14 Jun 2012

Caro’s incredible biography of Lyndon Johnson

Today’s a big day for British politicos. No, not just Cameron at the Leveson inquiry, but also the day that Robert Caro’s latest volume of his incredible biography of Lyndon Johnson is published in this country.

Mind you, the more obsessive amongst us arranged weeks ago for friends to send us copies from America (where it was first published). Or some, like me, were lucky enough to get advance review copies from the British publisher, and I finished it a couple of weeks ago.

Caro’s extraordinary work was Michael Howard’s one book on Desert Island Discs, and also William Hague’s. And Gordon Brown has cited it as one of his favourite books too. Caro’s other British fans include George Osborne, Danny Finkelstein and Jim Naughtie.

Lyndon Johnson

Volume four – The Passage of Power – takes Lyndon Johnson from 1959 to 1964. In that time Johnson moves from being the most powerful Senate leader in US history to become a powerless vice-president to John F Kennedy. LBJ carefully calculated, having analysed past presidential records of longevity, that he had a better chance of succeeding to the presidency through Kennedy dying in office, than he had through running for the post himself in 1964 or 1968.

And so, very tragically, it proved, as Johnson entered the White House with Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

Then America experienced the extraordinary first few months of the Johnson presidency, when LBJ immediately seized the initiative. With a brilliant understanding of how to operate the levers of power, and how to handle Congress (in a way that Kennedy never really appreciated), Johnson pushed through the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The Robert Caro story is almost as remarkable as that of Lyndon Johnson. He’s taken almost 40 years to produce his four volumes (the previous ones came out at roughly 10-year intervals – in 1982, 1990 and 2002).

They’re without doubt the best biography I’ve ever read, and I have read many hundreds of biographies over the years, if not thousands.

And certainly volume four lives up to the extraordinary standards of Caro’s previous three. His work involves meticulous research based on thousands of interviews, in many cases interviewing people several times over long periods, trying to squeeze out new details and get to the bottom of every story. Equally important, Caro’s books, unlike most political biographies, are incredibly well-written, with the tension and drama of a compulsive thriller, and the style of an elegant novel.

The trouble is that Robert Caro is now 77, and he hasn’t been well recently. There must be severe doubts as to whether he’ll finish his great work.

He says he will only need one more volume to take Johnson through the remaining years of his presidency (1964-69), and then the last four years of his life (to his death in 1973). He also says that he will only take about three years for this final volume. Oh yeah? On past form, I find both claims hard to believe.

If you’re a political animal and have never read Caro, I urge you to do so. You won’t regret it. In some ways his books are about that age-old question of ‘Do the ends justify the means?’

Johnson was an awful crook in many ways, worse than his notorious successor Richard Nixon. He stole his Senate seat in 1948 through outrageous ballot-rigging (and his similar fraud in Texas in the 1960 presidential contest did more to win the White House for Kennedy than the more famous ballot-rigging in Illinois by the Chicago boss Richard Daley). LBJ was also deeply corrupt in the abuse of his political positions to further his business interests. He could also be racist, and coarse, and a bully.

But Johnson’s civil rights laws he did more for American blacks than any president since Lincoln, and with his Great Society programme he tried to tackle the inequality and poverty he’d experienced in his youth. But he will always be brought down in the presidential rankings by the disaster of involvement Vietnam War, and the way he deceived America over the war.

And yet Caro’s books aren’t just about politics, or just about Lyndon Johnson. In fact, the early volumes contain long sections where Johnson doesn’t feature at all.

His books are about America, its culture, its history, and its society.

Above all, Caro’s books are about power, how to achieve it and make it multiply; how to use power and how to lose it (as Johnson suddenly did when he gave up the Senate to become vice president).

And that explains why the book appeals to the most formidable power-players in modern Britain politics such Gordon Brown and George Osborne.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson, volume 4, The Passage of Power, Random House, £35

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One reader comment

  1. Philip says:

    In the context of recent UK politics & the current political culture, I think your last sentence just about says it all!

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