Robert Caro’s new volume on LBJ

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.

12 thoughts on “Robert Caro’s new volume on LBJ

  1. I would recommend for the remainder of Churchill’s life (excluding the monumental official biography completed by Martin Gilbert) Roy Jenkins’ biography published in 2002. The major difference between Jenkins and others is that he treats Churchill as first and foremost a politicican: not a warlord (D’Este/Hastings) nor as a statesmen. This view is not surprising given Jenkins own background – one of the very few successful Home Secretaries and President of the European Commission.

    1. +1 for Roy Jenkins.
      Also, for a view now decried as ‘revisionist’, but indispensable in assessing Churchill’s relatively ineffectual career during his middle period, see Robert Rhodes James’ “Churchill: A Study in Failure 1900-1939”. Rhodes James shares with Jenkins the politician’s insight. As the editor of Churchill’s speeches and a noted biographer of Churchill’s father, he had considerable access to people and material.
      Alas, I cannot concur with Jerry regarding William Manchester’s Churchill biography. I thought the NYT review at the time outrageously bilious; not so after reading “The Last Lion”. It is hardly Manchester’s finest work. Worse, it is singularly devoid of interest when compared to Martin Gilbert’s biography — even the abridged single tome, not just Gilbert’s comprehensive eight volumes.
      I have shelves full of Churchilliana, collected since my early youth. Manchester’s “Churchill” fills a much-needed gap.

  2. I’ve read the first three and already pre-ordered the 4th volume, scheduled for publication May 1st. For a man who loves cats, Coyne exhibits unexpected literary taste — I, too, remarked to a friend just yesterday that I hope Caro doesn’t reprise Manchester’s incomplete Churchill, also a wonderful work.

  3. Ah yes, Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ.

    Who can forget the 800 page installment entitled “LBJ:The Kindergarden Years, Part II”?

    He was an absolutely fascinating character, but do we really need to know more about him than we remember of our own lives?

    1. Yep, you do! I recommend looking into the book if you haven’t to see what a fascinating tale it tells.

  4. I remember hearing that LBJ was, well, a bit of a lunatic. Maybe these two stories are urban myths, but I heard that he grabbed the Canadian PM who had criticized the Vietnam War and LBJ told him, “Do not sh*t in my backyard!” The other story was that LBJ was in a staff meeting and the topic of Ho Chi Minh came up and Johnson grabbed his johnson and said, “Ho Chi Minh doesn’t have something like this.”

  5. The best political biography by far is Robert Blake on Disraeli. The chapter on the passing of the Reform Act of 1867 is one of the best historical analyses I have read.

    I’m a history grad. by the way.

  6. “…he’s taking longer to write each installment of Johnson’s life than it took LBJ to live it…”

    Echos of a Borges story… Extra cookie points to anyone who can tell which one!

    1. Perhaps too obvious a mapping, but my vote goes to “Del rigor en la ciencia” (Of Exactitude in Science):

      …In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.

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