This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
The Caros live well. They have a house in East Hampton, their own table at the tony Cafe des Artistes, and they spend each summer in France, where he assists her, in ways large and small, with her own books. Still, over the years, she has endured feminist abuse—not from her friend Betty Friedan, who has always been supportive of her arrangement with her husband, but from Susan Brownmiller, who once instructed Mrs. Caro to “do something socially useful:’ Those words stung her. “I’ve always been a feminist,” Ina Caro explains, “so it really is very difficult, in some respects, to say that I’m working for my husband.” Did she mean to say working with her husband? “No,” she replies, a bit stiffly. “I’m working for.. “
The Caros used their time in Texas productively. The Path to Power, published in 1982, provided a microscopic account of Johnson’s youth in the barren Hill Country, one that began with a detailed reconstruction of his family’s history in the region. Caro interviewed hundreds of people who knew the Johnson family, and the result was an affecting portrait of a young man who grew up in squalor (“It was a dirty house,” one neighbor insisted), with idealistic parents ill-equipped to handle the brutal realities of life in the Hill Country. Caro’s detailed account of Johnson’s early adulthood—the hard labor he performed on a road gang, his pathetic courtships, his devious maneuvering as a student politician at a tiny state college—surpassed that of other Johnson biographers.
The Path to Power and Means of Ascent (1990) provided a startlingly intimate portrait of Johnson. In 1931 Johnson went to Washington as the secretary to a do-nothing congressman, and he soon hired two assistants, L.E. Jones and Gene Latimer, whom, according to Caro, he quickly enslaved:
The toilet in the office suite was set in a short corridor between its two rooms. Johnson would sit down on it, and, Latimer says, “there would come a call: ‘L.E.!’ L.E. would say, `Oh, God,’ because he hated this.” He would take his pad, and go to the bathroom. At first, he attempted to stand away from the door, but Johnson insisted he come right into the door-way, so he would be standing over him, and “L.E. would stand with his head and nose averted, and take dictation.”
The pleasure of Path to Power and Means of Ascent does not, by and large, come from the craftsmanship of the writing. As a prose stylist, Caro is not in the same class as Garry Wills, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Robert Hughes, or Marshall Frady. Instead, the enjoyment, and the instruction, come from learning about the inner workings of Texas and Washington politics, and in the narrative energy Caro brings to his story—especially in Means of Ascent, which culminates in a thrilling account of Johnson’s theft of the 1948 election. Indeed, with his sprawling canvas, his laborious and frequently sentimental prose, his sympathy for the underdog, and his insatiable curiosity about the way things work, Caro closely resembles another ambitious newspaperman turned book writer Theodore Dreiser, whose gritty, early twentieth century masterpieces, Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, have lost none of their power or relevance.
In making the transition from newspaper reporter to biographer, Caro, to a certain extent, left his sense of balance behind. Caro’s Johnson is a man full of “viciousness and cruelty;’ a man who enjoys “breaking backs and keeping them broken,” a man with an urge “not just to defeat but to destroy.” In Johnson, Caro gives us a chilling portrait of an amoral politician, a man, in Caro’s words, devoid of “any consistent ideology or principle, in fact of any moral foundation whatsoever.” Caro would pay a price for this attitude, since reviewers were quick to pick up on his personal dislike of Johnson. Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1982, the Harvard historian David Herbert Donald called The Path to Power “fascinating, immensely long and highly readable,” but also found it “repetitive and fiercely polemical.”