When he was young--seventeen and eighteen years old--Lyndon Johnson worked on a road gang that was building a highway (an unpaved highway: roads in the isolated, impoverished Texas Hill Country weren't paved in the 1920s) between Johnson City and Austin.
With little mechanical equipment available, the road was being built almost entirely by hand, and his job, when he wasn't half of a pick-and-shovel team with Ben Crider, a burly friend--six years older--from Johnson City, was "driving" a "fresno," a heavy two-handled metal scoop with a sharpened front edge, that was pulled by four mules. Standing behind the scoop, between its handles, as the mules strained forward to force the scoop through the hard Hill Country caliche soil, he would push as they pulled. Since he needed a hand for each handle, the reins were tied together and wrapped around his back, so for this work--hard even for older men; for a tall, skinny, awkward teenager, it was, the other men recall, "backbreaking labor," "too heavy" for Lyndon--Lyndon Johnson was, really, in harness with the mules. But at lunch hour each day, as the gang sat eating--in summer in whatever shade they could find as protection from the blazing Hill Country sun, in winter huddled around a fire (it would get so cold, Crider recalls, that "you had to build a fire to thaw your hands before you could handle a pick and shovel . . . build us a fire and thaw and work all day")--Lyndon would, in the words of another member of the gang, "talk big" to the older men. "He had big ideas. . . . He wanted to do something big with his life." And he was quite specific about what he wanted to do: "I'm going to be President of the United States one day," he predicted.
Poverty and backbreaking work--clearing cedar on other men's farms for two dollars a day, or chopping and picking cotton: on your hands and knees all day beneath that searing sun--were woven deep in the fabric of Lyndon Johnson's youth, as were humiliation and fear: he was coming home at night to a house to which other Johnson City families brought charity in the form of cooked dishes because there was no money in that house to buy food; to a house on which, moreover, his family was having such difficulty paying the taxes and mortgage that they were afraid it might not be theirs much longer. But woven into it also was that prediction.
In many ways, his whole life would be built around that prediction: around a climb toward that single, far-off goal. As a young congressman in Washington, he was careful not to mention that ambition to the rising young New Dealers with whom he was allying himself, but they were aware of it anyway. James H. Rowe Jr., Franklin Roosevelt's aide, who spent more time with Johnson than the others, says, "From the day he got here, he wanted to be President." When old friends from Texas visited him, sometimes his determination burst out of him despite himself, as if he could not contain it. "By God, I'll be President someday!" he exclaimed one evening when he was alone with Welly Hopkins. And an incident in 1940 showed the Texans how much he wanted the prize he sought, how much he was willing to sacrifice to attain it.
Lack of money had been the cause of so many of the insecurities of his youth, and his election to Congress, far from soothing those fears, had seemed only to intensify them: he talked incessantly about how his father, who had been an elected official himself--a six-term member of the Texas House of Representatives--had ended up as a state bus inspector, and had died penniless; he didn't want to end up like his father, he...
Author: Robert A. Caro
For his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, Robert A. Caro has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, twice won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, and has also won virtually every other major literary honor, including the National Book Award, the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that best "exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist." In 2010, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama.
To create his first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Caro spent seven years tracing and talking with hundreds of men and women who worked with, for, or against Robert Moses, including a score of his top aides. He examined mountains of files never opened to the public. Everywhere acclaimed as a modern classic, The Power Broker was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest nonfiction books of the twentieth century. It is, according to David Halberstam, "Surely the greatest book ever written about a city." And The New York Times Book Review said: "In the future, the scholar who writes the history of American cities in the twentieth century will doubtless begin with this extraordinary effort."
