Robert Caro's "The Passage of Power," the fourth volume of Caro's massive Lyndon Johnson biography, is receiving the kind of attention that books usually don't receive any more. The 78-year-old Caro, who has been working for decades on the biography, has been profiled in the New York Times magazine and Esquire, and the book has been reviewed universally, including Bill Clinton's rave on the front page of the Times Book Review.
Ironically in this era when movies for adolescents generally receive this burst of attention, articles on Caro emphasize his old-fashioned techniques. He works in an office in New York City, writing first in longhand, then on a Smith Corona electric typewriter. Shunning the computer and the Internet, he keeps cross-referenced paper files, kept in metal cabinets, in the once familiar manila folders. He's also drawn attention for his obsessive accumulation of details and the long delays in publication of each volume that has appeared so far. Times columnist Joe Nocera recently ridiculed Caro for this need to account for every minuscule piece of Johnson's life. He also disdained Caro's continued delays in finishing the project. At 78, Caro has not yet examined the bulk of Johnson's presidency.
While Nocera's hit job smacked of an envious middleweight swinging wildly at a heavyweight, Nocera scored some hits. Caro's compulsive acculumulation of facts, ancient techniques and relentless editing and rewriting can seem pathological. Yet, in reading Nocera's piece, I wanted to defend Caro as one of the last, if not the final, upholders of an ancient tradition of scholarship and writing.
I'd recently read Natalie Dykstra's fine biography of Clover Adams, the tragic wife of pioneering American historian Henry Adams. Dykstra shows Henry Adams as very similar to Caro in his constant uncovering of details and stretching projects into mulitiple volumes. I wanted to tell Nocera that Caro deserves honor and acclaim for searching for the truth no matter what it takes.
Still, Adams finished his massive history of the United States under the Jefferson and Madison Administrations much faster than Caro has done with his work. And, the descendant of John Adams and John Quincy Adams later published his "Education of Henry Adams" and "Mount St. Michel and Chartres."
As as reader, I bailed out of the Johnson project after Caro's first two volumes. His look at Johnson's years as the master of the U.S. Senate bogged down in legislative minutia. The New Yorker published an excerpt of the "Passage of Power," Caro's account of the Kennedy assassination, which captivated me. I'll probably make an effort to read the entire book, which begins with Johnson's effort to gain the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, examines his lost years as Kennedy's vice president and ends with Johnson's leadership in passing landmark civil rights legislation. The look at Kennedy's presidency from Johnson's viewpoint promises to give a fresh account of "Camelot."
By the way, the title "The Passage of Power," strikes me as odd. This has a passive tone, as if the power passed to Johnson in some magical, mysterious way. It almost sounds as if it were a normal passage of power, as happens when an incumbent ends his two terms, or loses an election. The title's bland construction denies the historical reality that Johnson gained power because of the assassination.