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Robert Caro on LBJ and the Biographer’s Art

Photo: Paris Review / James Santel

Photo: Paris Review / James Santel

If you like biography, interviews or Lyndon B. Johnson, don’t miss this Paris Review interview with Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Caro.

Caro is now starting his fifth decade of work on The Years of Lyndon Johnson, his multi-part biography of the 35th president. Caro’s writing the fifth and (presumably) final volume, which will cover “the 1964 election, the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the launch of the Great Society, the deepening of America’s involvement in Vietnam, the unrest in the cities and on college campuses, Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection, and his retirement and death.”

Caro’s passion for getting it right comes through loud and clear:

Everyone I talked to about Johnson’s first run for Congress would say, I never saw anyone who worked as hard as Lyndon Johnson. Well, it’s one thing to tell that to the reader, but how do you show it? Who would really know what this means?

I thought, There’s one guy who’s with Lyndon Johnson most of the day, and it’s not his campaign manager, it’s his chauffeur! Because in the Texas Hill Country, a lot of anything is driving—that’s ninety percent of the time. His chauffeur was a guy named Carroll Keach. He lived in some place outside Corpus Christi, and it was hard to get to. It was, like, a 180-mile drive or something. But I kept going back to him.

He wasn’t a loquacious Texan, he was a laconic Texan. I would ask, What was Johnson doing between campaign stops? And he would say something like, Oh, he was just sitting there in the backseat. I just had to keep asking him questions. I mean, you’re driving, Carroll, and Lyndon Johnson is in the backseat? What was he doing in the backseat? Finally, he told me that Johnson often would be talking to himself. So I’d call and say, Carroll, when you said he was talking to himself, what was he saying? Finally, Carroll told me, It was like he was having discussions with himself about whether he had had a successful day, and if he had made a good impression on voters or not. So I’d say, What do you mean by that? How do you know that’s what he was talking about?

“Well, lots of the time, he felt he wasn’t doing too good. And he would tell himself that it was his own fault.”

“What do you mean, he would tell himself it was his own fault?”

“Oh, I don’t know, I don’t remember.”

So I’d call him later and ask again, and I’d finally get something like, Well, Johnson would say, Boy, wasn’t that dumb! You know you just lost that ballot box. You lost it, and you need it. And he would talk out—rehearse, over and over, out loud, what he would say to the voters in that precinct the next time.

Great stuff, and just a wonderful interview. No wonder it’s taking 50+ years, but the results are worth it.

Robert Caro, The Art of Biography No. 5 »


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Comments ( 3 )

    • Isn’t it amazing: 40+ years on the same subject and *still not done.* It’s fascinating.

      He says in that interview something that certainly rings true n
      ow: “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.” Wow.

      • I discovered the books a few years back after seeing Caro on some You Tube videos. Love him or hate him, it was simply amazing what LBJ did.

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