That would be ironic, wouldn’t it?
I should begin by saying that I love Robert Caro’s books. Many years before I decided to become a historian, The Power Broker and The Path to Power fired my imagination and awakened me to the possibilities of historical storytelling. They really are astonishing achievements.
Their usefulness as a means of understanding power is less clear. But that is their stated purpose. Caro began his career interviewing people, but for decades now he’s been the kind of person people want to interview, so he has a very practiced narrative about what he does and why he does it. In an interview with the Paris Review Caro says:
I knew what I really wanted to do for my second book, because I had come to realize something. I wasn’t interested in writing a biography but in writing about political power. I could do urban political power through Robert Moses because he had done something that no one else had done. He had shaped the city with a kind of power we didn’t learn about in textbooks, which tell us that, in a democracy, power comes from being elected. He had shaped it with a different kind of power. So if I could find out and explain where he got his power and how he kept it and how he used it, I would be explaining something about the realities of urban power—how raw, naked power really works in cities. And I could do it through his life because I got the right man, the man who did something that no one else had done. I felt it would be great if I could do that kind of book—a book about political power—about national power. And I had had a similar flash about Lyndon Johnson. It was the Senate, it wasn’t the presidency. He made the Senate work. For a century before him, the Senate was the same dysfunctional mess it is today. He’s majority leader for six years, the Senate works, it creates its own bills. He leaves, and the day he leaves it goes back to the way it was. And it’s stayed that way until this day. Only he, in the modern era, could make the Senate work. So he, like Moses, had found some new form of political power, and it was national, not urban power. I wanted to do a book about that. That’s what first drew me to Lyndon Johnson.
There’s no question that Caro’s books are insightful. But do they distort as much as they reveal? Does Caro’s relentless focus on the life and character of a single man blind him to the broader structural forces that constrained or enabled Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson? To many historians, this might be a no-brainer. The answer is yes. But I want to sit with the question for a bit, because Caro is a corrective to our own era of skepticism of grand narratives, much less of grand men. Against our assumption that history makes people more than people make history, Caro insists that some brilliant individuals change the course of history.
But I’m still inclined to think Caro gets power wrong. See how he talks about Lyndon Johnson:
So here is this figure—a huge figure—this young man who’s rising, who’s ruthless and cruel, nothing can stand in the way of his ambition. And who at the same time has this immense compassion, along with a very rare talent—a genius, really—for transmuting compassion into something concrete, into legislative achievement…Lyndon Johnson, if I do him right, he’s this huge figure with these complexities. I’m trying to show him moving through American history, rising through it, political step by political step. And what was America in his times? And how did he change America? Because certainly he changed America. But you’re not making it a monumental story on a grand scale. It is a monumental story on a grand scale…
Everyone wants to say that if it weren’t for Vietnam, he would’ve been one of the greatest presidents. But “if it weren’t for Vietnam” is not an adequate phrase. You have to give equal weight to both the domestic and Vietnam. Medicare. The Voting Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act. Sixty different education bills. You’re filled with admiration for his genius, over and over again. Watching some legislative maneuver, you’re saying, Wow, how did he do that, I didn’t know you could do that! And then in the same book, you have Vietnam. This last volume is a very complex book to write.
Johnson is the sun, and everyone and everything else is just revolving around him. The huge Democratic majorities in congress fade from view; the social movements that compelled Johnson to act are out of sight. The booming economy that gave Johnson the political space to try the Great Society is completely ignored. This is a very individualistic view of power. I’d be curious to hear more from political scientists on this. My understanding is that Americans drastically overestimate the power of presidents to enact their agenda. I think Caro does too, even in the case of a crazy larger than life figure like Johnson.
More basically, if Caro wanted to understand power, did he choose the wrong genre? Is biography an inherently problematic way to get at Caro’s questions? What does biography do well, and what does it do poorly? I’m not sure, but one thing I can say for sure is that I will be in line for Caro’s next book, regardless of how much I disagree with it.