This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
Robert Caro has now composed twenty-six-hundred pages on Lyndon Johnson, which makes it possible to draw certain conclusions about the colossal project to which he has dedicated twenty-five years of his life. In many respects the books are remarkable, and where they are best is on the concrete, material reality of Johnson’s life: the terrain he sprang from; the friends he betrayed; the furious political campaigns he ran; the dams and electricity lines he helped to get built; the elections he stole; the political machine he forged; the combat service he evaded; the fortune he accumulated in office; the powerful older men he cultivated; the Senate rules he mastered. These are not small achievements for a biographer, and they culminate in Caro’s damning account, in all three books, of LBJ’s close association with Texas-based oil, gas, and construction interests - which provided, from day one, the money on which his political career was built and sustained. “One of the concerns of my work,” Caro once wrote, “is the use of economic power to create political power.” Few have documented it better than Caro has.
Yet, in spite of all this, something is missing from Caro’s portrait of Lyndon Johnson. In a brilliant review of Means of Ascent in The New York Times Book Review, Ronald Steel, author of the prize-winning Walter Lippmann and the American Century (1980), noted that Caro’s emphasis on how power is used—to build dams, win elections—is “masterly,” not least because it “contributes to the moral energy of his books! But Steel described the limits of Caro’s brand of muckraking - it “washes away lines and shadows. There is not much complexity in this Johnson,” Steel determined, “no moments of self doubt or remorse, only scheming, lying, and a `cynicism that had no discernible limits.”
A comparison with other recent biographies, like Marshall Frady’s extraordinary Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson (1996), helps to illuminate Caro’s shortcomings. The comparison between Jesse Jackson and Lyndon Johnson is not academic or gratuitous; people who knew both men, like the journalist Roger Wilkins, were struck by how similar they were, both in background and temperament. Frady spent years with Jackson, and he provides a dizzying, Faulknerian portrait of his subject—his fears, his cruelty, his self-doubt, his vanity, his courage.
Frady—who has worked at Newsweek and ABC News, and written biographies of George Wallace, Billy Graham, and, most recently, Martin Luther King Jr. insisted that there is something unknowable about Jackson’s inner core. “One is presented,” Frady wrote, “with a personality of such deeply contrary properties that he might almost best be described in terms of quantum physics.” In the end, ofter observing Jackson tour a ramshackle housing project in Watts, where he received an ecstatic reception, Frady concluded that Jackson “operates in the interior regions of the heart” The biographer, too, must navigate those interior regions; but Caro prefers the archives. What’s dear is that Frady’s novelistic sense of character enables him to see more—and delve deeper—into his subject. Jesse Jackson comes alive in Frady’s pages in a way that Lyndon Johnson does not in Caro’s.