Catching up with award-winning LBJ biographer Robert Caro
Robert Caro's chronicle of LBJ's rise to the presidency has become the gold standard for presidential biographies.
DAVIDSON, N.C. — Robert Caro likes to say that he isn’t writing about Lyndon Johnson’s life. Instead, the 36th president’s tireless biographer says, he uses LBJ as a focal point to explore the use of power in the American political system.Skip to next paragraph
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That, of course, has led Caro to invest quite a bit of time and energy into the tiniest details of Johnson’s life. Nearly four full decades, in fact.
Caro, as with the best writers, lives by the maxim of show, don’t tell. The how and why obsess him, starting with a dirt-poor Texas Hill Country childhood and carrying through to the highs and lows of a White House tenure that includes staggering domestic achievements and debilitating foreign policy strategies and decisions.
Drawing on meticulous interviews with survivors and copious archival research, Caro, at 77, has become the standard-bearer for modern biography.
Four mammoth volumes into his LBJ biography, Caro keeps shedding new light on how Johnson leveraged a career in public office into a personal fortune; how he stole an election that could have ended his political career had he lost; and, most intriguing of all, how he counted votes, courted and confronted friends and enemies alike and, more often than not, got more than anyone considered possible in the halls of Congress.
On a recent winter night at Davidson College, a private liberal arts college near Charlotte, N.C., Caro delivers a lecture on Johnson just days after capturing the New York Historical Society’s American History Book Prize – and just before winning his third National Book Critics Circle Award on Feb. 28. Those prizes follow two Pulitzer Prizes (1975, 2003) and a National Book Award (2003). Last fall, he was one of five finalists for the National Book Award in nonfiction but lost to Katherine Boo.
“You know, when Winston Churchill was writing his famous biography of Lord Marlborough, someone asked him how it was coming along,” Caro told his audience by way of introduction. “And he said he was working on the fifth of a projected four volumes. I’m not comparing myself to Winston Churchill, but in this particular aspect, we’re in the same boat.”
It has been just under a year since Caro published “The Passage of Power,” the 712-page fourth volume in what was supposed to be a trilogy on the former president. Instead, Caro wrote a fourth installment and found that he would need at least one more to take LBJ’s story through Vietnam, his decision not to seek re-election in 1968 and, finally, his lost, embittered retirement.
Caro makes the talk-show and lecture rounds each time one of his books is published, but remains much more comfortable discussing his subject rather than himself.