What I'm Reading (No. 62): Lyndon Baines Johnson
Robert Caro's epic multi-volume series on the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson has seemed to dominate my reading life for the last couple months. I've read other books (including a book club-inspired Obama detour), but my mind has been consumed by LBJ.
In this newsletter I'll talk a little bit about Caro (because he's just so interesting), and the first two volumes of the four-volume series.
I have noticed, of course, that these newsletters are getting longer. I only sort of apologize; just can't help myself.
Robert Caro, Legendary Biographer
In a writing career spanning over four decades, Robert Caro has written five books. Five! His first, The Power Broker, is a 1,300-page biography of Robert Moses. (Who?!) It won the Pulitzer Prize, and even though its subject is a little-known figure outside of NYC, it's a book that's been recommended to me numerous times (including by readers of this newsletter). I've not read it, but plan to after I've finished up bios of all the presidents.
Next, Caro set his sights on Lyndon Baines Johnson. Publishing one volume roughly every 10 years, the unfinished series has a cult following among history and biography nerds — Conan O'Brien included, who has tried exceedingly hard and unsuccessfully to get Caro on his show. In the four volumes published so far, there's over 3,500 pages and we've only just arrived to the presidency. (It's hard to believe, but the 83-year-old author claims there's only one more volume.)
Robert Caro, after five books, is widely regarded as the finest biographer of all-time. His works top nearly every list of "Best Biographies of All-Time."
The big question you're probably asking is why? Why do these dense history books carry such appeal?
It's simple really. As David Perell observes about the series: "First-rate writing is seductive no matter the topic."
And first-rate writing is what Robert Caro excels at.
To be clear, it's not easy reading. It's often dense and detail-heavy, and truly takes some commitment. Caro is unparalleled as a researcher and interviewer. But the writing is pure literature. The sentences and paragraphs and woven plot threads are more akin to Dickens than to Caro's history-writing peers. There just isn't anything like it, and anyone who's read his work agrees wholeheartedly.
Not only is the writing an achievement, but simply reading all that writing is an achievement. And it's one not soon to be forgotten; there's this indomitable sense as a reader that if I can make it through these books, I can read anything. I fear all other biographies will now be compared to Caro's masterpiece series.
I'm about halfway through volume three, and chugging along at about 50-100 pages a day. Let's dig just a little more into the first two.
Volume one of The Years of Lyndon Johnson was published in 1982, spans 768 pages, and covers Lyndon's genealogy, childhood, and first few years as a Congressman.
The first part is really a history of the West Texas landscape itself. (I learned more about Texan soil than I ever thought I would.) Lyndon's childhood was not a particularly pleasant one. The Johnsons were desperately poor, largely because of bad real estate investments. And yet, Lyndon found his way to a local college and graduated with a teaching certificate, acquiring a love for politics (and power) along the way.
He taught for a little while, but ultimately came to believe that life in rural Texas wasn't going to be enough for him, so he ended up in Washington, DC as a Congressman's aide. There, he displayed a knack for getting things done and for understanding the way things worked in politics. So when a House seat opened up in Texas in 1937, LBJ won the election at just 28 years old. In a couple short years, he befriended some of Washington's most important figures, including Sam Rayburn and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Caro makes the convincing case that Lyndon's life was basically a single-minded pursuit of power. He wanted to be in charge, no matter the costs. He paints a picture of a man with basically no conscience and no regard for right or wrong when it came to gaining that power. So, of course, being a Congressman wasn't enough. Next up: the Senate.
Volume two of the series was published in 1990 and is by far the shortest in the series at 459 pages. It covers just seven years of Lyndon's life and only a few primary topics: his WWII service, the building of his personal wealth, and the election of 1948 that propelled him to the Senate.
Most interesting here in volume two, and taking up over 200 pages of the book, was that stolen election. The Democratic primary pitted Lyndon against legendary governor Coke Stevenson. (And whoever won the primary would easily win the general election for the Senate seat.) Caro dove deeply to reveal the thousands of votes that Lyndon bought, stole, and bullied for. And only Caro could make a Senate primary so dramatic; I of course knew the ending of the story, and yet I sort of turned the pages on pins and needles, thinking Johnson just had to lose.
But he didn't. He won.
And in the 1950s, Lyndon displayed the full range of his political genius as a power-seeking Senator. That part of his life and career is covered in the 1,100-page volume three, which I'm hoping to finish in about a week.
That's what I've been reading. How about you? I always enjoy hearing. And I always appreciate your time and inbox space.