To research The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Caro and his wife, Ina, moved from his native New York City to the Texas Hill Country and then to Washington, D.C., to live in the locales in which Johnson grew up and in which he built, while still young, his first political machine. He has spent years examining documents at the Johnson Library in Austin and interviewing men and women connected with Johnson's life, many of whom had never before been interviewed. The first volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power, was cited by The Washington Post as "proof that we live in a great age of biography . . . [a book] of radiant excellence . . . Caro's evocation of the Texas Hill Country, his elaboration of Johnson's unsleeping ambition, his understanding of how politics actually work, are--let it be said flat out--at the summit of American historical writing." Professor Henry F. Graff of Columbia University called the second volume, Means of Ascent, "brilliant. No brief review does justice to the drama of the story Caro is telling, which is nothing less than how present-day politics was born." And the London Times hailed volume three, Master of the Senate, as "a masterpiece . . . Robert Caro has written one of the truly great political biographies of the modern age." The Passage of Power, volume four, is "Shakespearean . . . A breathtakingly dramatic story [told] with consummate artistry and ardor" (The New York Times). "By writing the best presidential biography the country has ever seen, Caro has forever changed the way we think about, and read, American history" (NPR). And on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, President Bill Clinton praised it as "Brilliant . . . Important . . . Remarkable. With this fascinating and meticulous account Robert Caro has once again done America a great service."
"Caro has a unique place among American political biographers," according to The Boston Globe. "He has become, in many ways, the standard by which his fellows are measured." And Nicholas von Hoffman wrote: "Caro has changed the art of political...
"Brilliant . . . Important . . . Remarkable . . . With this fascinating and meticulous account Robert Caro has once again done America a great service." - Bill Clinton, The New York Times Book Review (front cover)
"A breathtakingly dramatic story [told] with consummate artistry and ardor . . . It showcases Mr. Caro's masterly gifts as a writer: his propulsive sense of narrative, his talent for enabling readers to see and feel history in the making and his ability to situate his subjects' actions within the context of their times . . . Caro manages to lend even much-chronicled events a punch of tactile immediacy . . . Johnson emerges as both a larger-than-life, Shakespearean personage--with epic ambition and epic flaws--and a more human-scale puzzle . . . Taken together the installments of Mr. Caro's monumental life of Johnson so far not only create a minutely detailed picture of an immensely complicated and conflicted individual, but they also form a revealing prism by which to view the better part of a century in American life and politics during which the country experienced tumultuous and divisive social change . . . Mr. Caro's descriptions of Johnson--and those of John and Robert Kennedy--have a novelistic depth and amplitude. He gives us a rich sense here of how past experiences shaped their interactions, how one encounter or misunderstanding often snowballed into another, and how Johnson and Robert Kennedy evinced a capacity to grow and change. Even more impressive in these pages is Mr. Caro's ability to convey, on a visceral level, how daunting the challenges were facing Johnson upon his assumption of the presidency and the magnitude of his accomplishments in the months after Kennedy's assassination . . . Mr. Caro uses his storytelling gifts to turn seemingly arcane legislative maneuvers into action-movie suspense, and he gives us unparalleled understanding--step by step, sometimes minute by minute--of how Johnson used a crisis and his own political acumen to implement his agenda with stunning speed: a test of leadership and governance that political addicts and more casual readers alike will find fascinating, given the gridlock in Washington today . . . Engrossing." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"The fourth volume of one of the most anticipated English-language biographies of the past 30 years . . . A compelling narrative . . . that will thrill those who care about American politics, the foundations of power, or both . . . Before beginning the Johnson biography, Caro published a life of Robert Moses, The Power Broker (1974), a book many scholars consider a watershed in contemporary biography. The Johnson project deserves equal praise." - KirkusReviews (Starred)
"A great work of history . . . A great biography . . . Caro has summoned Lyndon Johnson to vivid, intimate life." - Newsweek
"Unrivaled . . . Caro does not merely recount. He beckons. Single sentences turn into winding, brimming paragraphs, clauses upon clauses tugging at the reader, layering the scenery with character intrigue and the plot with historical import. The result is irresistible . . . Passage covers with all the artistry and intrigue of a great novel events that are seared in the nation's memory. In an era defined by fragmented media markets, instantaneous communication, gadflies and chattering suits, Caro stands not merely apart, but alone." - William Howell, San Francisco Chronicle
"An addictive read, written in glorious prose that suggests the world's most diligent beat reporter channeling William Faulkner. Passage is an essential document of a turning point in American history. It's also an incisive portrait of one great, terrible, fascinating man suddenly given the chance to reinvent the country in his image." --Darren Franich, Entertainment Weekly "One of the greatest biographies in the history of American letters." - Bob Hoover, Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Caro has once again shown that he might well be the greatest presidential historian we've ever had . . . Although the amount of research Caro has done for these books is staggering, i - Michael Schaub, NPR