Debating Robert Caro
The fourth volume of an epic LBJ biography stirs more controversy.
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Days before this magazine went to press, we received an advance copy of The Passage of Power (Knopf, $35), the latest installment of Robert Caro’s life of Lyndon Johnson. We asked two followers of Caro’s work, TEXAS MONTHLY deputy editor Brian D. Sweany and the magazine’s former editor Gregory Curtis, to read the book and engage in an email exchange about how, in particular, Caro deals with John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the immediate aftermath. What follows is the conversation that ensued.
On 3/28/12, 4:01 PM, Gregory Curtis wrote:
As I was reading The Passage of Power, I kept getting faint echoes that I couldn’t identify until I got to the chapters dealing with Johnson taking power after the assassination and realized that, yes, I was reading a volume in a life of Lyndon Johnson, but I was also reading a grand, epic nineteenth-century novel. Robert Caro has been a friend for many years, almost since he first came down to Texas to begin his research 35 years ago. I’ve learned how passionately he loves novels from that period, especially Trollope and Dickens. I once showed him a first edition of a Trollope novel where the original owner had written notes in the margins identifying the personages of the period that the characters in the novel were based on. He held the book almost reverently, looking slowly through the pages and reading the notes. Talking about Dickens, he once said, “His books are one thousand pages long, and you remember sentences. Individual sentences!”
Those influences have been present in Caro’s work from the beginning, but now, in this fourth volume of the Johnson biography, you can see them not only in individual sentences but also in the grand design of the book, which moves through a long series of complicating incidents to a dramatic climax, just as those wonderful novels do.
In the previous volumes, Caro could feel confident that the reader wouldn’t know very much about the events he was reconstructing. And indeed, much of the pleasure in reading them is in learning how much of interest he was able to find—such as Johnson’s drive to not merely defeat but destroy his early opponents, such as Coke Stevenson.
As I began The Passage of Power, I was curious to see what Caro would do with a story—Johnson’s years serving under John F. Kennedy and then succeeding him—that is well-known in its broad outline. But once again Caro’s research served him well. The early chapters about Johnson as vice president, an office he hated, are low-volume prelude to the great events that follow. But since Johnson at this time is virtually powerless and palpably miserable—the Kennedys and their Eastern friends laughed at him—Caro presents a nuanced, empathetic picture of Johnson. In the previous volumes, Caro has either been horrified by Johnson or admiring of him. But neither of those is the same as empathy. Here, at last, we see it. I don’t think I’ve felt Johnson as alive as I feel him in this book.
Which means that when we at last come to the assassination, we see it through Johnson’s eyes. As the terrible events unfold, we see what he sees and know only what he knows. The result is a view of the murder and what follows that is consistent with everything we know but is also new and fresh. It’s a brilliant stroke and seems obvious, now that Caro has done it that way. But how much hard labor, how many drafts were necessary before that solution emerged?
On 3/28/12, 11:21 PM, Brian Sweany wrote:
As a devout fan of Dickens, I agree with you about Caro’s skill as a writer. I remember reading that when he turned in The Power Broker, his astounding biography of Robert Moses, he had to cut 300,000 words. 300,000 words! His dedication is legendary, and that, in part, is what has made the previous three volumes of the Years of Lyndon Johnson so remarkable. I’ve always thought, for example, that the chapter from The Path to Power called “The Sad Irons” was the best examination of life in the Hill Country before electrification. It’s as if the reader is there alongside those people, where they used to say that a man was a real gentleman who gave his wife a sharp ax.
The Passage of Power is no different. I was struck by the elegance of Caro’s writing and the power of the assassination and its aftermath—how in Manhattan, as dusk began to fall, the lights on the marquees of Broadway theaters were turned off one after another. At Saks Fifth Avenue, employees removed the mannequins in a window display and replaced them with a picture of the slain president and urns filled with red roses.
But of course, readers expect to be dazzled by Caro. I think the larger question is if he is fair to his subject. A mutual friend of ours has summed up Caro this way: great writer, bad history. Caro has attributed spectacularly dark motives to LBJ in the past, and I have to say, I felt that in this volume as well. I stopped counting the number of times I read variations of the word “humiliation” in reference to Johnson—during his childhood, during his school years, and, of course, during his time as vice president. A theme of the narrative tension during the motorcade scene—ah, heck, during most of the first three hundred pages—was to highlight the degree to which Johnson had been marginalized: the fact that he rode in a rented car or that he trailed 75 feet behind President Kennedy’s limousine or that people on the parade route had already turned away and stopped cheering when LBJ passed by.
I fear that Caro has fallen into a familiar pattern: he has become a prisoner of his own conclusions, so he uses every moment to support his view of the man. Harry Middleton, the former director of the LBJ Library and Museum, once said, “There have been good books written about LBJ, not great ones. There are just too many nuances in him. It would take a dramatist, not an author, to capture LBJ.” I think there are times when Caro is a master of detail but a failure at nuance.
On 3/29/12, 4:39 PM, Gregory Curtis wrote:
The “he’s a journalist, not a historian” charge has been present from the first volume and has always bewildered me. Clearly, Caro is one of a handful of writers, such as David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who write distinguished historical books and enjoy broad popularity. Their books should be held to account, but getting balled up in deciding whether they’re journalists or historians doesn’t seem to me to be very illuminating. I wonder if Harry will change his opinion after reading this volume, since I thought there was a lot of nuance in these pages.
In fact, as I read, I pondered why I was feeling closer to understanding Johnson than I had before. I’ve read the controversies and criticisms the three previous volumes ignited, especially over Caro’s presentation of Coke Stevenson in Means of Ascent, so I feel I’ve not only read those books but participated in them as public events. I thought I did see Lyndon Johnson in them, but I didn’t see the depths that I found in The Passage of Power. Through the first half of the book, while Johnson was vice president, I thought the new depth came from seeing him stripped not just of power but of purpose as well. And there is that beautifully written but dismal scene when Johnson attends Senator Tom Connally’s funeral, standing by the grave among just a handful of political figures saying farewell to the once powerful senator. That was the end Johnson could see for himself.
