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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“But do you have the last sentence written?” I asked. He’s said in the past he always writes the last sentence of a book before starting it. This would be the last sentence of the entire work, now projected to be five volumes.

To that he answers “yes.” He won’t, of course, say what it is.

Will that last sentence reveal a coherence in the portrait that he will have painted of LBJ’s profoundly divided soul, a division that makes him such a great and mystifying character? Worthy of Melville. Or Conrad. Or will the white whale slip away into the heart of darkness that is Vietnam?

The new volume takes us back to where his last Pulitzer winner, the 1,200-page-long Master of the Senate, leaves off, with LBJ having, by sheer force of will and legislative legerdemain, coerced the obstructionist, racist-dominated Senate to pass the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. It follows him through his strangely reticent, self-defeating attempt to win the Democratic nomination in 1960 (a window into an injured part of his psyche, Caro believes), portrays his sudden radical diminishment as vice president and sets up, as a dominant theme of the book, the bitter blood feud between LBJ and Robert F. Kennedy.

This mortal struggle explodes into view over RFK’s attempt to deny Johnson the vice presidential nomination. Caro captures the pathos of LBJ’s sudden loss of power as VP, “neutered” and baited by the Kennedy echelon, powerless after so long wielding power. And the sudden reversal of fortune that makes him once again master on November 22, 1963—and suddenly makes Bobby Kennedy the embittered outsider.

As I took the elevator up to Caro’s nondescript office on 57th Street, I found myself thinking that he was doing something different in this book than he had in the previous ones. The first three were focused on power, how “power reveals” as he puts it, something he began investigating in his first book in 1974, The Power Broker, about New York City’s master builder Robert Moses.

But this fourth LBJ volume seems to me to focus on the mysteries of character as much as it does on the mysteries of power. Specifically in the larger-than-life characters of LBJ and RFK and how each of them was such a profoundly divided character combining vicious cruelty and stirring kindness, alternately, almost simultaneously. And how each of them represented to the other an externalized embodiment of his own inner demons.

When I tried this theory out on Caro he said, “You’re making me feel very good. I’ll tell Ina [his wife and research partner] tonight. This is what I felt when I was writing the book. It’s about character.”

I don’t know if I was getting a bit of the ol’ LBJ treatment here, but he proceeded to describe how he learned about the momentous first meeting of these two titans, in 1953. “That first scene....Horace Busby [an LBJ aide] told me about the first meeting and I thought ‘that’s the greatest story! But I’ll never use it, I only have one source.’ And I called him and I said ‘Was anyone else there?’ and he said ‘Oh yeah George Reedy [LBJ’s press secretary] was there’ and I called Reedy [and he confirmed it].”

Caro’s account captures the scrupulousness of his reporting: He wouldn’t have used this primal scene if he hadn’t gotten a second source. Caro’s work is a monument to the value and primacy of unmediated fact in a culture ceaselessly debating truth and truthiness in nonfiction. Fact doesn’t necessarily equal truth, but truth must begin with fact.

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