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.
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.