The epic life of Lyndon Baines Johnson can be measured in many ways, but to me, the relevant unit is pages — 3,500 and counting.
This year, a half-century after the wily Texan ascended to the White House in the wake of John F. Kennedy's assassination, I read every word of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” Robert Caro's colossal unfinished biography of America's 36th president. As someone with little interest in politics and the attention span of a caffeinated squirrel, I normally stay far away from presidential histories heavy enough to crack walnuts, but three decades' worth of stellar reviews persuaded me to give the series a try. So in the spring I started the first volume, “The Path to Power,” published in 1982, and last month finished the fourth, “The Passage of Power,” which came out last year.
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Caro, a journalist turned historian, does not make it easy on the casual reader. He is prone to digression, dropping thousands of words on everything from the unique properties of Hill Country soil to the machinations of obscure Congressional subcommittees. He is repetitive, constantly invoking the same phrases ("He couldn't stand not being somebody, just could not stand it") to emphasize the bedrock character that lay beneath Johnson's protean behavior. And he is beyond thorough — his end notes alone run close to 300 pages.
I thought my tweet-atrophied mind would drown in this ocean of ink. But surprisingly, Caro's work activated something within me — a latent appetite for depth and complexity. The series turned out to be one of the highlights of my reading life.
We live in strange literary times, where any news story or blog post that tops a few hundred words invites the comment board insult tl;dr ("too long; didn't read"), while simultaneously, the Internet-enabled renaissance of so-called longform narrative encourages writers to go deep on every imaginable subject, regardless of merit.
But there's long, and then there's long. It's one thing to read a magazine story about a modern celebrity that might last the length of your train commute. It's quite another to commit to a series of thick books about someone forgotten by practically everyone younger than a baby boomer.
Lyndon Johnson, though, is well deserving of the treatment. Raised in destitution in the dust of central Texas, he built himself into a towering political figure through staggering effort and copious lying, cheating and conniving. He was a key actor in many turning points of the 20th century, from the New Deal to the Civil Rights era to Vietnam.
He is sometimes pathetic, mocked for his poverty as a young man and scorned for his country ways as Kennedy's vice president. He is quite often loathsome, stealing elections, cozying up to racists and profiteers and treating those around him, even poor Lady Bird, as pawns in his game of power, destroying all who threaten to slow his climb.
But just as you're ready to condemn Johnson as a great American villain, Caro reminds you of the results, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, achieved by Johnson's frequently appalling methods:
In the twentieth century, with its eighteen American presidents, Lyndon Baines Johnson was the greatest champion that black Americans and Mexican-Americans and indeed all Americans of color had in the White House, the greatest champion they had in all the halls of government. … He was to be the President who, above all Presidents save Lincoln, codified compassion, the President who wrote mercy and justice into the statute books by which America was governed.
A passage like that might sound ponderous in isolation, but Caro marshals mountains of evidence to support what, in a shorter work, would come across as unearned hyperbole. It seems as though Caro has scoured every relevant document and interviewed everyone who ever crossed Johnson's path. He punctures myths that Johnson and his cronies worked very hard to create and unearths secrets meant to be buried forever. He is an inspiring example to journalists like me, and to anyone who hopes that the truth, no matter how well concealed, is knowable, and that the powerful will someday be held to account.
The immense amount of work that went into these books is plainly visible, but I understand that their cascade of detail is not for everyone. When "The Passage of Power" came out, reviewer Erik Nelson of Salon called it bloated, rambling and repetitive:
Caro assumes the reader has not read any of the others in the series, so endlessly recounts what he wrote in them," Nelson wrote. "At the same time, he wants to make sure that the reader is panting for the next installment to arrive, hence a lengthy tease to the next work-in-long-progress. It's as if the 76-year-old author has made a deal for immortality, as long as he can just tease the reader into waiting another 10 years for him to get on with it.
That is a fair criticism. Time is precious, and attention is limited. All things being equal, short is better than long, and I'm sure Caro could have trimmed plenty from his saga without weakening his case.
But to me, this is one of those rare instances where too much is not enough. "The Years of Lyndon Johnson" is my "Game of Thrones," the thing I jabber on about at the office water cooler. Caro's tireless research, discerning analysis and sharp pen have allowed him to create a mesmerizing world, populated by characters suitable for a Greek tragedy or an HBO series.
There's LBJ's daddy, Sam Johnson, the principled state legislator whose cotton farm went bust, casting the family into humiliating indigence. There's Herman Brown, the hard-eyed construction baron who fueled Johnson's rise by trading campaign contributions for lucrative government contracts. There's Sen. Richard Russell, dean of the Southern Democrats, a man whose personal integrity was as admirable as his racial views were repellent.
And there's Robert Kennedy, Johnson's nemesis. Their mutual hatred was barely contained during the Camelot years, which make up the bulk of "The Passage of Power," and as Caro's next volume will surely illustrate, burst into public view during Johnson's presidency.
These unforgettable personalities, vividly rendered, make the pages fly past. By contrast, I recently read "This Town," journalist Mark Leibovich's chronicle of contemporary Washington, and after wandering through its 386 pages of cash-slinging lobbyists, shallow media fame-grabbers and low wattage congressmen, I scarcely remembered a word. It made me wonder if any 21st century American politician, made timid by ubiquitous polling data and 24-7 scrutiny, will ever be worthy of a multivolume biography.
Caro has said in interviews that his next book on Johnson will be his last, and given that he is closing in on 80, he's probably telling the truth. He has suggested that it might be published next year, though that would require a much quicker pace than he has so far demonstrated, especially since he still must cover Johnson's 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater, the social safety net created by the Great Society legislation and, of course, the horror of Vietnam.
I'm not holding my breath. But the great thing about going through the Caro workout is that I'm eager to explore other heavy-duty subjects. I just finished a history of World War I that was more than 700 pages — a mere amuse-bouche! — and might next move on to Rick Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy," which chronicles America's fight for Europe during World War II. Or maybe I'll try Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," or Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time." No gargantuan work of literature seems too much for me now.
Plus, there's a side benefit: Finishing these massive books has made me feel as though I'm striking a blow against the techno-cult of speed and ephemerality. Though I haven't sworn off Twitter, Facebook, BuzzFeed and the like, I'm relieved to find that The Matrix hasn't yet conquered every corner of my brain.
So I urge you to give "The Years of Lyndon Johnson" a try. It might cost you your spare time, your social life and possibly a trip to the urgent care clinic if one of the volumes were to fall on your big toe, but never mind all that. You'll get an education in politics, power and the curious back alleys of human nature that you won't forget — a payoff that is well worth the 3,500-page investment.
John Keilman is a general assignment reporter for the Tribune.
"The Years of Lyndon Johnson" by Robert A. Caro
"The Path to Power" (1982)
"Means of Ascent" (1990)
"Master of the Senate" (2002)
"The Passage of Power" (2012)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun