Wednesday, April 27, 2011

LBJ in the ring

Right before I left for a Hawaii vacation with my in-laws last week, America's greatest sportswriter, Joe Posnanski, was kind enough to mention Robert Caro's three-volume (and counting) biography of Lyndon B. Johnson in a great post about Manny Ramirez. Thus was solved my dilemma about what books to carry with me on the trip: I'd take Caro. (In addition, that is, to Dorothy Dunnett, Nicholson Baker, Sam Lipsyte, Trollope, and Laura Hillenbrand.)

And oh, the joys. All I have to do is flash the book at my coworker John to make him openly ache with envy because I'm getting to read this book for the first time. "I read the third volume twice," he said today, "and enjoyed it more the second time."

Based on 500 pages of volume one, The Path to Power, I see what he means. Caro is an astonishingly good biographer--something I knew from having read his 1,200-page book about Robert Moses, The Power Broker, in a breathless rush on a beach vacation back in 2002--able to make you care, actually care, about such inconsequential things as a student government election at San Marcos State Teachers College in 1929. Or about the vote-by-vote details of LBJ's first race. And, almost unique among biographers, he is both unflinching in passing judgment on bad behavior and fully willing to acknowledge complexity; his LBJ is a monster of ambition and coarse power plays even as he's also a remarkably admirable hard worker and innovative political thinker, doing great things for the poor and underserved.

And then there are the passing scenes: Caro interviewed everyone, it seems, and that enables him to narrate moments that otherwise would be lost, inconsequential, to history. Like this one, which, however it may illuminate LBJ's character, makes me laugh just thinking about it:
He had made a great point of describing himself as a tough man in a fistfight--something believable, despite his awkwardness, because of his size. During a poker game, however, he began arguing with another student, and wouldn't stop shouting at him. The other boy jumped up and lunged at him. Johnson, without a single gesture of resistance, immediately fell back on a bed and, as his foe approached, began kicking his feet in the air with a frantic, windmilling motion. The other poker players all remember him lying there and kicking-"like a girl," Horace Richards says--and they remember him shouting: "If you hit me, I'll kick you! If you hit me, I'll kick you!" The other men were astonished.
LBJ, so menacing and tough in the well of the House, the Senate, lying on a bed like an eight-year-old, kicking and kicking, ineffectual. And it happens more than once!

1 comment:

  1. I'm self-serializing The Power Broker at the moment (100 pages a month for a year) which is actually a really interesting reading experience, as I find myself pondering Robert Moses between readings. This weekend, amazingly, I was reading a chapter about the Tri-Borough Bridge while waiting for the N train in Astoria -- in the very shadow of the bridge! -- then by the time I got off at 25th St. in Brooklyn an hour later, I had just gotten to a passage about the Gowanus Expressway: "There once was a neighborhood called Sunset Park." It gave me shivers -- like I was one with the book, history, and everything! Also: I'm loving the way the tone shifts from dry-ish politics and policy to a more menacing tone.... shit's about to go down! I don't think I can serialize any longer -- I must read on, now!