Mr. Caro's Opus

You've got no secrets from me this week. Unless you were one of the early birds who devoured the thing in vast, debilitating insomniac gobs after clawing the box open on publication day, you are now somewhere between page 300 and 500 of Robert A. Caro's The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV. (Spoiler alert: JFK doesn't make it.) And you're so engrossed that you're ignoring your significant other's timid semaphore signals—ah, can't beds can be as wide as the Atlantic sometimes?—to the general effect that he or she misses sex. 

Meals, too, and dammit, Joey. Isn't it your turn to walk Bowser? 

All that is more than understandable. The thing is as absorbing as a casket stuffed with brisket or a drowned Cadillac with unknown passengers. But as the roar of coverage that greets each new installment of Caro's epic recedes, I invite you to take wing alongside me like a seagull in search of interesting flotsam.

1. The Also-Ran. You know, folks, it wouldn't kill you to take a minute or two to feel bad for Robert Dallek, the first-rate historian whose excellent, really-all-you-need-to know, modestly two-volume LBJ biography—Lone Star Rising (1991) and Flawed Giant (1998)—was overshadowed from inception to finish by the python uncoilings of Caro's magnum opus. Starting with his very sturdy Kennedy bio, An Unfinished Life, Dallek has moved on to other topics almost as if he thinks his vocation has a purpose beyond inviting our awe at his Promethean struggle with his material. But recalling the days when he was the stolid Mitch to Caro's glamorous Blanche du Bois as they both circled Stanley Kowalski in search of higher truths may well give the other Robert an occasional melancholy or perhaps indignant afternoon all the same. 

2. Caro's Model. Did he have one? Indeed so, if you ask me: T. Harry Williams's magnificent Huey Long, which came out in 1969. That is, right around when a sort-of young Robert A. Caro would have been getting into the biography business in earnest. (The Power Broker, his landmark study of Robert Moses—now a mere preliminary bauble to his Promethean etc., etc., etc.—came out five years later.) Picking up Williams's book not long after finishing The Passage of Power, I was struck by the similarity of their m.o.'s: the calculated alternation of dramatized crises and analytical narrative, the use of ostensibly digressive character portraits and historical sidebars to sharpen our sense of the main character's dynamic effect, the determined prioritizing of place and context, rather than psychology—Margaret Mead, not Freud—as the key to everything. Admittedly, Williams did sound like he enjoyed life (and Huey) a lot more than Caro does Johnson (or life), but you know how something's always lost in translation. 

3. He Do The Police in The Same Old Voices. Everybody knows that Caro is a brilliant organizer of his own research and a master of dramatic effects. On the other hand, anyone rash enough to call him a great stylist is lucky enough to be encountering the hackneyed verbal arpeggios and kitschy sonorities of midcentury American newsmagazine writing in its Aggrandizing Mode—a compound of the King James Bible, Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe, Henry Luce's philosophical side and Max Steiner's score for Gone With the Wind—for the very first time. (When the lyrical impulse bit him, Making of the President author Theodore H. White was no slouch at this stuff: "I had asked [Kennedy] what part of the country, of which he had seen so much in campaigning, he thought was most beautiful. He thought for a moment and then, like most Americans, chose home—the hills of New England, when the leaves are turning in their fall rhapsody of color, were, he thought, the most beautiful sight of all the beauties of America's vastness.") For those of us afflicted by a sentimental fondness for pre-New Journalism showing off, the pleasure of Caro's obliviousness to how outdated his idea of great writing is—in this as in so many things, he's like a Clark Kent who stepped into a phone booth around 1965 and monkishly never came out—comes down to the eerie way The Years of Lyndon Johnson sometimes reads like an artifact of the period in question, not distant history. 

4. What's Been Left Out (So Far). Aside from a few glimpses of later events, The Passage of Power ends sometime in March, 1964. Not in the index: the Beatles, whose February 9 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show is a better benchmark than most for when the 1960s turned into "The Sixties." Similarly, Elvis Presley was a no-show in Master of The Senate—and up to a point, that's fine with me. Those dumb "And here what's was going on in the culture" paragraphs that academic historians (which Caro is not) most often concoct by relying on their graduate assistants (which he does not have) are usually lamer than Crisco in a recipe for lamb korma.

Nonetheless, the omission has set him a huge challenge. Especially once the boomers started feeling Tom Hayden's oatmeal along with their oats, LBJ's presidency made him the beleaguered cynosure of the past century's greatest cultural/generational donnybrook. Conscientious fellow that he is, Caro recently told Ron Rosenbaum he plans to prep for his final volume by visiting Vietnam. But toking up inside a VW microbus as "Somebody to Love" booms out over the Smithsonian's speakers and a hologram of a burning draft card appears stage left might do him more good. And it's more fun to imagine, too. 

4. So Where's Hollywood? To my knowledge—and, let's be frank, I'm probably more of a buff than you—there's only one relatively good performance by an actor playing Johnson on film: Randy Quaid, not yet loony, in 1987's LBJ: The Early Years. One reason the rest is dross is even Oliver Stone, who at least cares, doesn't know that Johnson is a more Shakespearean president than JFK or even Nixon. But Caro's four (to date) bestsellers about the man ought to get HBO cracking on something a mite closer to home than Game of Thrones, don't you think? Call me perverse, but my inner casting director is torn to the point of anguish right now between Jeff Daniels and Jason Segel. 


You may also like