by page through the 40,000 boxes of Johnson papers at his presidential library in Austin. He spent three years living with his wife and research partner, Ina, on the edge of the Texas Hill Country, combing its dusty roads and podunk towns to get beyond the usual poor-boy-makes-good story of LBJ’s origins.
What I admire even more about Caro is his courage to follow the story wherever it leads, even if it takes him down trackless detours. Other authors might have drawn a brief sketch of Coke Stevenson to illustrate the challenge Johnson faced to take that Senate seat. Caro gives him a whole chapter, taking us from his teenage days driving six-horse wagons alone across the Hill Country to his middle years carving a vast ranch out of the landscape. I can still picture the sparkling river that runs through that ranch, Caro paints it so beautifully.
Yet, for all his obsessive pursuit of the details, Caro’s books have a narrative pull that won’t let go. While he may go down rabbit holes, he never loses sight of his theme: how men acquire and wield great power.
Of course all of this takes time and space – so much space. The Path to Power alone runs to 881 pages. Reading it at night, I have to prop it on my chest with two pillows to prevent bruising of the breastbone. Another volume, Master of the Senate (1,167 pages), waits on the bedside table, threatening to crush the toes of anyone who knocks it over.
And in a way, these four monumental volumes are just a prelude. The most recent ends with the early going of the Johnson presidency. Which means that, after four decades, 3,283 pages and heaven know how many words, Caro has yet to sink his teeth into the real meat of the story: how LBJ strode into the quicksands of the Vietnam War, sacrificing tens of thousands of American (not to mention Vietnamese) lives and eventually crippling his presidency.
Caro is well aware that, human life expectancy being what it is, he has only a limited window to tell that story. When people talk to him about his chances of finishing, he said in a piece for The New Yorker in January, they often use the phrase, Do the math.
“Well, I can do the math,” he wrote. But he doesn’t want to change his methods or skimp on his research. He told The New York Times: “It’s probably the understatement of all time, but I have not rushed these books.”
No one wants him to do that, but admirers like me still say a little prayer every night for Robert A. Caro: Live long and keep typing.