Skip to main content

Power Dark, Power Bright: Robert A. Caro, Robert Moses, and Lyndon B. Johnson


ISSUE:  Winter 2003

The story of Robert A. Caro and his first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, has entered the realm of authorial legend. The elements of the tale are familiar, at least among journalists and writers: how Caro left an investigative reporting job at Newsday to spend a year writing a book about Moses that would help him understand and explain “political power and how it shapes our lives.” How one year turned into seven, forcing Caro and his wife Ina to sell their house to make ends meet until he could finish the book. How a back injury left him bedridden for nearly a year, during which Ina became his fulltime and, because she was so good, lifelong researcher. How the manuscript that Caro turned in to Alfred A. Knopf was shorn of 350,000 words, the equivalent of three midsized books, so that the remaining 700,000 words could fit between two covers. How the book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for biography and sell nearly a quarter-million copies. (It’s now in its 34th printing.) And how the success of The Power Broker earned Caro the literary reputation and financial security to spend the rest of his life writing about anything that captured his interest.

Lyndon B. Johnson not only captured Caro’s interest but has held it captive for 29 years as of this new year and counting. In 1974, the year The Power Broker was published, Caro began work on a planned two-volume, then three-volume, now four-volume, and possibly five-volume biography called The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The first installment, The Path to Power, was published in 1982. It took Johnson from his birth in 1908 to his defeat in the 1941 Senate election. Since then, as Nicholas Lemann recently observed in The New Republic, Caro has been “proceeding through Johnson’s life at an almost real-time pace.” Means of Ascent, the second volume, was published eight years after the first and covers seven years of Johnson’s life, culminating in his election to the Senate in 1948. Master of the Senate, which was published in May 2002, took 12 years to write. It spans Johnson’s 12-year career in the Senate.

All of the Johnson books have been excerpted in The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly and all have been best-sellers. The Path to Power and Means of Ascent won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and biography, respectively, and Master of the Senate is sure to be a leading contender for this and other major prizes. No one is complaining about the biography’s expansion from two to four or more volumes, least of all Knopf. Nor, apparently, is anyone shearing Caro’s manuscripts for shearing’s sake. Taken together, the three published Johnson volumes run 2,647 pages and roughly 1,375,000 words. Consider what Caro has left to cover: the 1960 election, Johnson’s years as vice president, his densely eventful presidency, and his retirement.

By all accounts, as well as by the evidence of his work, Caro hasn’t changed a bit during his career as an author. Assisted only by Ina, who is a professional historian, he does the research for each book by immersing himself in the documentary record, conducting hundreds of interviews, and living for months or years in places that he feels he must experience personally in order to make sense of his subject. (For the first two volumes of the Johnson series, that was the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country; for the third, it was Washington, D.C., especially the Senate chamber; and for the next one, it’s a Vietnamese village and a small Southern town.) Caro does the actual writing in a nondescript office in New York, working from a broad outline of the book that he spreads across the full length of a 22-foot wall and, on a day-to-day basis, from detailed outlines of each chapter that he compiles in thick loose-leaf notebooks. He weaves into his books long and detailed portraits of historical figures who were important to his subject, as Al Smith was to Moses and Sam Rayburn, Coke Stevenson, and Richard Russell were to Johnson, along with extended digressions on related matters. Most of these digressions are splendid—Stephen Harrigan called Caro’s description of Hill Country life before the coming of electricity “the most brilliant single passage of prose ever written about Texas.” But others, like the 100-page, 200-year history of the Senate that opens Master of the Senate, are tendentious and barely relevant.

Nor has the theme that animates Caro’s books changed: “political power and how it shapes our lives.” Moses, on the city and state level, and Johnson, on the national and international, interest Caro because they sought political power more ardently, wielded it more effectively, and lost it more tragically than any other figures of their time. Because power is Caro’s theme, how well he illuminates it is the standard by which his work ultimately must be judged.

