Robert Caro, an American author, has not long published The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. It’s an exhaustive biography of the former president, but it’s also exhausting; for this is volume four and it’s not finished yet. It may, in the end, take Caro longer to write the life than Johnson to live it. For goodness sake, The Passage to Power just takes him over the threshold of the Whitehouse!
I love biography, the more detailed the better but there seems to be a certain lack of authorial or editorial discipline here. It’s now ten years since The Master of the Senate, the previous volume, was published and thirty since the project began. According to an interview I read in Prospect, a political monthly, Caro “writes fast”; it’s the research that takes up the time. He is to be commended for his thoroughness, but there are limits, even to the most meticulous research. Is this, I ask myself, the real-life Book of Sand, a candidate for inclusion in Jorge Luis Borges Library of Babel?
Writing in Prospect, Sam Tanenhaus says;
Caro is not prolific, but he is prodigious. The books keep coming, heavy volumes, densely written and meticulously sourced. The latest, at just over 700 pages, is of medium length for him. It explores, or excavates, six years in Johnson’s life, 1958-1964 – covering his exit from the Senate, his miserable, deflating years as vice president, and his sudden elevation to the presidency, following the assassination of John F Kennedy. During five of those years Johnson did, more or less, nothing.
What; does the author take 700 pages to tell us that his subject, more or less, did nothing?! I’m beginning to feel a little guilty as I write. I have no desire to talk down this work, a work that I have not read, a work that is unlikely ever to be surpassed, assuming its ever finished (my goodness, Vietnam, the Great Society, race, riots and rebellion are still to come!) but I simply could not resist passing comment on the observation about five years of, more or less, nothing!
Even Tanenhaus, who clearly admires Caro for his industry, is aware of an inflationary tendency – “Had he written Waiting for Godot it would be longer than Wagner’s Ring, yet with its own idiosyncratic magnificence.” Just imagine waiting for Godot for hour after hour after hour after hour. There is only so much the human spirit can stand, even when there is idiosyncratic magnificence!
Will I ever approach this monument? Possibly not; there are too many other things to engage me and reading is for life, not life for reading. Besides, I’m not sure I want to follow the Book of the Life of Johnson, at least in such detail, idiosyncratic magnificence or not. There is a tragic quality to a man more controlled by events than controlling, a man who inherited a war and lost it; a man who launched massive welfare programmes which had a lasting and negative impact on American society. But when it comes to tragedy I’m far more intrigued by Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon than Lyndon Johnson, the wheeler, dealer and failure from