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.
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The New York Times and a few others have dug up a few personal tidbits. Among the most repeated of late is Caro’s insistence on wearing a coat and tie to a private office he established in 1990, a 12-block walk from his home, as the Times reported. Last year, during an interview with CBS, Caro said he reports to his office in professional attire each day to trick himself into remembering that he has a job to do. His publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, doesn’t keep tabs on Caro, so Caro takes it upon himself to make sure he is productive.Skip to next paragraph
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For fans of the LBJ series, of course, there is another fear, one that readers of another epic biography – of Churchill, no less – know well. In 2004, William Manchester, the author of two popular and acclaimed volumes on Churchill, died. Before his death, he appointed a little-known journalist and friend to complete the final book. It was published last year and received mixed reviews.
But as Caro closes in on his 80th birthday, his readers need not despair: He remains spry. On this night, Joel Conarroe, a Davidson alum who has become a literary figure as former chair of the National Book Foundation and president emeritus of the Guggenheim Foundation, shares a few nuggets about Caro and his wife, Ina, a travel writer who also works with her husband as his research assistant.
Caro swims regularly to maintain his health and, judging by his appearance and remarks, remains invigorated by his pursuit of LBJ’s essence.
“Johnson was such a genius at using political power,” he says. “And bending Congress and all of Washington to his will. The greatest genius in the use of political power in America in the 20th century. It is endlessly fascinating watching him.”
Later, after signing books, Caro tells me in a brief interview that he doesn’t worry about finding answers and explanations to vexing historical issues.
With each volume in the Johnson biography, he says, a written account has always turned up. The key, Caro adds, is looking long and hard enough.
“The Passage of Power” offers several examples, most notably the section describing Johnson’s ascension to the presidency on Nov. 22, 1963. Though thousands of books have been written about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that day in Dallas, none before Caro’s account ever looked at those historic events through the prism of the vice president: Johnson.
As Caro began his research, he knew that, at the time, the Secret Service required its agents to immediately file first-hand accounts after any incidents, minor or major, involving the security detail for the president and vice president. The recollections had to be completed the same day of the incident and mandated that all details, no matter how small, be included.
Caro requested the files on Johnson’s detail from the Secret Service and never received a response. Then, he recalled that LBJ almost always wanted a copy of everything. Hoping this extended to the Kennedy assassination and the motorcade that included Johnson, Caro asked the LBJ Library in Austin to check and see whether any of the 23 Secret Service agents’ reports were in their archives.
And, of course, they were, “bound together in the crudest way,” setting Caro on the course to tell the story from an entirely new vantage point. He interviewed John Connally before his death, eliciting more details. Connally, then the governor of Texas, was in the car with Kennedy that day. The secretary who made sure Johnson recited the oath accurately in the cabin of the plane after JFK was pronounced dead also spoke to Caro.