I’m a sucker for a good presidential biography, even as I loathe the orange troll currently occupying the White House. There’s something about the life sagas of America’s leaders that fascinates me, from the legends like Lincoln or Roosevelt to the sad sacks like James Buchanan.
I’ve read dozens of ‘em, but if I had to pick the best, I’d single out Robert A. Caro’s sprawling four-volume (so far) life of Lyndon B. Johnson. I’m re-reading the first book, The Path To Power, for the first time in years.
Caro is having a moment right now, with a short memoir (“Working”) just out as he labours away on the fifth and final book of LBJ’s life and times, a monument in prose he’s been working on for an astonishing 45 years or so now. At 83, Caro is in his autumn, but many a fan like me hopes he makes it to the finish line on what is one of the finest examinations of a leader and his times ever written. Forget Game of Thrones, this is the saga I want to see finished off.
As a researcher and a journalist, Caro has few peers. The man is a human vacuum cleaner, sucking up every single factoid possible to craft fully rounded tales – he famously moved to the Hill Country of Texas with his wife to research LBJ’s boyhood years, and The Path To Power shows the painstaking time he took in its vibrant invocation of a long-gone era of hardened farmers and struggling families in a hostile land.
Re-reading The Path To Power, I’m struck by Caro’s digressions and how they never feel like digressions. In most biographies a straight line is drawn from “A” (brief sketches of parents and family history, birth of subject) to “B” (subject’s life and career begins). But Caro lingers in the telling details, making us understand the infertile dirt which birthed LBJ, such as a short chapter about what life pre-electricity really felt like for the Hill Country farmers and wives – and that’s where his work comes most alive. Thirteen pages painstakingly detailing the work Hill Country women would do to wash and iron clothes without electricity is riveting:
More than once, and more than twice, a stooped and bent Hill Country farm wife says, “You see how round-shouldered I am? Well, that’s from hauling the water.” And, she will often add, “I was round-shouldered like this well before my time, when I was still a young woman. My back got bent from hauling the water, and it got bent when I was still young.”
Caro takes the time to get it right, and while 5 volumes and 5000 or so pages about one man’s life may seem excessive, other, shorter biographies I’ve read about LBJ seem like Cliff’s notes skimming over the surface compared to the richness of this work.
You don’t have to be a fan of LBJ to admire Caro’s work, which frequently points out Johnson’s selfish, ambitious and often cruel narcissism – but always counterpoints it with his knack for the common touch, or how the haunting memory of his poverty in the Hill Country never, ever left the man, even when he became President of the United States. The first book of the four so far only takes us to 1941, but in its 700+ pages is the story of an entire cosmos.
I’m dying for Caro’s final volume because it will at long last tackle the Vietnam years, an era which scuttled forevermore much of LBJ’s achievements and blotted out his remarkable civil rights work with blood in the jungle. There’s something Shakespearean about the lives of most of our presidents, but never more so than with LBJ – a poor boy from Texas who always wanted to be President, who got there in the worst way possible, and who lost everything over his intransigence on a war on the other side of the world.
Caro is our guide through a life that evokes everything good and bad about the American dream, and it’s a pleasure to dive again into his works.