II

Caro’s passion for understanding political power flowed from his work as an investigative reporter for the Long Island newspaper Newsday in the mid 1960’s. The fledgling daily was working hard to gain national recognition for excellence by winning Pulitzers. As Caro explains, “the paper . . . felt that the way to get a Pulitzer Prize was to get something accomplished, not merely to write about it.” So when Caro wrote a series attacking Robert Moses’ plan to build a bridge from Rye to Oyster Bay, “the paper sent me up to Albany to “lobby” against Moses’ bridge.” Every legislator Caro talked with agreed that the bridge was “the worst idea in history.” But a week later, after Moses paid a visit to the legislature, they all changed their minds and approved the bridge.

“I don’t know what turning points you have had in your life,” Caro said in an interview with Kurt Vonnegut, “but for me I really think it was the 183 miles from Albany to my house on Long Island. I remember driving back home that night and thinking that it was really important that we understand this land of political power, and that if I explained it right—how Robert Moses got it, and what was its nature, and how he used it—I would be explaining the essential nature of power. All the way down from Albany, I was thinking, “What are you going to do with your life? . . . Why are you a reporter? You’re trying to explain how political power works, you’re talking to all your elected representatives and people who you thought had the power, and this one man can come up to Albany and in one day change the whole state government . . . 180 degrees. You think you understand politics, and in fact you don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.” And I determined then that I wanted to understand.”

Understanding political power wasn’t the only passion born of Caro’s newspaper days. He found that he loved poring through government documents to dig up the stories that corrupt or lazy public officials thought they had buried. He loved interviewing people, especially when he found how much more he could learn by being “quiet and patient” than by acting “too aggressive in asking questions.” (Caro says he learned how to interview from two characters in fiction, George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John Le Carre’s George Smiley.) Finally, he “hated” that, in the daily grind of newspaper reporting, “I never had enough time to really find out everything I thought I should know. . . . I believe that time equals truth.”

III

Caro took these passions with him to Harvard in 1966 on a yearlong Nieman Fellowship to study urban and regional planning. While he was there, he decided to take another year off from Newsday and write a book about Robert Moses. For nearly half a century, Caro wrote in The Power Broker, Moses had wielded “a power so substantial that in the fields in which he chose to exercise it, it was not challenged seriously by any Governor of New York State or . . . Mayor of New York City.” In the city alone, Moses had built 15 expressways, adding more miles of major highway than the total highway mileage of any other city, including Los Angeles. He built 13 vehicular spans, including the then-longest suspension bridge in the world, the Verrazano Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island. He built public housing for 550,000 tenants, 558 playgrounds, and other massive projects such as the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and Shea Stadium.

In the course of doing all this, Moses obliterated stable neighborhoods and displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. (Caro’s chapters on the human consequences of leveling one mile of the Bronx to build a strip of the Cross Bronx Expressway rival his account of life in the Texas Hill Country for dramatic power.) Moses also allowed New York’s mass transit system to deteriorate to the point that trains, buses, and subways became unrideable and the city’s streets and bridges became nightmarishly choked with automobiles. “With money you could buy almost anything in mid-twentieth-century New York,” Caro writes. “But you couldn’t buy a decent trip to and from work.” Yet Moses’ example became the model for other cities. “In the twentieth century,” wrote Lewis Mumford, “the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person.”

Caro knew that Moses was powerful—he had written about him as a reporter and bumped up against his influence in Albany. But simply knowing that he was powerful left two important questions begging. What made this man, who had never been elected by anyone to anything, who in his one bid for elective office had lost the 1934 gubernatorial election by the widest margin of any major party candidate in the state’s history, so powerful that he was able to “shape New York and its suburbs in the image he personally conceived”? And why had Moses, who initially had sought power as a means to accomplish great things—as “the servant of his dreams”—become a monster who sought “power for its own sake”?

The one year that Caro set aside to write The Power Broker became seven because the answers to these questions were so complicated and the information necessary to address them so hard to obtain. In the end, the latter problem was solved. Initially, Moses’ staff had let Caro know that he would have no access to Moses or his papers. Impressed by Caro’s tenacity, however, Moses eventually granted him several interviews. As for the papers, on a tip from a Parks Department official, Caro found that copies of Moses’ records had been stored in the basement of the 79th Street Boat Basin.

