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The President's Analyst

Robert A. Caro, who's on his third volume on LBJ, has stuck to his subject and methods as a biographer.

April 29, 2002|MARK ROZZO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — "I'm not amenable to change, you know." Robert A. Caro, the tireless author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of builder Robert Moses, "The Power Broker," and now the third volume of his mammoth "The Years of Lyndon Johnson," is talking on a morning of record-breaking April heat in his private Manhattan office overlooking 57th Street.

Impeccably attired in a sharp navy suit offset with a deep-red tie, and wearing his signature rectangular tortoise-shell glasses, the 66-year-old, in this suitably low-key 22nd-floor aerie, appears almost transcendentally oblivious to the murderous heat outside. He's just as happy to have managed, somehow, to rise above the many changes that have occurred in the merger-happy, increasingly bottom-line driven business of publishing and journalism since he began his 2,571-page-and-counting life of Johnson in 1976.

The first two parts of "The Years of Lyndon Johnson"--"The Path to Power" and "Means of Ascent"-- were published in 1982 and 1990, and the long-anticipated third volume, subtitled "Master of the Senate," which takes the reader to Johnson's life in 1960, is published this month by Knopf.

"I consider myself truly blessed," Caro says, his Manhattan-inflected voice rising from a reflective whisper to a nearly giddy shout. "I've had the same editor for 30 years, the same assistant editor for 30 years, and I've had the same woman doing the ads at Knopf. And the same lawyer too." As Caro reaches into an old-fashioned wooden in-box on his expansive, clutter-free desk (the absence of a computer is conspicuous) and retrieves a manuscript page from "Master of the Senate," he suddenly remembers, "And I've had the same typist too! The same typist typed 'The Power Broker.' She's been typing my stuff for 30 years!"

Thirty years ago, as the legend goes, Caro gambled everything to pursue a book on Moses, New York's imperious urban planner. Caro quit his job as an investigative reporter at Newsday, and he and his wife, Ina (who has been Caro's only researcher throughout his career), mortgaged their Long Island home to supplement the advance on a project that stretched on like a Triborough Bridge traffic jam and yet seemed to have virtually no chance of attracting a popular audience.

Published in 1974, "The Power Broker" was hailed as the first book to examine how a non-elected public official can wield tremendous power in the United States. It went on to win the Pulitzer and Francis Parkman prizes, was named one of the 100 great nonfiction books of the 20th century by the Modern Library and now appears on college syllabuses across the country. The book has also been the target of perennial bids for film rights (which Caro continually declines, reportedly for fear it won't be done to his liking) and it continues to sell more and more copies every year. Caro's gamble paid off.

Now Caro is involved in another, more long-term gamble: whether he will be able to complete the four-volume LBJ project (which was originally projected at two volumes, and then three, and now four) in his lifetime. As Caro talks in his office--a rare resource for the independent writer and an indication of Caro's determination to be an investigative historian at the highest professional level--there are no signs of his slowing down. Indeed, with his courteous Clark Kent aura, Caro is often described as the quiet superhero of presidential biographers.

It's fascinating to think of this fastidious Princetonian (friends affectionately describe him as "still being at Princeton") spending the bulk of his existence immersed in the life of the man who would become the 36th president of the United States. The courtly Caro is nothing like his brash, larger-than-life, mind-bogglingly contradictory subject--he of the stentorian Texan drawl, piercing black eyes and elephantine ears; of stolen elections, extramarital affairs and defecatory exhibitionism; of ruthless arm-twisting, smear campaigns and the dazzlingly ingratiating backslap; a devout Southern segregationist who became a fierce civil rights warrior; a one-term president who personally picked bombing targets in Vietnam while envisioning a Great Society.

"Master of the Senate" vividly shows how this outsized character--the youngest and, in Caro's estimation, most powerful Senate majority leader in history--walked through the Senate's proverbial china shop like a Texas longhorn. Caro leafs through a finished copy of the book to find a pertinent passage in which the junior senator from Texas--who was elected in a 1948 race that was clearly stolen and whose ignominious details Caro first detailed in the second volume--is seen bursting through the Senate doors and racing around the Chamber.

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