To immerse oneself in Robert Caro’s heroic biographies is to come face to face with a shocking but unavoidable realization: Much of what we think we know about money, power and politics is a fairy tale. Our newspapers, magazines, broadcast and cable newscasts are filled with comforting fictions. We embrace them because the truth is too messy, too frightening, simply too much.
In a 1997 speech on the topic, Ben Bradlee attributes our problem to official lying. “Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face. No editor would dare print…. ‘The Watergate break-in involved matters of national security, President Nixon told a national TV audience last night…. That is a lie.'”
But the problem is much larger than Bradlee allows. Caro demonstrates how this colossal structure of deceit clouds the historical record. The unelected Robert Moses exercised a dictatorial power over the lives of millions of New Yorkers for nearly half a century. He uprooted communities and destroyed neighborhoods using privately run but publicly funded entities called “public authorities,” whose charters he personally wrote. Before the publication of The Power Broker in 1974 (1,246 pages, after having been cut by 40 percent to fit into a single volume), no book or major magazine article existed on the topic. Caro’s obsessive exhumation of Moses’s career transformed our understanding of the mechanics of urban politics. And yet even today the media proceed as if it’s simply a matter of campaigns, elections and legislation.
The true face of our money-driven political system is buried so far beneath the surface of our public discourse that almost nobody has any incentive to uncover it. With a meager $2,500 advance to sustain him, Caro sold his house and nearly bankrupted his family; his wife, Ina–a medieval historian–went to work as his full-time researcher. When I asked why he did it, he got a little choked up about the sacrifice of Ina’s career and how much she had loved their old house. Finally he said he had no idea. The Caros’ combination of intellectual independence and professional dedication inspires comparisons with another great marital partnership: that of the late, great Izzy and Esther Stone. (Can anyone imagine what Izzy would have come up with if he had committed virtually his entire career to smoking out the truth about just two powerful men?)
Caro’s new book, Master of the Senate, volume three of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, forces us not only to rewrite our national political history but to rethink it as well. What Caro is doing here is something we rarely see attempted in any medium: His aim, as he once explained to Kurt Vonnegut, “is to show not only how power works but the effect of power on those without power. How political power affects all our lives, every single day in ways we never think about.”
Caro’s been burrowing beneath the shadows of the substance of our politics for more than twenty-eight years, and what he finds is both fascinating and surprising. In many ways Johnson’s personality–so outsized and contradictory as to be cognitively uncontainable–gets in the way of this compulsively readable story, which is about how power is exercised in this country.
Lyndon Johnson did not invent the form of legislative power he exercised through the Senate in the 1950s, but Caro has almost had to invent a new history to describe it. People have told pieces of it here and there, but who’s got the time, the motivation or the patience to really nail down not only what happened but what it meant to the nation? Here’s a tiny example, of which this new book has almost one a page. Listen to longtime Senate staffer Howard Shuman: “William S. White, [whom Caro terms the Senate’s “most prominent chronicler”] wrote that the way to get into the Club was to be courteous and courtly. Well, that’s nonsense.” Johnson mocked and humiliated liberal New York Senator Herbert Lehman at every opportunity: “It didn’t have anything to do with courtly. It had to do with how you voted–with whether or not you voted as Lyndon Johnson wanted you to vote.” Neil MacNeil, veteran Time correspondent adds, “The Senate was run by courtesy, all right–like a longshoreman’s union.”
Now don’t go looking in old Time magazines for any hint of this. Caro spends more than 300 of his 1,167 pages on the incredible story of Johnson’s navigation of the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress, something that hardly anyone thought possible until he pulled it off. With the singular exception of Tom Wicker, then a green (and largely ignored) young reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, no one covering the story had an inkling of how it happened.
One indisputable conclusion that Caro offers is pretty tough to swallow. The advances in civil rights legislation that helped end centuries of legal apartheid in this country could never have occurred had they not been planned and executed by a man who turns out to have been a thoroughgoing racist. Caro was much criticized for downplaying Johnson’s 1948 support for Truman, considering the fact that his lionized opponent, Coke Stevenson, stood with the racist Strom Thurmond Dixiecrat campaign. But Johnson, it turns out, attacked Truman’s civil rights policies no less virulently. He gave a campaign speech in May 1948 in which he compared civil rights legislation to the creation of “a police state in the guise of liberty.” Caro found the speech in a White House file with the following admonition stapled on top. “DO NOT RELEASE THIS SPEECH-speech–not even to staff…this is not EVER TO BE RELEASED.” Thanks to Caro, this story, and with it a big chunk of our history, has been released as well.
Addendum: George W. Bush’s Executive Order 13233, which effectively eviscerates the Presidential Records Act of 1978 by fiat, is designed to insure that no historian can ever provide this kind of public service again. Twenty Democrats and three Republicans are co-sponsors of a bill to restore it. Write your representatives and tell them to get on board.