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On President’s Day (Family day in this part of Canada) I was listening to an NPR (National Public Radio) program about Lyndon Johnson’s biographer, Robert Caro.
Caro’s monumental biography of the 36th President has already evolved into five mammoth books, the fifth yet to see publication. The first volume, The Path To Power was published in 1981:
The second, Means of Ascent, in 1990:
The third, Master of the Senate, in 2002:
The fourth, The Passage of Power, which covers the assassination of Kennedy and Johnson’s ascension to the presidency, in 2012:
Caro has refused to provide a date for publication of the last volume, which will cover the Vietnam war era and much more: among other things, the 1964 presidential election; the Great Society programs; Johnson’s feud with Bobby Kennedy; the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; the decision not to run for re-election in 1968; Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination; Bobby Kennedy’s assassination; and Johnson’s post-presidency life until his death. Given so much information is available about these subjects, as well as their contentious nature, it’s no wonder it’s taking so long to complete.
Caro’s previous work, The Power Broker, about Robert Moses, was published in 1974. As such, I think it’s fair to say Caro has been working on his LBJ project for about 45 years. Caro is now 87 years old. I, like many of his admirers, are both anxious to read the final volume and fearful he may never get it finished.
The series has received such accolades as: “landmark”, a book of “radiant excellence”, “a monument of interpretive biography”, immensely engrossing”, “a wonderful glorious tale” and “majestic storytelling”. As a history buff and fascinated by the political processes in western democracies, I would agree. They tell a story not just of a man who shaped history but also the turbulent mid-20th century period in America.
In 2019, Caro threw his eager readers a bone, a small book of 207 pages (as compared to his normal 600 plus pages) called Working, about his process of researching, interviewing and writing. This was the focus of the NPR segment, in particular Caro’s interviews with Johnson’s younger brother, Sam Houston, about getting to the real truth of family lore. It took six tries to finally get at the truth of Johnson’s relationship with his father, and that effort took actually sitting down around the dinner table (in the Johnson family home in rural Texas) and recreating the discussion of one particular evening. “Truth takes time,” Caro concluded.
Caro (and his wife, Ina, who has been his partner in his writing from the beginning) are meticulous about tracking down everyone that needs to be interviewed, pouring through archival material and leaving no stone unturned. In sum, finding out the whole truth takes a great deal of research and checking with every source.
In listening to this interview, it struck me how social media and cable networks have transformed our current news world (cycle) into the exact opposite. Instant conclusions are made upon the thinnest gruel of information. Reputations are made or destroyed upon harsh criticism; an inadvertent or careless tweet, post or video. Any sense of relevant history or considered background is discarded along with yesterday’s trash. No effort made to understand and come to terms with what shaped a moment in time.
Thankfully, we have the many excellent historians and journalists to counter that impulse. We just need to be patient.