Robert Caro began writing about Lyndon Johnson in 1974. Since then, he hasn’t stopped and he’s published three volumes on the man, and his fourth is due out this coming May. There’s one more installment in the series, and if Caro’s past schedule is any indication as to how long we can wait, I’d say that it’ll be at least another five years before anyone’s reading the galleys of the ultimate book.
Caro’s written four books thus far, two of which have won Pulitzer Prizes. For any author, having 50% of your publications win a Pulitzer is like batting a thousand in baseball. What distinguishes Caro’s work is not only the quality of the research, but the fact that such titanic amounts of research enables the author to convey epic sagas that one isn’t able to discern from just doing web searches on Google or Wikipedia. Caro has devoted the bulk of his professional life to the art of biography, and he’s focused on a single aspect of it: power.
Sure, his books contain the expected regurgitations about the biographical statistics that you’d come to expect in any biography of a politician, but the facet on which he trains his attention like a laser is the acquisition and exercise of power and authority. Caro’s first forays into politics in the 1960s came when he was working on a series of articles for Newsday, a Long Island newspaper. Robert Moses, the infrastructure king of the east coast had succeeded in ramming an appropriations bill through the New York legislature, despite having public opinion turned against the funded project so completely. We live in a democracy, so why should this be happening? It was this event that prompted Caro to dedicate nearly four decades of his life to illustrating the mechanisms that enable or thwart power to function in modern American politics.
Reading his works is like a marathon. Individually, the volumes are like editions of the telephone directory, and taken as a set, they’re more like a miniature encyclopedia on one man’s life. But what Caro achieves is breathtaking. The sheer volume of work that he’s dedicated to his subjects enables him to capture a true and usually heretofore unseen aspect of Johnson’s life. He’s able to illuminate the events and relationships that allow individuals to acquire and exercise the authority to advance an agenda, usually against very steep odds.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another biographer of the caliber of Caro. The fact that his work has taken him nearly four decades and that it’s required the amount of effort precludes most reasonable expectations that we’ll have the good fortune to read a comparable work on a similar subject by an equal author, ever. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying his work in the meantime.