If I try to name the three best political biographies I’ve read, two of them are by Robert Caro. The first is The Power Broker (1975), a biography of Robert Moses, a master planner responsible for transforming New York through the construction of many bridges, buildings, and expressways. He was also ruthless and a master manipulator of others. One would think that a book on an urban planner might be dull, but this is really one of the best bios of any sort I’ve ever read. Check out the Amazon ratings (though it’s 37 years old, the book still ranks at #672 on Amazon, perhaps because of Caro’s new book described below). It also won a Pulitzer Prize.
The second is William Manchester’s magisterial two-volume biography of Winston Churchill: The Last Lion, consisting of Visions of Glory: 1874-1932, and Alone: 1932-1940. Tragically, Manchester died before he could complete the third volume, leaving the reader hanging right at the moment when Churchill became Prime Minister at the beginning of World War II. Even incomplete, it is a fantastic book. If ever a life was made for biography, it was Churchill’s, and in Manchester he found the right biographer.
The third (and ongoing) biography is also by Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. It’s up to three volumes now: The Path to Power (1982) Means of Ascent (1991), and Master of the Senate (2002). Now, however, Caro, aged 76, is about to issue a fourth volume, The Passage of Power, which comes out May 1 and is a hefty 736 pages (still 500 pages shorter than Master of the Senate). It covers the six years of Johnson’s life beginning in 1958 and ending when he’s just become President after Kennedy’s assassination. I will be rushing to buy and read this, for despite what you may think, Johnson had an amazing life and Caro is a master storyteller. Those three volumes garnered one Pulitzer Prize, one National Book Award, and two National Book Critics Circle awards.
If you’ve read any of these (and you should have), you’ll want to read a piece in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “Robert Caro’s big dig” by Charles McGrath. It’s full of great information on Caro and the book: for example, Caro still writes by hand on yellow legal pads, typing up the results on a typewriter; he’s taking longer to write each installment of Johnson’s life than it took LBJ to live it; and there were epic editorial battles between Caro and his editor, Robert Gottlieb.
What everyone wants to know who has read this brilliant work is this: will Caro (unlike Manchester) actually finish it? It took him ten years to write the newest volume, and there’s at least one more to go. The man won’t live forever, but let’s wish him a long life. And by all means read the books I’ve recommended above; you won’t be disappointed. Finally, if you’re a Caro fan, McGrath’s long piece is fascinating and informative.