Charles McGrath recently profiled author Robert Caro for the NY Times Magazine. Caro has been working on a multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson since 1976…the fourth book in the series is out next month.
The idea of power, or of powerful people, seems to repel him as much as it fascinates. And yet Caro has spent virtually his whole adult life studying power and what can be done with it, first in the case of Robert Moses, the great developer and urban planner, and then in the case of Lyndon Johnson, whose biography he has been writing for close to 40 years. Caro can tell you exactly how Moses heedlessly rammed the Cross Bronx Expressway through a middle-class neighborhood, displacing thousands of families, and exactly how Johnson stole the Texas Senate election of 1948, winning by 87 spurious votes. These stories still fill him with outrage but also with something like wonder, the two emotions that sustain him in what amounts to a solitary, Dickensian occupation with long hours and few holidays.
If you’re a subscriber and haven’t gotten to it yet, the excerpt of Caro’s book in the New Yorker is very much worth reading; it covers Johnson’s activities on the day Kennedy was assassinated.
As Lyndon Johnson’s car made its slow way down the canyon of buildings, what lay ahead of him on that motorcade could, in a way, have been seen by someone observing his life as a foretaste of what might lie ahead if he remained Vice-President: five years of trailing behind another man, humiliated, almost ignored, and powerless. The Vice-Presidency, “filled with trips… chauffeurs, men saluting, people clapping… in the end it is nothing,” as he later put it. He had traded in the power of the Senate Majority Leader, the most powerful Majority Leader in history, for the limbo of the Vice-Presidency because he had felt that at the end might be the Presidency.