April 12, 2012

THE BIOGRAPHER OF POLITICAL POWER:

Robert Caro's Big Dig (CHARLES McGRATH, April 12, 2012, NY Times Magazine)

Robert Caro probably knows more about power, political power especially, than anyone who has never had some. He has never run for any sort of office himself and would probably have lost if he had. He's a shy, soft-spoken man with old-fashioned manners and an old-fashioned New York accent (he says "toime" instead of "time" and "foine" instead of fine), so self-conscious that talking about himself makes him squint a little. The idea of power, or of powerful people, seems to repel him as much as it fascinates. And yet Caro has spent virtually his whole adult life studying power and what can be done with it, first in the case of Robert Moses, the great developer and urban planner, and then in the case of Lyndon Johnson, whose biography he has been writing for close to 40 years. Caro can tell you exactly how Moses heedlessly rammed the Cross Bronx Expressway through a middle-class neighborhood, displacing thousands of families, and exactly how Johnson stole the Texas Senate election of 1948, winning by 87 spurious votes. These stories still fill him with outrage but also with something like wonder, the two emotions that sustain him in what amounts to a solitary, Dickensian occupation with long hours and few holidays.

Caro is the last of the 19th-century biographers, the kind who believe that the life of a great or powerful man deserves not just a slim volume, or even a fat one, but a whole shelf full. He dresses every day in a jacket and tie and reports to a 22nd-floor office in a nondescript building near Columbus Circle, where his neighbors are lawyers or investment firms. His office looks as if it belongs to the kind of C.P.A. who still uses ledgers and a hand-cranked adding machine. There are an old wooden desk, wooden file cabinets and a maroon leather couch that never gets sat on. Here Caro writes the old-fashioned way: in longhand, on large legal pads.

Caro began "The Years of Lyndon Johnson," his multivolume biography of the 36th president, in 1976, not long after finishing "The Power Broker," his immense, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses, and figured he could do Johnson's life in three volumes, which would take him six years or so. Next month, a fourth installment, "The Passage of Power," will appear 10 years after the last, "Master of the Senate," which came out 12 years after its predecessor, "Means of Ascent," which in turn was published 8 years after the first book, "The Path to Power." These are not ordinary-size volumes, either. "Means of Ascent," at 500 pages or so, is the comparative shrimp of the bunch. "The Path to Power" is almost 900 pages long; "Master of the Senate" is close to 1,200, or nearly as long as the previous two combined. If you try to read or reread them all in just a couple weeks, as I foolishly did not long ago, you find yourself reluctant to put them down but also worried that your eyeballs may fall out.

The new book, an excerpt of which recently ran in The New Yorker, is 736 pages long and covers only about six years. It begins in 1958, with Johnson, so famously decisive and a man of action, dithering as he decides whether or not to run in the 1960 presidential election. The book then describes his loss to Kennedy on the first ballot at the Democratic convention and takes him through the miserable, humiliating years of his vice presidency before devoting almost half its length to the 47 days between Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 (Caro's account, told from Johnson's point of view, is the most riveting ever) and the State of the Union address the following January -- a period during which Johnson seizes the reins of power and, in breathtakingly short order, sets in motion much of the Great Society legislation.

In other words, Caro's pace has slowed so that he is now spending more time writing the years of Lyndon Johnson than Johnson spent living them, and he isn't close to being done yet. 


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Posted by at April 12, 2012 7:58 PM
  
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