Epic, majestic, magisterial — it’s hard to find words equal to Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, now just one volume away from completion.
Five massive volumes on any historical figure might seem like overkill, but not in this case, because Caro is just as interested in the social and political context of Johnson’s life as he is in biographical details.
As a congressman in the 1930s, Johnson was instrumental in bringing electricity to his district, the hard-luck Hill Country of Texas, where Johnson was born. Caro details the dazzlingly complex political maneuvers Johnson employed to do this, but he also wants you to know what the accomplishment meant — so he devotes a long chapter to describing the day-to-day life of Hill Country ranchers and farmers, and particularly Hill Country ranchers’ and farmers’ wives, in the days before electrification. The result is the best, most powerful and most harrowing evocation of daily frontier life and labor ever written.
And this is just one example of Caro’s ability to illuminate the world Johnson moved in, the world that made him and the world he changed, for better and for worse.
Johnson was a fabulous, mythic creature, not least because he understood the way American political life was changing in the 20th Century — understood how a ruthless and tireless man could ride those changes to a position of unprecedented power.
The story of Johnson’s life is wildly entertaining, wildly inspiring, wildly depressing — because it exposes the deep corruption of the American political process along with its unaccountable ability to accomplish great things.
You simply can’t understand America in our own time without understanding the dark genius and eccentric idealism of Lyndon Johnson. He was a man who, like America itself, can never be explained or fully known — a man at the very heart of the paradox that is America.
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