Review: Working, Robert A. Caro

Rating: 6 out of 5

Ever since I picked up the first volume of Mr Caro’s LBJ biography, I have been mesmerized. Every word the author has put down onto paper forms a part of a larger whole; every phrase has been weighed to see whether it fits. And, in all of this writing, the author’s goal has been to introduce power to the layman: What is power? How does power affect people? How is power wielded? It is eye-opening that the author’s investigation into this subject has led him to conclude that power does not corrupt but rather reveals—the character of who wields it.

In ‘Writing’, Mr Caro considers what he has learned in his long career as a writer as well as what sacrifices, what unknown leaps, he had to take to get to this point. Some of these choices, for example the confrontations with Robert Moses on corruption charges, were optional; the same applies to interviews with Lady Bird where the subject was a lover of LBJ (though apparently Lady Bird did not realise this). However, to get as much of the whole story as possible, these questions had to be answered for a complete biography—and not leave a page unturned.

The author also uses this book to highlight his logic and method. First, when talking about ‘The Power Broker’ and how this was the most suitable illustration of municipal power in action, and secondly, when showing how LBJ used national power like never before (and never since). These claims, irrespective of the assumed greatness of either man, are put to the test, and it is revealing—of Caro’s own nature—that he manages to illustrate the contrasts in both men’s natures so very well. No one is wholly bad, or wholly evil, or wholly corrupt; but, for what Moses and Johnson considered their ultimate aims, they were willing to do very much indeed. The author, therefore, has to balance both sides of the equation, and I think he comes through well in illustrating both the advancements and the ones who were left (or pushed) behind.

This book helped me understand why, throughout ‘The Years of Lyndon Johnson’, I get the sense that while the author dislikes the methods that Johnson uses, he is ambivalent about the man. The policies that LBJ introduced, even if they ended in catastrophic failure for the President, also make for an important aspect of the 1960’s. Further, the authors’ assiduous style hunt for written evidence before any claim could be included in print reinforces the effect that his books have. Having read both the arguments against his treatment of Coke Stevenson as a native Texas hero, as well as Mr Caro’s counters, the reader is left with as honest a portrait of facts as possible.

Yet, what was even more astonishing were the extremities to which the author has pushed himself to write these narratives. To find that if the locals don’t talk to you, the only way to talk to them is to move to their neighbourhood; to hear about the years spent in archives and the days’ of interviews and re-interviews… All of this is the hallmark of someone whose conscience won’t let them rest if one stone is left unturned—and the rest of us are richer for it.

About the author

Offer Up Your Thoughts...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.