Should LBJ Be Ranked Alongside Lincoln?

Robert Caro, the esteemed biographer of Lyndon Baines Johnson, talks on the Shakespearean life of the 36th president

Caro’s hunt for the soul of LBJ has become a thrilling race against time. (Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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It has become one of the great suspense stories in American letters, the nonfiction equivalent of Ahab and the white whale: Robert Caro and his leviathan, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Caro, perhaps the pre-eminent historian of 20th-century America, and Johnson, one of the most transformative 20th-century presidents—in ways triumphant and tragic—and one of the great divided souls in American history or literature.

When Caro set out to write his history, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, he thought it would take two volumes. His new Volume 4, The Passage of Power, traces LBJ from his heights as Senate leader and devotes most of its nearly 600 pages to the first seven weeks of LBJ’s presidency, concluding with his deeply stirring speeches on civil rights and the war on poverty.

Which means his grand narrative—now some 3,200 pages—still hasn’t reached Vietnam. Like a five-act tragedy without the fifth act. Here’s where the suspense comes in: Will he get there?

In 2009 Caro told C-Span’s Brian Lamb that he had completed the stateside research on Vietnam but before writing about it, “I want to go there and really get more of a feel for it on the ground.” Meaning, to actually live there for a while, as he’d lived in LBJ’s hardscrabble Texas Hill Country while writing the first volume, The Path to Power.

Caro still plans to live in Vietnam, he told me when I visited him in his Manhattan office recently. He’s 76 now. There has been an average of ten years between the last three volumes’ appearances. You do the math.

I’m pulling for him to complete the now 30-year marathon, and the guy who met me at his Manhattan office looked fit enough for the ordeal of his work, more like a harried assistant prof at Princeton, where he studied. He was in the midst of frantically finishing off his galleys and chapter notes and told me he just realized he hadn’t eaten all day (it was 4 p.m.), offered me a banana—the only food in the office—and when I declined, I was relieved to see, ate it himself. The man is driven.

Those who have thought of Caro as one of LBJ’s harshest critics will be surprised at the often unmediated awe he expresses in this new book: “In the lifetime of Lyndon Johnson,” he writes of LBJ’s first weeks as president, “this period stands out as different from the rest, as one of that life’s finest moments, as a moment not only masterful, but in its way, heroic.”

But how to reconcile this heroism with the deadly lurch into Vietnam? I have my suspicions as to what he’s going to do, and you might too when you get to the final page of this book where he writes, after paying tribute to this heroic period, about the return to the dark side, “If he had held in check those forces [of his dark side] within him, had conquered himself, for a while, he wasn’t going to be able to do it for long.”

“Do you mean,” I asked him, “that the very mastery of power which he’d used for civil rights gave him the hubris to feel he could conquer anything, even Vietnam?”

“I’ll have to take a pass on that,” Caro said. He won’t reveal anything until he writes it.

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