Earlier this year, I had variations of the following e-mail exchange with several NYC literary figures I know:
GIL: Just wondering: do you know Robert Caro?
AUTHOR/WRITER: By acquaintance. Why?
GIL: Would you say he’s in good health?
A/W: Not sure. What’s up? Have you heard something?
GIL: No. It’s just that, well, I loved his biography of Robert Moses, so I grabbed the first three volumes of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. But I know he’s getting up there in years and I’m afraid to start reading it until I know that he’s going to be around to finish the fourth volume.
A/W: . . . You’re a cold person.
GIL: Yeah, but do you think he’s going to finish the biography?
A/W: . . . Good question.
Caro’s own site doesn’t give info about how he’s doing and I’ve been afraid to contact his agent with such a crass question, so I’ve held off on starting the series. The first three books add up to around 2,250 pages, and winds up in 1960, as he becomes vice president under JFK. I confess that I didn’t understand Caro’s desire to devote the half his life (figuring that he started around 1976 or so) to this biography; I don’t know enough about LBJ’s presidency or his character. He’s sort of a void for me, falling between the mythologies of JFK and Nixon.
But, given Caro’s enormous achievement with The Power Broker, I picked up the first volume of the LBJ bio secondhand last summer and read the first 40 pages (introduction and first chapter) one afternoon. I was blown away by the combination of Caro’s wonderful narrative prose and his ability to convey exactly how LBJ epitomizes American politics. On top of that, LBJ’s character and his seeming desire to cover up and rewrite his past made him a fascinating literary character (to me, but I still like Thomas Pynchon’s novels). By the time I’d wrapped up those 40 pages, I knew that Caro had made a perfect choice of subject, and was looking forward to reading the whole series.
Still, I’d seen Caro in Ric Burns’ New York documentary and, while he didn’t look frail, I feared that I’d be taking a risk in diving into the biography, only to see it cut prematurely.
So I was happy to read that there was a Caro-related party this summer as part of the Authors’ NightÂ benefit for the East Hampton Library (and you scoff at my devotion to Page Six!). I found out about it too late to break out my seersucker suit and crash the event, but I took it as a good sign that Caro was part of the social scene.
Yesterday, I got even more of a boost when I followed an Andrew Sullivan link to a George Packer piece in The New Yorker, where he discusses the importance of LBJ:
Whenever Democrats gather to celebrate the party, they invoke the names of their luminaries past. The list used to begin with Jefferson and Jackson. More recently, itâ€™s been shortened to F.D.R., Truman, and J.F.K. The one Democrat with a legitimate claim to greatness who canâ€™t be named is Lyndon Johnson. The other day I asked Robert Caro, Johnsonâ€™s Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer and hardly a hagiographer of the man, whether he thought Johnson should be mentioned in Denver. â€œIt would be only just to Johnson,â€ Caro said. â€œIf the Democratic Party was going to honestly acknowledge how it came to the point in its history that it was about to nominate a black American for President, no speech would not mention Lyndon Johnson.â€ Caro is now at work on the fourth volume of his epic biography, about Johnsonâ€™s White House years. â€œI am writing right now about how he won for black Americans the right to vote. I am turning from what happened forty-three years ago to what I am reading in my daily newspaperâ€”and the thrill that goes up and down my spine when I realize the historical significance of this moment is only equaled by my anger that they are not giving Johnson credit for it.â€
Looks like I have a new reading project set once this Montaigne project is over!