The first problem—unraveling the complicated story of how and why Moses had wielded power so skillfully—was intrinsically harder. To be sure, the “how” included some familiar elements of political leadership. Moses forged alliances with powerful figures, ranging from popular elected officials like Al Smith to publishers and editors at the major New York newspapers, especially the Times, to the bankers, investment houses, contractors, construction unions, and others who profited when Moses’ bridges, highways, and parks were built. In public, Moses successfully cultivated the reputation of a reformer while privately channeling jobs, legal fees, insurance premiums, and other coins of political influence to powerful machine politicians. Convinced that no court or elected body could stop one of his projects once he had driven the first stake or bulldozed the first tree, Moses mastered the art of the fait accompli. He was a hands-on taskmaster, a “charismatic bureaucrat” in the political scientist Herbert Kaufman’s phrase, whose subordinates loved, feared, and devoted themselves to him. Critics, on the other hand, could expect to be ruthlessly attacked with evidence if evidence was available and with lies and innuendoes if evidence was not. (Moses, writes Caro, “was a pioneer in McCarthyism, twenty years before McCarthy.”) And, as Kaufman also has pointed out, “Part of his success may be ascribed to the natural impressiveness of construction projects.” In contrast to even high-quality social programs, “the results are tangible; they lend themselves to spectacular ceremonial openings; they can be photographed and visited.”

Caro’s genius lay in discovering that the how of Moses’ power relied not just on these familiar elements but also on elements that Moses essentially invented or reinvented, especially the public authority. Moses had a long history, dating to his transformation of an unprestigious student literary magazine at Yale into a platform for Big Man on Campus status, of being able “to take an institution with little or no power . . . and to transform it into an institution with immense power.”

The public authority was just such an institution. Historically, public authorities were created by government to raise money through the sale of bonds to build a single toll road or bridge. They went out of business when enough tolls had been collected to pay off the bonds. Moses realized that if he could write the powers of the Triborough Bridge Authority, which he headed, into the contract between the authority and its bondholders, then the authority could continue to float bonds long after the bridge was built and keep the extra toll money to finance other projects of his own design. As Caro notes, “He would be able to determine by his own criteria which transportation facilities should be built and in which order.” The state government that had created the authority might want to put it out of business, but the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from impairing contractual obligations, would deny it that authority. The millions, then billions of dollars that the Triborough authority accumulated over the years made it the most powerful institution—and Moses the most powerful man—in New York.

Yet as nuanced as Caro’s understanding of how Moses accumulated power is, his analysis of why Moses sought power is as unsubtle as one of Moses’ bulldozers. Caro first invokes Heredity with a capital H, through which his mother’s side of the family endowed Moses with “the strain of brilliance, idealism, and arrogance, . . . passed on through her—undiluted, strong but somewhat formless—to her son Robert.” Caro then brings in environment (small “e,” not as important): the Oxford education that “would distill the arrogance, potent though it already was, and make it still more potent by adding to its essence a philosophical base, the British belief. . . in the duties—and the rights—of those born to wealth and privilege.” Those duties, as Moses understood them, entailed a career in public service. The rights included deciding what sort of service the public needed.

During most of the early stages of Moses’ career in New York, Tammany Hall politicians ruled the city. Moses had the will but not the way to impose his vision of the public interest on the untutored public. That vision started out clear and good: parks for the parkless, and parkways so people could get to them. Soon a breakthrough occurred in Moses’ political education that showed him how to turn ideas and blueprints into iron and steel, concrete and grass. Through a family friend, he met and became a protégé of Gov. Al Smith, who taught Moses some basic lessons in political reality. Moses made himself acceptable to the party bosses (Republicans upstate, Democrats in the city) and earned his first major appointment, as president of the Long Island State Park Commission.