But then I reached chapter 16, which recounts the tense first five days after the assassination and culminates in his speech to Congress on November 27, 1963. We see a determined Johnson making decision after decision, attending to detail after detail, even editing his speech word by word and adding notes to himself to “Pause” so he wouldn’t speak too fast. These days might have been Johnson’s finest; his intelligence, ability, judgment, and sheer endurance almost defy belief. When Caro wrote favorably about Johnson in the previous volumes, it was often because Johnson was working toward a political purpose that Caro favors—civil rights, for example. But here we are not seeing Johnson through any such lens. Yes, Caro has chosen what facts to tell us, but he has also let those facts speak for themselves. Through them we see Johnson clearly and so deeply that the word “nuanced” no longer seems adequate.
On 3/29/12, 11:40 PM, Brian Sweany wrote:
You’re right that Caro establishes the difficulty of this traumatic transition in a way that no writer has, and he gives Johnson credit for how he navigated that period. Yet there always seems to be a moment in which Johnson gets reduced, even in subtle ways. For example, consider the account of LBJ’s phone call aboard Air Force One to JFK’s mother, Rose Kennedy. Caro offers little description of the scene and writes that Johnson said, “I wish to God there was something that I could do, and I wanted to tell you that we were grieving with you. Here’s Lady Bird.” Caro then proceeds to a new paragraph.
That really struck me, because it reads as if LBJ made an obligatory call and quickly handed off the phone. But I’ve listened to the recording of that conversation countless times, and I didn’t remember him saying, “Here’s Lady Bird.” So I played the tape again, and it is absolutely riveting. Everything about the scene suggests tragedy: the time it takes to patch the call through, the relentless background noise, and the disjointed conversation. Johnson first addresses Rose as “Mrs. Kennedy,” and she calls him “Mr. President.” He then makes his statement, ending with the words “grieving with you.” Kennedy responds, “Yes, well, thank you very much.” At that point she appears to pause, and LBJ says something inaudible—it could be that he is introducing Lady Bird—but Kennedy continues, “I know. I know you loved Jack and he loved you.” Then Lady Bird speaks, and the exchange continues briefly and heartbreakingly, trailing off with Kennedy saying, “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”
I always found this call to be astounding in its sincerity and its humanity, and that is simply not the way Caro writes it. Readers can make as little or as much of this as they want, but it’s hard to believe that the way Caro writes it doesn’t suggest something specific about LBJ’s personality, and the way it actually happened suggests something else entirely.
Back to you, Brian
On 3/31/12, 4:47 PM, Gregory Curtis wrote:
It’s become a truism that no two witnesses see the same scene the same way, just as no two readers read the same book. I have to say that this short scene didn’t affect me one way or the other. I took that call as just one of many things Johnson had to do, as if he were going down a list and checking things off one by one. Caro couldn’t have played every call on that checklist for all the pathos it was worth. That would numb the reader to the tragedy.
I know your point is that Caro has a propensity to bend incidents toward Johnson’s unappealing characteristics even when that’s not warranted. You see the account of the call to Rose Kennedy as an example. I just don’t. Caro doesn’t have to dredge up an isolated lapse to show the deep personal failings of Lyndon Johnson. They’re present in him always, just as his great abilities are. It may be that Caro dislikes Johnson for his faults more than he admires him for his virtues. If so, so be it. That doesn’t necessarily make for bad biography.
On a different note, I wonder what you thought of the book’s last pages. I always assumed the ending of this volume would be some great moment of conciliation and consolidation after the assassination. But the book goes on, well after Johnson’s speech on November 27. In particular, Caro returns to Johnson’s long-running feud with Bobby Kennedy, which will eventually result in Kennedy challenging Johnson for the Democratic nomination in 1968. Johnson’s presidency began with the death of one Kennedy and essentially ended with the death of another.
It may be that Caro’s account of the Johnson presidency—and there are five tumultuous years to come—will make up one huge unified work that for practical reasons begins with the present volume and continues in the next, where we will likely find our natural closing chapter.
On 4/2/12, 10:18 AM, Brian Sweany wrote:
I noticed the same thing about the ending. It reminded me of a commercial break during an episode of Mad Men—why on earth did it stop at that particular point? Caro has to be thinking of this book as simply part of his body of work on Johnson, so the ending isn’t much of a concern.
However, Caro has clearly ended this book at a tipping point in terms of how he views Johnson’s character. On the first page of the final chapter, he writes that no one has given Johnson credit for how smoothly he took control after the assassination and calmed the nation’s fears. But on the last page, Caro explains that the next volume will be different in tone because Johnson was different in temperament. During the transition, LBJ had “held these elements in check, had overcome them, had, in a way, conquered himself.” I suspect that Caro will not find that to be the case in the coming book.
Of course, despite our differences on how we see the biography, I know we’ll both be eagerly waiting for the final volume. Yet our conversation at that point (you should feel free to take me to dinner) will be fundamentally different because we will finally have the entire work to consider. Since the publication of The Path to Power, in 1982, we have been guessing about what will come next and why. I suspect that Caro must be elated to finish this monumental project—and a little unnerved. After all, in many respects he has given his life over to LBJ, much as some of Johnson’s closest aides and confidants did. But however one views these books, one thing is clear: we will never have another Lyndon Baines Johnson biography that will match the ambition and energy and scope of this one. As this magazine noted in 1988, Caro is “Johnson’s Boswell.”
Warm regards, Brian