Robert A. Caro and digging into the American Dream with LBJ

mag-15Caro-t_CA0-jumboI’m a sucker for a good presidential biography, even as I loathe the orange troll currently occupying the White House. There’s something about the life sagas of America’s leaders that fascinates me, from the legends like Lincoln or Roosevelt to the sad sacks like James Buchanan. 

I’ve read dozens of ‘em, but if I had to pick the best, I’d single out Robert A. Caro’s sprawling four-volume (so far) life of Lyndon B. Johnson. I’m re-reading the first book, The Path To Power, for the first time in years. 

Caro is having a moment right now, with a short memoir (“Working”) just out as he labours away on the fifth and final book of LBJ’s life and times, a monument in prose he’s been working on for an astonishing 45 years or so now. At 83, Caro is in his autumn, but many a fan like me hopes he makes it to the finish line on what is one of the finest examinations of a leader and his times ever written. Forget Game of Thrones, this is the saga I want to see finished off.

170px-Lyndon_B._Johnson_-_15-13-2_-_ca._1915As a researcher and a journalist, Caro has few peers. The man is a human vacuum cleaner, sucking up every single factoid possible to craft fully rounded tales – he famously moved to the Hill Country of Texas with his wife to research LBJ’s boyhood years, and The Path To Power shows the painstaking time he took in its vibrant invocation of a long-gone era of hardened farmers and struggling families in a hostile land. 

Re-reading The Path To Power, I’m struck by Caro’s digressions and how they never feel like digressions. In most biographies a straight line is drawn from “A” (brief sketches of parents and family history, birth of subject) to “B” (subject’s life and career begins). But Caro lingers in the telling details, making us understand the infertile dirt which birthed LBJ, such as a short chapter about what life pre-electricity really felt like for the Hill Country farmers and wives – and that’s where his work comes most alive. Thirteen pages painstakingly detailing the work Hill Country women would do to wash and iron clothes without electricity is riveting:

More than once, and more than twice, a stooped and bent Hill Country farm wife says, “You see how round-shouldered I am? Well, that’s from hauling the water.” And, she will often add, “I was round-shouldered like this well before my time, when I was still a young woman. My back got bent from hauling the water, and it got bent when I was still young.” 

0cd909cfbc5bacfb7fd48e2a43a493eaCaro takes the time to get it right, and while 5 volumes and 5000 or so pages about one man’s life may seem excessive, other, shorter biographies I’ve read about LBJ seem like Cliff’s notes skimming over the surface compared to the richness of this work. 

You don’t have to be a fan of LBJ to admire Caro’s work, which frequently points out Johnson’s selfish, ambitious and often cruel narcissism – but always counterpoints it with his knack for the common touch, or how the haunting memory of his poverty in the Hill Country never, ever left the man, even when he became President of the United States. The first book of the four so far only takes us to 1941, but in its 700+ pages is the story of an entire cosmos. 

I’m dying for Caro’s final volume because it will at long last tackle the Vietnam years, an era which scuttled forevermore much of LBJ’s achievements and blotted out his remarkable civil rights work with blood in the jungle. There’s something Shakespearean about the lives of most of our presidents, but never more so than with LBJ – a poor boy from Texas who always wanted to be President, who got there in the worst way possible, and who lost everything over his intransigence on a war on the other side of the world.

Caro is our guide through a life that evokes everything good and bad about the American dream, and it’s a pleasure to dive again into his works. 

President George H.W. Bush and me

in-the-oval-office-former-president-george-bush-president-news-photo-568874837-1543650570

One of my weird hobbies is a US presidential history fixation. I keep it separate from my politics, which like most things seems a lot harder to do in 2018 than it once was. What I’m interested in is the personalities, the stories and the things that drove the men (so far) who’ve lived in the White House. 

So the death of a President for a prez-nerd like me is a kinda big deal. George H.W. Bush wasn’t my favourite President, nor my least favourite, but he seemed significant to me. 

He’s the first President I ever voted against, and his 1992 and 1988 campaigns were the first ones I really paid attention to. I turned 18 a year too late to vote in the 1988 election, but I was an unashamed Dukakis fan who was set up for the first of many electoral heartbreaks. My high school friends and I were what the kids today might’ve called “woke” and actually cared about the election; I remember some organising a day for everyone to wear black after Bush, the uncool candidate, won the ’88 race easily. #Occupymyhighschool!

BUSH DUKAKIS DEBATE 1988

In ’92, I voted for President for the first time, with Bush, Clinton and wayfaring stranger from another planet Ross Perot battling it out. On Election Night a dozen or so friends gathered at my apartment to watch the results, pretty evenly divided between Bush, Clinton and Perot supporters, a combination of partisan friends which seems harder to imagine happening today. 

It’s been 12 years since a President died and America went through all its elaborate mourning rituals. I remember clearly where I was when each President in my lifetime died – Richard Nixon, in 1994, I was in New Orleans visiting the family of a short-lived girlfriend. In a bizarre cosmic coincidence I met Hunter S. Thompson there the day after his nemesis Nixon had died. 

In 2004 I was working the weekend shift running a newspaper in Oregon and splashed Ronald Reagan’s death on the front page; in 2006 when Gerald Ford died I was at our beach house and didn’t find out about it for days. When George H.W. Bush died I’d spent the rainy Saturday watching Spielberg’s Lincoln movie with my son and also reading some of the massive history of President Ulysses S Grant I’ve been working on for weeks now. It was a very Presidential day. 

For a brief four years or so, the fumbling Bush dominated the culture, much like Trump does today. Dana Carvey mocked him on SNL, he beat up Homer Simpson, his wife wrote a book about their dog and apparently people actually bought it. I rather like Maureen Dowd’s reminiscences about Bush in The New York Times, which captures something of the man’s goofy embarrassing uncle vibe and the kernel of compassion which kept me from ever truly hating him. bush-56a9b7835f9b58b7d0fe5472

I didn’t love him and he made a lot of mistakes – being in a gung-ho conservative Southern college when the Gulf War broke out in 1990 and having people in my dorm cheer about “killing rag heads” in “Bush’s war” was one of those moments when I realised what side in life I wanted to be on. But I didn’t loathe him quite like I’ve come to loathe some who’ve followed him (as the writer Peter David puts it, “every president who passes away from this point on will have to face one question: Was he better than Trump?”). I sneered at Bush a lot in his life, but yet, I wouldn’t have balked at shaking his hand. 

There’s something strange and evocative to me about when a President dies. It pulls a firm curtain on whatever era they stood for, reminds us that no matter how big a deal someone gets to be they all face the same end. A lot of people are talking about how Bush was the last President who wasn’t loathed by a massive percentage of Americans, the last Cold War president, last World War II veteran president and maybe the last of what he called a “kinder, gentler nation” too. 

I may not have voted for President Bush, but he was a part of history for better or worse, and it’s worth taking a moment to think about what all that meant.