Chapter 14 in The Power Broker is the first of three chapters called “Changing” that appear throughout the book. In every one of them Moses changes for the worse, and for the same reason: he accumulates more power, and the arrogance in his genetic makeup gradually supplants the brilliance and idealism. “For once Bob Moses came into possession of power,” Caro writes, “it began to perform its powerful alchemy on his character, altering its contours, eating away at some traits, allowing others to enlarge.” On “the edge of the bright gold of his idealism” had always been “a darker shadow.” But “[w]ith each small increase in the amount of power he possessed, the dark element in his nature loomed larger.” By Chapter 21, the second “Changing” chapter, Moses’ “arrogance was emotional, visceral, a driving force created by heredity and hardened by living. It wasn’t just that Robert Moses didn’t want to listen to the public. It was that he couldn’t listen, couldn’t—even for the sake of the power he coveted . . .” Fourteen chapters later (“Changing” again), “the arrogance that had gorged on power, swelling with each increase, had, now that his power in his chosen fields of activity was so absolute, become absolute itself.”

Caro’s account of Moses’ ultimate fall from power is a similarly mechanical tale of the arrogance in Moses’ heredity overcoming the idealism, of the “dark shadow” dimming the “bright gold.” Increasingly, with the passage of time, Moses surrounded himself with yes men who, as one reporter said, “nodded when he wanted them to nod, laughed when he wanted them to laugh. Watching them you got disgusted with your fellow man.” With no one to steer him from political error, Moses picked and lost fights with upscale patrons of a Central Park playground and with Shakespeare in the Park impresario Joseph Papp. These fights earned him a string of “Moses Against Mothers” and “Moses Against Shakespeare” headlines. Even worse than the ensuing loss of popularity was the loss of Moses’ reputation for invincibility. Unloved and, at the end, unfeared, Moses was nudged into retirement in 1968 by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay.

IV

Caro’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson has all the strengths and all the weaknesses of the Moses book. The writing is dramatic, compelling, even monumental. This is no accident. “For example,” Caro has said, describing the challenge of recounting Johnson’s 1948 Senate election in Means of Ascent, “you’re telling a story about Lyndon Johnson’s Senate campaign. That was a thrilling campaign. . . . If your account of that campaign isn’t thrilling, it’s false, even if it’s factually accurate.” Caro learned “from talking to Johnson’s helicopter pilot and his aides that he was desperate and frenzied during the last days of the campaign. So you say to yourself, if you want to show this truly, there must be desperation in your writing, desperation and frenzy in the words and the rhythms of the words. When I was writing the helicopter section, I pinned a note to the lamp that is on the desk in front of me. The note said, “IS THERE DESPERATION ON THIS PAGE?” No reader of Caro’s page-turning, 275-page account of the 1948 election will doubt that there is.

The research that provides the basis for the Johnson books is, if anything, even more impressive than the writing. It’s one thing to say that Caro reviewed millions of pages of documents. It’s another to see the fruits of that diligence. For example, surely every previous Johnson biographer had heard the widespread rumor that, as a junior member of the House of Representatives, Johnson had acquired enormous influence with his colleagues by raising and channeling Texas oil and contractor money into their 1940 reelection campaigns. But as New Deal insider and Johnson confidant Tommy Corcoran told Caro, “You’re never going to be able to write about that. Because you’re never going to find anything in writing.” Caro dug and dug and eventually found the evidence in Boxes 6, 7, 8, and 9 of Johnson’s House papers: who gave the money, how much, and when, as well as who Johnson funneled it to, how much, and when.

Similarly, as impressive as it is to learn that Caro conducted hundreds of interviews for the Johnson books, the nature of those interviews is what brings home their significance. To cite one of many examples, Caro interviewed Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, several times and wrote him off as a blustery drunk whose stories didn’t check out. Two or three years later Caro ran into him and “saw a changed man. During the interim he had had cancer and at least one terrible operation. And he’d stopped drinking . . . and he was just a calmer, more serious kind of man.” Caro decided to try again. He took Sam Houston to the restored family home in Johnson City, sat him in his childhood seat at the dinner table, and asked him “to recreate for me one of those terrible arguments that your father used to have at this table with Lyndon.”

“Gradually the inhibitions fell away. . . ,” Caro reports. “He started talking faster and faster. And finally he was shouting back and forth—the father shouting, for example, “Lyndon, God damn it, you’re a failure, you’ll be a failure all your life.” ” After Sam Houston had calmed down, Caro asked him to repeat all the stories about Lyndon’s boyhood, most of which had worked their way into other Johnson biographies, that he had told during their first round of interviews. “I can’t,” Sam Houston replied. “Because they never happened.”

V

The true test of the Johnson books, as of The Power Broker, is Caro’s own: how well do they explain “political power and how it shapes our lives”? Caro’s analysis of how Johnson accumulated power in Washington is no less brilliant than his account of how Moses came to dominate New York. Johnson’s lifelong genius, like that of Moses, was to take previously insignificant positions or institutions and turn them into power bases in ways that no one had ever imagined. In college, Johnson had joined a fringe social group and transformed it into the most powerful student organization on campus. As a young aide to a Texas congressman, he had become speaker of the somnabulant “Little Congress” of House staffers and used the organization as a vehicle to network with prominent Washington officials. As a junior member of Congress, Johnson had turned the politically insignificant Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee into an instrument of personal power by channeling campaign funds from Texas oil men and contractors to 77 of his colleagues.

Most important, not just for Johnson but for Congress and the nation, was what he did in the 1950’s with the position of Senate party leader. The job Johnson sought and was elected to in 1952 offered leadership in name only, and that was its curse. Committee chairmen had the real power, but because the party leader had the word “leader” in his title, the press and public held him responsible for all the Senate’s failings. Not surprisingly, the two most recent Democratic party leaders, Scott Lucas of Illinois and Ernest McFarland of Arizona, had promptly been rejected by the voters in their bids for reelection. No wonder Johnson, still a first-term senator, faced little opposition when he sought the post.

But as Caro shows in Master of the Senate, Johnson worked his magic once again, transforming the role of party leader into a position of political power just as Moses had transformed the role of public authority chairman into a position of power. Facing a Democratic caucus deeply divided between Northern liberals and Southern conservatives, Johnson first took on the seniority system. “For decades,” Caro writes, “men had been saying that no one would ever be able to change the seniority system. Lyndon Johnson changed it in two weeks.” As a way of winning the loyalty of younger members like Hubert Humphrey and Mike Mansfield, the new leader instituted the “Johnson Rule,” which provided that no senator would receive a second major committee assignment until every senator had received his first. He took the Democratic Policy Committee, a relatively new body that political scientists had hoped would highlight the differences between the two parties in starkly ideological terms, and turned it into a forum in which Democratic liberals and conservatives privately hammered out compromise positions on controversial issues so that they could present a united front in public. And, once the party had arrived at these positions, Johnson transformed Senate Rule 12, which governed the use of unanimous consent agreements to limit the time bills were debated on the floor, into a device for controlling the way the Senate conducted its business. “Now the bills that were already the creations of the Majority Leader,” writes Caro, “creations made possible by his new powers, would under this additional new power be managed on the floor by the Majority Leader.” In sum, Johnson took a scorned position of nominal leadership and transformed it into one of the two or three most powerful jobs in Washington. No wonder the current Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, said he was reading Master of the Senate so that he could find out how to do his job more effectively.

VI

Caro’s virtues as a biographer make it all the more disappointing that his analysis of why Johnson sought power is so shallow and mechanistic. As in the Moses book, heredity (in this case, the “Bunton strain” of “pride and ambition” from Johnson’s paternal grandmother’s side) combines with environment (his father’s steep descent from respected state senator to low-paid road crew foreman when Johnson was 13) to bind the fate of Caro’s protagonist. “It was the interaction of his early humiliation with his heredity,” Caro writes, “that gave his efforts their feverish, almost frantic intensity, a quality that journalists would describe as “energy” when it really was desperation and fear, the fear of a man fleeing something terrible.” Again as with Moses, higher education (four years at nearby Southwest Texas State Teachers College) only made Johnson worse: “obsequious to those above him, . . . overbearing to those who were not, . . . a mixture of bootlicker and bully.” As the historian Hugh Davis Graham has pointed out, Caro’s Johnson “came out of the Texas Hill Country formed, shaped—into a shape so hard it would never change.” And what an appalling shape Caro says it was: “frantic, almost desperate aggressiveness,” a “need to dominate,” “viciousness and cruelty, the joy in breaking backs and keeping them broken,” and an “all-encompassing personal ambition that made issues impediments and scruples superfluous.” Caro grants Johnson only one saving grace, a desire to help those who, like himself, grew up poor and marginalized.

