A curious security guard at a venerable Manhattan office building near Columbus Circle inquired what sort of work the man I was visiting did—was he a lawyer?
“No,” I answered. “Robert Caro is an author. He writes books.”
He certainly does. Caro has won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards. When the Society of American Historians honored his work with the Francis Parkman Prize, it was noted that Caro “best exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist.” His first work, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974), chronicled how an unelected official shaped the destiny of the nation’s foremost city. Since 1977, Caro has been writing what will be a five-volume biography of the thirty-sixth president of the United States, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. At this moment, in 2018, he can visualize an end to what has been the center of his life for more than forty years. He doesn’t know when he’ll finish the fifth and final volume—two years, five, ten? But, at eighty-two, Caro is considering new projects.
We spoke for three hours on a recent frozen afternoon. What follows is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.
Claudia Dreifus: It’s been four years since Knopf released The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of your five-volume Lyndon B. Johnson biography. That ended in Johnson’s first months in the White House—1963 through early 1964. Where are you now with the final volume?
Robert Caro: Well, I’m not doing a section that’s chronological. I’m writing about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy.
Kennedy plays such a large role in this volume that it’s almost as if he’s the protagonist. They hated each other. That becomes a very interesting thing in this book because a surprising amount of what Johnson did was in reaction to what he thought Bobby Kennedy would do.
So, you asked where I am now: I’m writing about 1965 and 1966.
That was a pivotal moment in American history—when Lyndon Johnson made a series of decisions that irretrievably moved the US into a land war in Asia.
Right. So I’m past the moment when Johnson has beaten Goldwater. Between January and July of 1965, he’s passed the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, twelve different education bills, a liberalized immigration law and much of the War on Poverty. What he’s done is a great drama of legislative genius, almost without precedent. The Voting Rights Act: I wonder if we’d have it today—and what we have is still significant, even after the 2014 Supreme Court decision to strike down Section 5—if there hadn’t been a Lyndon Johnson to seize that moment.
And at the same time that he was passing this legislation, he was secretly planning to escalate the Vietnam War.
It’s fascinating. I don’t know if I can write it well enough. But it’s almost unbelievable. You can see these great ambitions, which Johnson is on the way to realizing, get swallowed up by Vietnam. You can follow it almost minute by minute.
Read more at The New York Review of Books.