Tuesday, August 27, 2002

I was almost certain that The New Republic was going to slam Master of the Senate, the third volume in Robert Caro's on-going biography of Lyndon Johnson -- and slam it hard. It's one thing I trust the magazine to do, find some kind of vantage point that is just distant enough from conventional wisdom to sound like the real truth, or close to it. I forget what exactly the reviewer of The Path to Power said back in the early 1980s, except that he didn't like it much. Sidney Blumenthal famously debunked the second volume, Means of Ascent, with its ridiculously rosy portrait of Johnson's nemesis, Coke Stevenson. Now here comes Nicholas Lemann to tackle Vol. III, and he kinda likes it, though he tries hard not to.

Caro's writing is not post-ironic, it is pre-ironic (and definitely non-ironic), self-consciously "big," thunderingly moralistic, and dramatic verging on melodramatic. Caro's approach is neither intellectual, if that means interested in ideas, nor scholarly, if that means writing in the context of other work on the same subject. He is aiming instead for an epic, almost scriptural effect. Every chapter builds relentlessly to a climax and ends with a neat moral. The importance of everything is forcefully insisted upon and closely spelled out.

Yes, that's Caro -- the born dramatist. That's the thing about Caro's work -- the anti-Johnson bias is pretty clearly there, and you can scream at it all you want, but you just can't put the book down. The detail is so rich, the story is so carefully built and imagined, that you get swept away by the story.

To put it mildly, Master of the Senate could have been a lot shorter. There could have been two or three fewer examples to support each point. Great events of the 1950s in which Johnson played a minimal part--the Truman-MacArthur conflict, the fall of Joseph McCarthy, the early days of the civil rights movement in the South--might not have been awarded entire chapters.

Oh bullshit. The story may be overly familiar to Lemann, perhaps, but I can't think of anyone reading the story of the killing of Emmet Till and the effect it had in galvanizing the early days of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi who won't be mesmerized.

Lemann, at other times, is mesmerized too:

... Caro does amazingly well with his material.

Caro's general immersion in his subject and his unappeasable drive to chase down every detail have together brought the Senate to life. Its leading characters--Russell and Humphrey and Estes Kefauver and Paul Douglas and so on--feel, by the end, like people you know.

Caro, to his great credit, has managed to re-create not just the Senate in the 1950s, but Washington as a whole.

But Lemann gets it right at the end. As my own review indicated, the book is a little too much of a personal war between writer and subject to really be definitive, as Caro always sees people in purely good and evil terms. No one so far as I know has yet stepped forward to debunk Caro's saintly portrait of Federal Power Commission Chairman Leland Olds -- maybe he was as good as Caro said he was -- but in reading it I sensed the ghost of Coke Stevenson; I wondered that if there was a down side to Olds, Caro might not be the man to notice it. He hardly seemed to know Coke Stevenson was a virulent racist.

Where he is simply in a different, and lesser, universe from Dickens and Tolstoy and their like, however, is in his attribution of godlike (or satanic) powers to individuals, especially his main character, as actors in history, and in his concomitant tendency to be morally simplistic. In great historical literature the times supersede the lives, without in any way diminishing them, and the consciousness of right and wrong does not transform all experience into parable. Caro is held back from the greatness for which he so palpably hungers by his evident lack of interest in rendering life not only as dramatic, but also as complicated and subtle.

He's right about that. Three volumes and Johnson still comes across as a fairly one-dimensional type -- or, as Lemann puts it, "a textbook manic-depressive ... with regular bipolar switches from extreme approval to extreme disapproval. Because Johnson at each moment of the narrative is defined by one entirely positive or entirely negative characteristic, `complexity' is conveyed by having him abruptly switch from one to the other."

It's a fault that runs through all three volumes, all of which are fascinating and have a plentitude of passages of sheer narrative brilliance. Yet I doubt anyone finishes these three volumes, and I read them back to back, without feeling there is something missing, and that the Johnson of these pages, the Texas devil gallivanting around in Robert Caro's rather bipolar head, isn't quite the same man who once walked among us.

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