Caro portrayed Moses’ character as a gold pattern gradually overcome by a dark shadow. His image for Johnson is similarly Manichean: two threads, one “bright” and one “dark,” that “run side by side” through Johnson’s life. In what the historian Ronald Steel criticized as “language that seems a bit clearer than truth,” Caro identifies the bright thread as compassion and the dark one as “a hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will.” Guess which thread dominates the “tapestry” of Johnson’s character. Guess which governs Johnson’s conduct when doing good conflicts with doing well. If you say dark, according to Caro, you will be right every time.

VII

Nothing has gotten Caro into more trouble with reviewers and historians than the entirely unnecessary corollary he seems to have attached to his thesis that Johnson’s character is a mix of dark and bright threads—namely, that when Johnson is being dark, his opponents must be bright. The most notorious example from the three volumes Caro has published so far is in Means of Ascent, where he turns Johnson’s opponent in the 1948 Senate election, Coke Stevenson, into an icon of frontier saintliness. This, by itself, is a bit strange: Caro’s only reference to Stevenson in The Path to Power was as “an ally of Beer, Inc., and its hard-liquor partner.” So enamored of Lieutenant Governor Stevenson was the beer and liquor industry that it helped to finance Johnson’s opponent in the 1941 Senate election, the prohibitionist incumbent governor “Pappy” O’Daniel, in hopes that O’Daniel would go to Washington and Stevenson would succeed him. When Stevenson runs against Johnson seven years later, however, Caro calls him “the Abraham Lincoln of Texas,” a small-town lawyer “who could swing a big double-ax with such accuracy that he could take a knot out of a log in a single stroke.”

Here, for example, is the entire list of qualities that appears under the heading “Stevenson, Coke Robert; character and personality of” in the index to Means of Ascent: dignity, fairness, frugality, honesty and integrity, leadership qualities, pride, self-reliance, sense of humor, simplicity, sincerity, taciturnity. Other Stevenson-related index headings include: belief in constitutional law and government, embodiment of Old West, a legend in Texas (“Mr. Texas”), belief in law and justice, idealism, love of government not politics, and love of liberty. Want to know what’s in Johnson’s index entry for character and personality? Aside from morally neutral qualities like charm and eloquence, Caro lists one moral virtue (compassion for the poor, which is mentioned in the book only once, on page xvii) and 10 vices that range from repulsive to hateful: aggressiveness, bragging and exaggeration, cruelty, cynicism, domination, flattery and obsequiousness, lying, manipulativeness, offensiveness, ruthlessness. Only in professional wrestling is the contrast between good guys and bad guys drawn more sharply than it is by Caro.

Reviewers like Garry Wills, Ronald Steel, David Broder, Robert Dallek (a rival Johnson biographer), and Sidney Blumenthal climbed all over Caro for his portrait of Stevenson. (Wills also pointed out that in his zeal to portray Johnson as a cruel husband, Caro indicts him first for not letting Lady Bird Johnson fly from Washington to Texas and then, a couple hundred pages later, for forcing her to fly even though she suffered “terror and airsickness.”) Blumenthal discovered that Stevenson was so virulent a racist that, while serving as governor of Texas, his response to the kidnap and lynching of a black defendant was, “Certain members of the Negro race from time to time furnish the setting for mob violence by the outrageous crimes which they commit.” As if to prove that he hadn’t learned from his mistake, Caro included a lengthy and unpersuasive answer to his critics in the paperback edition of Means of Ascent. Nonetheless, in the index to the next volume of his Johnson biography, Master of the Senate, you won’t find any entries labeled “character and personality of.”

