In the Times yesterday, Joe Nocera wrote a column that groused, if I read it correctly, about a man attaining excellence in his life’s work, and gently chided the man, it seems to me, for being great.
Nocera, whom I generally admire for his lucid writing about the turgid field of business and economics, took as his subject today Robert Caro, who, Nocera aside, is enjoying generally excellent reviews for The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. Reviewing the book, Bill Clinton not only called it “fascinating and meticulous,” but then awarded it a sort of special ex-presidential medal by saying that with this book, “Robert Caro has once again done America a great service.” (Writers get credited with many things, but providing a service to the nation is not frequently cited.) Last night I finished The Passage of Power, I’ll just say that it is a brilliant piece of work, reported by a master historian, told by a master story teller, comprehended by a shrewd and insightful student of power and politics. If I had a presidential medal to give, it would be Caro’s.
Nocera, however, thinks it’s long; and worse, it took a long time to write. “He would spend years — nay, decades — in the field, finding stray facts no one else had ever known existed. And then, when he started writing, he couldn’t stop. Other, lesser authors had deadlines, but not Caro. He turned in each volume only when he was ready, and sometimes a decade passed between volumes — so much time, in fact, that he began quoting his previous books in his newer books. Originally intended to be three volumes, written over maybe a half-dozen years, his L.B.J. biography eventually stretched to four, and then five.”
To which one might reply: So? Caro isn’t responsible for designing an emergency response system. He’s not charged with getting a liver to Pittsburgh to save the life of a 10 year old violin prodigy. And it’s not like Caro is in his room striving mightily in order to produce dreck; he’s using the time to produce quality stuff. The man has won two Pulitzer Prizes in Biography, the National Book Award, and, among other pieces of hardware, a Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Art and Letters. This is if you can take Wikipedia’s word for it, which we know Caro wouldn’t: he’d have delved into ancient archives and interviewed 150 people to vet those stats, but you can certainly see the effort on the page. If it takes a decade to produce such work, who is Joe Nocera to snark about it?
Nocera also complains about what he sees as Caro’s inconsistent portrayal of LBJ across the four volumes. “Johnson has almost no redeeming qualities in the first two books. Yet how could this same man, at the end of Volume 4, push through the landmark Civil Rights Act as president? How does Caro square this great achievement — as well as all the other liberal achievements to come — with his portrayal of the power-mad Johnson in the earlier volumes? In truth, he never really does.”
This is a ridiculous accusation. In each of the volumes, Caro has recognized the complexity of LBJ, while at the same understanding that a man is not a glass of chocolate milk, in which all the ingredients are smoothly blended. Men not only have not how conflicting and competing impulses, but at different points in time, different ideas, and different passions hold sway. Nocera’s reading doesn’t just lack insight, it’s just not correct. First, Caro does show that during this period of success and accomplishment, he nonetheless played politics with troops levels in Vietnam, and also took steps to insure that he could still manage his personal business interests on the sly. But more fundamentally, Caro shows that “the bad Johnson” was not much in evidence during the crucial two month period that is the focus of the book. Caro quotes Johnson aide George Reedy, who wrote “Almost at once, the whining, self-pitying caricature of Throttlebottom [a bumbling vice president from the musical Of Thee I Sing] vanished. During this whole period, there was no trace of the ugly arrogance which had made him so disliked in many quarters. . . The situation brought out the finest that was in him.” In fact, Caro closes the book with the comment that “this period stands out as different from all the rest, as perhaps that life’s finest moment.”
To sum up: one man spends decades researching a life, observes that the subject was different during one period than in others, and finds the subject’s different dimensions fascinating. Another man spends some days reading the books, observes that the subject seems different on one volume than in the others, and concludes that the biographer has failed to reconcile the subject’s different dimensions.
I’m looking forward to Volume V, however long it is, whenever it gets here.