Debating Robert Caro

The fourth volume of an epic LBJ biography stirs more controversy.

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:

Dear Brian,

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

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