Is This the greatest biography of our era?

After 30 years, a million words, 2,000 pages and three volumes, Robert Caro’s life of Lyndon Johnson is nowhere near complete. Yet, says DANIEL FINKELSTEIN, it is already being hailed as a masterpiece.

It was election day in New Brunswick in the state of New Jersey and the local political boss was touring the polling stations, making sure his party machine didn’t leave a thing to chance. In the back sat his speechwriter, a reporter for the local newspaper. The boss had picked him up cheap. The newspaper paid peanuts, so with occasional deployment of a wad of $50 notes the politician was able to keep his assistant quiet and pliant.

At each stop a policeman would come to the window and give a report. There’s nothing to worry about here, boss, he’d say, we’re keeping the reformers well away. They can’t interfere. Suddenly the reporter jumped up from his seat, pulled open the door and got out. The car door slammed behind Robert Caro. He didn’t want to be’on the inside any more.

Since that moment Caro has been looking from the outside in, understanding and explaining the powerful and their power. It is work that has consumed his life, driven him to the brink of bankruptcy and forced him to sell his home inorder to eat. Yet it leaves him, in his 60s, the respected author of a series of remarkable books regarded by many people as the greatest political biography of the modem era. And, ironically, its subject is the man who once said: “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”

This month will see the publication of the third volume of Caro’s life of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Taken together, the three volumes are a monumental work. By the time the reader has finished the last sentences of the new book he will have made his way through more than 2,000 pages and read more than one million words. Caro has taken almost 30 years to research and write all this, working full time on these books and on nothing else. Yet Lyndon Johnson, famous as the man who succeeded to the presidency when John Kennedy was assassinated, has not even been nominated as a candidate for the vice-presidency when the latest instalment finishes.

Amazingly, the response of most people is not to leave the first volume unfinished, with Johnson still in school. It is to keep going, to keep pressing on, thirsting for more and reaching the end frustrated that there isn’t more. In the 12 years between the second and third volumes it became common for Caro to be accosted by strangers who told him that they were desperate for him to get on with it.

Those who feel this most keenly seem to be politicians, those who hold power and those who seek it. For in political circles it is common to hear The Years of Lyndon Johnson cited as a favourite book. William Hague asked Sue Lawley to be allowed to take it with him to his desert island. He says that “often, to a politician, reading about politics is so much less interesting than practising it. This book makes reading about politics at least as exciting as experiencing it. Caro is a great writer and he has fantastic subject matter with the utterly single minded nature of this politician. He was ambitious to the point of obsession.” A leading backbench MP, eagerly awaiting the third volume which is on his way to him from America, told me he had thought of sending the author a note of gentle encouragement to speed up publication.

It wouldn’t have worked. Caro can’t hurry up, he won’t just get on with it. And that’s what makes his biography so extraordinary. The Years of Lyndon Johnson is not compellingly readable despite its length, it is compellingly readable because of its length. The number of pages may make it difficult to pick up, but the breathtaking detail makes it impossible to put down. It is detail that only an obsessive could unearth, though the writer would deny the description. In describing Lyndon Johnson, Caro writes of ambition so great that it is hard to fathom, of perseverance in epic quantities, of a hunger to succeed that ordinary mortals do not possess. Yet, by all accounts, he remains unaware that he possesses these qualities himself, though he has put them to a different use.

“To understand Lyndon Johnson you have to understand the soil,” the author was told. So he and his wife, Ina, moved to Johnson’s home state of Texas and he spent night after night in a sleeping bag in the exposed Hill Country, trying to understand the loneliness of Johnson’s existence as a child and why his mother was perpetually frightened and unable to cope. Together, he and Ina interviewed hundreds of people about their backbreaking work and their terrible poverty, about how the wind blew away their crops and left them nothing, about what it was like to haul water and iron clothes and can food when there was no electricity. He learnt about Lyndon’s humiliation as his father was ruined, an honest man trying to survive among hard, dishonest politicians, how he and the family became a local joke and how Jyndon vowed that he would never be like his father. From this amazing feat of research emerges a vivid picture of American life in the Thirties and Forties. Page after page of Johnson’s biography ignores the man while explaining the country in which he was born and both the source and effects of his power.

Anyone who wants to understand why the citizens of developing countries queue for hours in order to vote for tyrants should read the chapter about daily life in the Texas Hill Country before electrification. Johnson brought his constituents electricity, a boon so great that almost any amount of corruption would have been tolerated from the man who turned on the power.

Lyndon Baines Johnson lifted himself from poverty, from working in road gangs and teaching in small country schools to the highest office in the land, bringing hope to the poor and civil rights to African Americans. Robert Caro hoped he would come to love LBJ. Yet he gradually found that there was more to his subject than any of the 17 previous biographies had told. There was corruption, deceit, lying, fraud, viciousness, intolerace, racial abuse. LBJ was a bully, a coward a crook. He cheated one man who thought of him as a son, and made a cuckold of another. He stuffed ballots and rigged elections. He used money to buy influence and broke the law repeatedly to do so. LBJ was a monster.

Caro did more than suggest all this, he proved it, documenting each lie, each fraud, until it could no longer be disputed. He interviewed so many people that he was able to follow his subject into almost every room he entered. And even when his first volume revealed their hero’s flaws, he somehow managed to get Johnson’s circle to keep talking, to tell him things they had never told anyone before. Anxious to speak to anyone who knew Johnson, however fleetingly, he phoned people again and again, ready to fly anywhere to talk. For Caro it wasn’t enough, for example, to interview the ambulance driver who took Johnson to hospital when he had a heart attack. He had to speak to the cardiologist too, he had to be inside the hospital. He called for years, just wore him down, and when the doctor was almost deaf and 85 years old, he agreed to talk.

It is this sort of doggedness that explains why Caro was able to describe pay-offs down to the last dollar and how he could prove, beyond doubt, that Johnson stole his seat in the Senate.

Caro’s description of farm life in Texas is without parallel and his account of the 1948 Senate election tussle in that state is riveting. But in the end it is Johnson’s character that makes this essential reading for those who want to comprehend power and politics. His hunger for respect and his aversion to the smallest slight led him to heinous acts and towering good deeds. Had he not been overbearing, corrupt, drunk with ambition, he would not have been able to help millions who lived in poverty. Without his racism and pandering to Southern prejudice, civil rights legislation might have been delayed for years. His lies brought him the presidency, his lies nearly destroyed the office. Every paradox that makes politics truly, endlessly, fascinating, every twist and turn that repels some and engrosses others, is there in the life of Lyndon Johnson. And it is there in The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

“WHEN he saw someone he knew, his lean white face “would”, in the words of a Hill Country resident, “just light up”. He would stride over, ungainly in his eagerness, and call the man’s name. “Old Herman,” he would say. “How ya comin’?” He would put his arm around Herman’s shoulders. “How are ya?” he would say. “Ah’m awful glad to see ya.”

Looking up at that face, alight with happiness, even the crustiest, most reserved farmer might be warmed by its glow. And the glow would deepen with fond recollection. “Well, the last time ah saw you was at the horse races up to Fredericksburg,” Lyndon Johnson would say. “We had a good time, didn’t we? Remember that mare we bet on?”

Lyndon Johnson had not seen some of the people he was greeting for ten years, but his memory of good times they had shared seemed as vivid as if they had been yesterday. And so was his memory of the names of their kinfolk. Recalls his cousin Ava: “He would say, ‘It’s been a long time. How’s so-and-so?’ And he’d always know some member of his family to talk about. Listening to him, I realised he had a mind that didn’t forget anything. ‘Well, how’s your boy comin’? Ah remember him!’ ”

His questions got the other man talking. In no more than an instant, it seemed, a rapport would be established. The rapport would be cemented with physical demonstrations of affection. With women, the cement was a hug and a kiss on the cheek. The technique was as effective for him as a candidate as it had been for him as a teenager. “Lyndon’s kissing” became almost a joke during the campaign, but a fond joke. One elderly Hill Country rancher, annoyed by his wife’s insistence on attending a Johnson rally, growled: “Oh, you just want to be kissed.” The rancher agreed to take her, but she was ill on the day of the rally, and he went alone. Upon his return, he told his wife, in some wonder: “He kissed me!” With men, the rapport was cemented with a handshake -and a handshake, as delivered by Lyndon Johnson, could be as effective as a hug.

All politicians shake hands, of course. But they didn’t shake hands as Johnson did “Listen,” he would say, standing, lean and earnest and passionate, before a Hill Country rancher he remembered from his youth.

“Listen, I’m running for Congress. I want your support. I want your vote. And if you know anybody who can help me, I want you to get them to help me. I need help. Will you help me? Will you give me your helping hand?”

Will you give me your helping hand? -it was only as he asked that last question that Johnson raised his own hand, extending it in entreaty.

The instant empathy Johnson created began, in fact, to cause problems for campaign aides trying to keep him on a tight Saturday schedule. An aide would attempt to urge Johnson along, but the voter, still holding tight to his hand, would walk along with him, trying to prolong the conversation. Sometimes, several voters would walk along. ”

Extracted, from The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol1: The Path to Power, by Robert A. Caro, Pimlico, £15

The Life and Times of LBJ

  • 1908: Born near Johnson City in southwestern Texas
  • 1934: Marries Claudia Alta Taylor, “LadyBird”
  • 1948: Wins Senate seat for Democrats
  • 1953: Elected party leader in Congress
  • 1960: Loses Democratic presidential nomination to JFK but becomes his vice-presidential candidate
  • 1963: 112 minutes after Kennedy is assassinated takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One
  • 1964: Signs the Civil Rights Act that bans racial and sexual discrimination. Wins election against Barry Goldwater
  • 1965: Voting Rights Act bans literacy tests that stopped mainly black illiterates from voting. American planes bomb North Vietnam. By the end of 1966 some 360,000 American troops were in Vietnam
  • January 1969: Leaves office
  • January 1973: Dies at his Texas ranch

The Times, London 2002, by Daniel Finkelstein.
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