Does Bob Caro hate LBJ? -- no, LBJ awes Bob Caro

The Argument

Reviews of the third volume of the important Johnson biography are more about the author than the book

October 27, 2002|By Joseph R.L. Sterne | By Joseph R.L. Sterne,Special to the Sun

Take a biographer already trailing clouds of controversy. Have him write the third volume of a monumental work about an American president seemingly destined to be loved and hated for reasons as conflicted as the author and his subject. And what you get is a donnybrook in the book-reviewing fraternity that often reveals as much about the reviewer as the book.

Such has been the case about the nonfiction event of the year, Robert L. Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. Like his previous two volumes on Johnson's early years and his disputed election to the Senate, Caro's tale of LBJ's relentless ability to ram through the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction has been extravagantly damned and praised.

But with a difference. Praise for earlier volumes, which won National Book Awards, has been obscured by the subsequent attacks of Johnson acolytes who remain convinced that Caro is always intent on demonizing their hero. The likes of Liz Carpenter and Bill Moyers won't even speak to Caro. Harry Middleton, director of the LBJ Presidential Library in Texas, once wrote in his newsletter of Caro's "hatred of his subject, a loathing so deep it casts a sheen over his prose."

So with the publication last spring of Caro's massive book on Johnson's Senate career, the stage was set for a hostile reception by those convinced Caro was always full of loathing. Yet Caro sees it otherwise. In an interview with National Public Radio he said of Johnson: "I don't either like or dislike him. I try to understand him. If you have a feeling towards Lyndon Johnson, it's awe."

Now Webster's defines "awe" as "a mixed feeling of reverence, fear and wonder," and until a better description of Caro's attitude toward Johnson comes along, critics ought to take him at his word.

Even in his first and most caustic volume, in which he traces Johnson's manipulative political skills back to a fixed election in college, Caro wrote with awe about the future president's hard years picking cotton and working roads under a harsh Hill Country sun. It was an experience as epic and as unlikely a preparation for the White House as Abe's rail splitting or Harry Truman's dirt farming. Caro has always been as full of wonder over Johnson's ferocious ambition as he has been of fear (or loathing?) for his crude, deceitful treatment.

With this as a background, the reviews that greeted Caro's newest work were as interesting for their comments about the biographer as the biographee. Detractors were in joyful pursuit of Caro's shortcomings -- his obsession with Johnson's barnyard behavior, his penchant for dramatic overkill, his neglect of benign Johnson actions outside the chosen field of civil rights; supporters dared to extol the author for his storytelling flair, his indefatigable research and his willingness to give Johnson his due as the greatest champion of citizens of color since Lincoln.

Among the latter, it must be said, there was often a bit of gushiness, a bit of dazzle. Especially among the British reviewers. In the New Statesman, Stephen Pollard found it "the finest biography I have ever read or could imagine reading. Caro is so much in command of his research and has so much to say that not a word is wasted."(This in a blockbuster book of 1,167 pages.)

Richard Lambert in the Financial Times wrote that Volume III of The Years of Lyndon Johnson has "all the breadth, color and pace of its predecessors" and suggested that "time has mellowed Caro" in his judgments of LBJ. (Here, again, emerges the notion that Caro was incessantly negative in his first two volumes.)

On this side of the Atlantic, The New York Times Book Review reflected some of Lambert's approach when writer Jill Abramson said Caro "has at last found something about his subject to unabashedly admire" -- Johnson's decision to join the civil rights cause. She unabashedly praised the book for Caro's "majestic storytelling ability," his "vivid, revelatory institutional history," his "rich hologram of Johnson's character."

Business Week's reviewer, Richard S. Dunham, described Caro as "America's greatest living presidential biographer." "With due deference to David McCullough," he wrote, "no other contemporary biographer offers such a complex picture of the forces driving an American politician, or populates his work with such vividly drawn characters." But he added, Harry Middleton style, that "Caro's Johnson-loathing gets annoying."

Among more critical reviewers, none was more assiduous in pushing the loathing mantra than Ronald Steel in The Atlantic Monthly. Himself the author of a hatchet-job biography on Bobby Kennedy, LBJ's nemesis, Steel saw another hatchet job in Caro's "long and ferocious struggle with his subject."

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