VIII

Nicholas Lemann has identified some of the ways that Caro’s Moses resembles Caro’s Johnson: “They are both big-time government doers, nearly superhuman in their abilities, workaholic, monstrous, dominating, obsessed with the getting and the using of power, and prone to flipping back and forth between good and evil.” Other qualities can be added to this list. Johnson and Moses were both prone to health crises in times of political crisis. Both cared more about power than money, but they used money to win the support of other politicians who cared more about money. Most important, both were unsurpassed in their ability to take previously meaningless roles and organizations and transform them into power bases.

As for Lemann’s observation that Moses and Johnson each oscillated between good and evil, he is right about Johnson but not about Moses. Moses’s career described a tragic arc. As his power grew, the dark shadow in his character gradually blotted out the gold pattern, and in the end his darkness brought him down. The war between dark and bright threads in Johnson, as Caro portrays it, was ongoing. To be sure, every time “compassion had been in conflict with ambition, invariably ambition would win.” But the compassion remained unvanquished. And so, one wonders, what will the next volume (or volumes) of The Years of Lyndon Johnson be like?

For starters, we shouldn’t have to wait as long for Volume 4 as for Volume 3. Caro did the research for Master of the Senate in full awareness of the actuarial tables. Realizing that many of the people who knew Johnson best would not be around much longer, Caro conducted most of his interviews about Johnson’s vice presidential, presidential, and retirement years while also interviewing for the Senate book. His admittedly offhand prognostication for the next volume’s publication date is 2007 or thereabouts.

How Caro will treat Johnson’s experience in the vice presidency is a matter of real suspense. When Johnson became vice president in 1961, the office was just the sort of marginal, even despised institution that he had a lifelong history of turning into a new source of power. A much less gifted politician, Walter F. Mondale, accomplished that feat when he became vice president in 1977, proving that it could be done. Yet when Johnson tried to make the vice presidency into a new power base, he failed. How come?

Caro faces a similar challenge explaining Johnson’s listlessness after leaving office. Mondale’s boss, Jimmy Carter, has shown just how active, prominent, and influential a former president can be. Why didn’t Johnson discover this first? In view of the deeply rooted patterns of his life that Caro describes, why did he not even try?

Unfortunately, much less suspense attends the way Caro will treat Johnson’s conduct as president. Although, with gruff sanctimony, he refuses to discuss the subject with interviewers because he “hasn’t finished my research on the presidency,” the truth is that Caro reached his conclusions about the Johnson presidency a long time ago and has been previewing them ever since. Twenty years ago, in The Path to Power, Caro asserted that Johnson’s character was fixed at an unusually early age, certainly no later than the end of his childhood and college years. Although the character of many “other famous figures” continually develops through life, Caro noted, Johnson’s did not. “All the traits of personality which the nation would witness decades later—all the traits which affected the course of history—can be seen at San Marcos naked and glaring,” Caro concluded. “The Lyndon Johnson of college years was the Lyndon Johnson who would become president.”

When Johnson became president, Caro wrote 20 years ago, his rigidly fixed personality turned out to be crucial in two centrally important ways. In explaining the main events of his administration, both the Great Society (good, according to Caro—the “bright thread”) and the war in Vietnam (bad—the “dark thread”), “Johnson’s personality bore, in relation to other factors, an unusually heavy weight.” Beyond that, Caro argued, Johnson’s personality accounts for developments more lasting and significant than his own five years as president. The emergence of a deeply ingrained distrust by Americans of their government and the unhappy “evolution from a “constitutional” presidency to an “imperial” presidency”—in Caro’s view, “Both of these developments, which were to affect the nation’s history profoundly, were to a considerable extent a function of this one man’s personality.”

One can disagree agreeably with Caro’s claims that personality determines individual behavior and that individual behavior directs the course of history. That’s an age-old argument, and Caro’s position in the “great men or great forces?” debate is both legitimate and, even if he’s wrong, understandable in a biographer. What is less understandable, and certainly less legitimate, is that Caro reached his conclusions about the presidency of Lyndon Johnson before doing what he said he would do first—namely, the research. There will be good reasons to read anything that Caro writes in the future about Johnson. But gaining new insights into the nature of political power will not be one of them.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading