This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
No one would doubt that Caro has written the biography of Robert Moses, but not everyone agrees that he is writing the definitive work on LBJ. Some reviewers have expressed a preference for Robert Dallek’s two-volume history, Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant. “Caro seeks understanding through simplification,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy wrote in The Atlantic in 1991, “with the result that his account, especially in Means of Ascent is in the end as one-dimensional as the lone and level Texas llano. Dallek renders his subject with much more chiaroscuro.’ Caro met Dallek once, at the Johnson Library in Austin, where, according to The New York Times, Caro remarked to him: “Who are you?” (“He knew exactly who I was,” Dallek told the Times.) In any case, Caro has contempt for Dallek. A few weeks ago, over lunch at the Cafe des Artistes, Caro remarked, with steel in his voice: “Look at how many interviews Dallek did. In fact, I’d like to ask you to do that (Dallek, a Boston University historian, relied mostly on oral histories instead of personal interviews. “I’m not a journalist,’ he explained recently.)
For the next and final volume, Caro and his wife plan to move to Vietnam; he wants to know precisely what it felt like, in the 1960s, for a Vietnamese peasant to be bombed by an American B-52. Ina Caro, for her part, is rather ambivalent about going to Vietnam, but she says she will use the time to write a travel book about that country. Yet The Years of Lyndon Johnson is not the only project Caro is working on. For thirty years he’s been writing a novel, tentatively titled “Powers of the Press”; Knopf purchased the book in the 1970s, but it remains on Caro’s desk. All he will say is that it’s “basically about a young reporter.”
It’s unlikely that Caro will finish his novel in the near future. His commitment to LBJ towers over everything else. Still, when asked why he chose Johnson in the first place—as opposed to Eisenhower or Kennedy or Nixon—Caro is surprisingly vague, and one can’t escape the sense, in pondering his energetic pursuit of fourfoot passageways, that his interest in the minutiae of LBJ’s career has led him astray. In any case, Caro’s challenge for the next volume is clear: to refocus his energy, and produce a book that, in recreating LBJ’s most crucial years—the years of civil rights and the Vietnam war—has the drama and panache of The Power Broker and Means of Ascent, and a portrait of Johnson in his full complexity, lines and shadows intact. It’s a challenge, one suspects, that this industrious and immensely gifted writer will relish. In his heart of hearts, Caro knows that in the end, the expeditions to France don’t matter; the meals at Cafe des Artistes don’t matter; the prizes don’t matter. The only thing that matters, for him, is what is on the page.