A bit of modesty is an attractive quality in a writer of books, just as it is in any person who offers the fruit of his creative labors for public approval. Writing a book is a difficult and daunting task, and invariably the person who undertakes it falls short of his aspirations. Thus the author who acknowledges his own shortcomings--whether directly, in his author's notes, or indirectly, by addressing the reader in an agreeable tone -- is most likely to find a friendly and tolerant readership.
But there is no modesty to be found -- not a shred, a particle, an iota -- in "The Path to Power," the first volume of Robert A. Caro's "The Years of Lyndon Johnson," a biography that has been announced as ultimately running to three volumes. It is a work of astonishing arrogance and presumption, a book that declares its own importance at every turn until the reader at last comes to understand that its author protests too much. Its importance, if in fact it can be said to have any at all, resides almost entirely in the mind of the man who wrote it.
The reviewers have already had their go at Caro, and the toughest of them have been very tough indeed: in particular, Craig Clifford in The Baltimore Sun, David Herbert Donald in The New York Times Book Review and Robert Sherrill in The Washington Post Book World. But admirable though their evaluations are, in my choleric view they are too charitable by half. "The Path to Power" seems to me an appalling job: not merely for its hugely inflated sense of its own importance, but for its self-indulgent, melodramatic, newsmagazinish prose, its repetitiousness and clumsy foreshadowing, and its relentless prosecutorial vendetta against the man who is its subject.
From time to time Caro interrupts his text to toot his own horn and cast aspersions on others who have written about Johnson: "Because the life of Lyndon Johnson--particularly the early decades of his life, the rise to power -- has never been chronicled with either depth or accuracy, the figure of Alvin Wirtz has never emerged from the shadows." Or: "Lyndon Johnson's description of the trip, however, no matter how enthralling to biographers -- a passage in a typical biography reads: 'Johnson was barely able to survive . . . ' -- is no more accurate than the reason he gave for taking it."
But it is when Caro staggers into his "Note on Sources," after nearly 800 stupefying pages of text, that he comes fully into his own. In a mere four pages, he manages to announce that "my researches" enable him "to clear away in this book the misinformation that has surrounded the early life of Lyndon Johnson"; that his is "a portrait of Lyndon Johnson substantially different from all previous portraits"; that "none of the authors" of previous biographies had interviewed a woman to whom Johnson was romantically attached as a youth; that of three women who had "worked or lived" in the Johnson house when he was a boy, "none of these three had ever been interviewed"; that the recollections of those he interviewed "add up to a fascinating story -- but one which has never been told"; that the persons who knew Johnson well when he worked as a congressional secretary "had been interviewed before, but never in depth."
Over and again, Caro batters the reader with the evidence of his superiority to all others who have aspired to understand the life and work of Lyndon Johnson. Over and again, he informs the reader in no uncertain terms that "never" has there "ever" been a more diligent researcher -- indeed, at one point in the text he refers to himself not as "the biographer" but as "the researcher." This is appropriate, for research is the only commodity of value that "The Path to Power" offers.
His research is valuable, that is, if the reader is willing to buy the terms on which it is offered: an agreement on the reader's part to accept Caro's assertions on blind faith. Often, in fact, his "research" is full of holes. At one point he quotes "one student" as saying of the young Johnson, "He was only interested in himself and what could help himself," and then adds: "The feeling in Washington was the same." But nowhere in the notes can I find an identification of the "student" or a verification for "the feeling in Washington." Later, he quotes "another observer, who has asked not to be quoted by name," as saying: "Every time I looked at Lyndon . . ., I saw a Uriah Heep from Texas." Similarly, a few pages later he says of the tone in which Johnson addressed his new wife, "Acquaintances who heard it were shocked." The notes provide this reassuring documentation: "A number of Texans in Washington at the time described Johnson ordering around his new wife, but asked not to be quoted by name on this particular subject."
Speaking of Johnson's wife, Caro has this to say: "In 1934, he began courting a third young woman. She was Claudia Alta Taylor of Karnack, Texas, her nickname was 'Lady Bird'--and whether or not (and no one can know) her father's position was the explanation, or any part of the explanation, for Lyndon Johnson's interest in her, her father was the richest man in town." Perhaps Caro thinks that his voluminous researches entitle him to absolute license, that they authorize him to employ documentation and innuendo with equal weight and emphasis; it seems most unlikely that many readers will agree.
Except, need it be said, those readers who share Caro's enraged animus against Lyndon Johnson. For the true disbeliever, "The Path to Power" will be holy writ; it should persuade the already-persuaded into new frenzies of hatred. But the reader hoping to find a fair portrait of Johnson -- not favorable, merely fair -- will not do so here; "The Path to Power" is a stacked deck, as unfair and malicious a biography as I have ever read, by comparison with which Victor Lasky's diatribes against the Kennedys seem positively benign. Unlike George Reedy, who knows that Johnson was a vile human being but in certain respects a great man, and who has the decency in his recent memoir to say as much, Caro records without notably positive comment the evidence of Johnson's occasional kindness but dwells at length on any shred that appears to prove his greed, deceit, mendacity and opportunism. His hatchet is honed to a killing edge, and he wields it from first page to last.
The sad thing is that it didn't have to be that way. It is possible to write a fair biography of a dislikable person, as was demonstrated not long ago by Ronald Steel's brilliant life of Walter Lippmann. As portrayed by Steel, Lippmann emerges as in many respects a loathsome character: a toady, a snob, vain and pompous toward all save those whose favor he curried. But this portrait is not painted through the relentless accumulation of innuendo and gratuitous asides; it emerges through the relentless accumulation of evidence. Steel is as willing to describe his subject's strengths as he is to reveal his weaknesses; he understands what Caro clearly does not--that he is writing about a human being, that there can be no absolute or final judgment on such a creature, and that those who accomplished as much good as Lippmann and Johnson did cannot possibly have been wholly evil.
In his "Note on Sources," Caro describes his "nine interviews" with Lady Bird Johnson, which he calls "immensely valuable." He then writes: "At a certain point, however -- sometime after the interviews with Mrs. Johnson had been completed -- that cooperation abruptly and totally ceased." Caro seems to be puzzled at this turn of events. No one else will be.