Books: The Middle Of The Journey

In 1967, an off-Broadway play called "MacBird" by Barbara Garson had a lot of nasty fun by retelling "Macbeth" as the story of President Lyndon Johnson. This not very subtle satire suggested that Johnson engineered the assassination of John F. Kennedy and usurped the presidency. The play kicked up a mild furor that split more or less along the lines of "How dare she?" versus "He had it coming." The one thing nobody thought to say at the time was that Johnson indeed bore a striking resemblance to Macbeth in at least one sense: here was a man who, while capable of great good, had somehow managed to engineer his own destruction.

It would take several decades before people began to agree that Johnson was a tragic hero. And perhaps the most important tipping point was Robert A. Caro's extraordinary multivolume biography of Johnson. Since the first volume appeared in 1982, readers have discovered just how fiercely the forces of darkness and light vied for Johnson's soul. They've also been discovering, thanks to Caro's writing, just how much fun a biography can be. "I have to read so many presidential biographies for my work," the author told NEWSWEEK the other day, "and within three pages of picking one up, you can tell: he didn't care about the writing. All he cared about is putting the facts down. Well, that's not history. A lot of stretches of history are boring, but if a man is a thrilling, exciting personality, then you have to make that personality as thrilling and exciting as it was in real life."

Caro's as good as his word: not even his fiercest critics have ever accused him of being dull. On April 23, "Master of the Senate," the third volume of Caro's biography, appears in stores. You could call it Act III, not Volume III, because in the Senate floor, the thoroughly theatrical Johnson at last found the stage he was born to tread. (Volume IV will cover Johnson's vice presidency and presidency.) In his two Senate terms, LBJ progressed faster and accomplished more than anyone before or since. By the time he entered his second term--six years after arriving in a Senate dominated by seniority and hidebound tradition--he had become, Caro points out, "majority leader, the most powerful man in the Senate after just a single term there--the youngest leader in history." Caro spends the bulk of his 1,167 pages explaining how all that happened, but Johnson once summed it up in a couple of sentences: "I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me. I know where to look for it, and how to use it."

Himself a master of the right moment, Johnson would have heartily approved of the timing of this latest volume's release. "Master of the Senate" is the third major biography of an American president to be published in the past year, following "John Adams" by David McCullough (43 weeks on the best-seller list, 1.5 million copies in print) and "Theodore Rex," Edmund Morris's second of three volumes on Teddy Roosevelt (last fall's one huge nonfiction success in the wake of 9-11). With a first printing of 200,000 for "Master of the Senate," Caro's publisher, Knopf, plainly hopes to catch this wave. And why shouldn't it? As never before, the American public is crazy for history.

There are all kinds of explanations for this trend, from the aging of the baby boomers (as people get old, they get interested in history) to the fragmentation of society by wealth, beliefs and ethnicity (as the historian Eric Foner points out, "History is where people turn when they're interested in national identity"). Edmund Morris thinks it has to do with the kinds of stories people want to read. "Big biographies are filling the need that big action novels used to fill," says Edmund Morris. "The 19th-century novelists gave their novels names--'David Copperfield,' for example--and these novels were like biographies. But fiction writers don't do this much anymore. Today the appetite for character in action is being satisfied by big biographies." Caro concurs. "One of the reasons my books sell," he argues, "is that I take the same care with the writing as I would if I were writing a novel. I try and let the rhythms of the sentences echo the moment. If Lyndon Johnson is hurrying around the Senate floor when he's majority leader, I try to make the rhythm of the prose reflect that."

"Master of the Senate," like the two previous Johnson volumes and like Caro's legendary biography of Robert Moses, is the historian's equivalent of a Mahler symphony--vast, detailed and striving for the universal: Caro includes chapter-length portraits of major players (Sens. Richard Russell and Hubert Humphrey) and a 100-page-long history of the U.S. Senate. And while Caro is often as hard on Johnson the sneaky politician as he was in previous volumes, this time the carping serves a real purpose: it makes Johnson's heroism in the cause of civil rights all the more believable and impressive. The writing is often too operatic. Details get repeated. And Caro tends to view the contradictions and subtleties of the South--a region central to this volume--with the one-dimensional vision of a Northern liberal who's learned what he knows about the South from reading about it. But flaws and all, the end result is mesmerizing.

Caro has a keen ear for the telling sentence, and in Johnson, a colorful, nonstop talker, he has the perfect subject. "Master of the Senate" climaxes with Johnson's efforts to successfully push through the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1957, the first civil-rights legislation passed by the Senate since Reconstruction. Trying to appease both liberals and his fellow conservatives in the South, Johnson saw that he couldn't push through a strong bill. But he knew that some bill was necessary to open the door for bigger advances later. "Once you break the virginity," Johnson said in one of those profane quotes that so aptly capture his rude and cunning nature, "it'll be easier next time."

History has narrative elements but it lacks fiction's unity, and Caro wisely never tries to reconcile the contradictory elements of Johnson's personality. His craving for power, his lust for the presidency, his desire to do good--all these elements combine to give us the hubris and the pity and fear inspired by the tragic hero. Without ever straying from the mountain of facts he's amassed, Caro delivers a tale rife with drama and hypnotic in the telling. And we're only up to Act III.