Friday, July 29, 2016

Friday BookReview -- Robert Caro is the finest 20th century biographer

[first published June 25, 2013]

Robert Caro is close to 80 now, and working away at the fifth and final book in his biography of Lyndon Johnson.


Having read the other volumes, I am several chapters into Master of the Senate, and my awe of Mr. Caro only increases. It took me a few years to fully appreciate him, but he is an eagle who soars higher than Catton or Tuchman, Shelby Foote or McCullough.

One facet that jumps out: even though the author is a thoroughly liberal New York intellectual, his commitment to truth runs deeper than his ideology. Each Caro book you pick up has devastating revelations about LBJ – as well as other chief executives who prided themselves as lions of progress: Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson.

A couple anecdotes from Mr. Caro about the political misuse of the IRS:

** In 1934 President Roosevelt asked his Treasury Secretary to examine the taxes of publisher William Randolph Hearst. So, Henry Morgenthau pored over the returns of Hearst and his Hollywood mistress, Marion Davies – and "advised FDR to mount a preemptive attack" on the pair.

** A decade later, congressman Lyndon Johnson was able to engage the String-Puller-in-Chief to keep his political goose from being cooked.
The first LBJ volume (The Path to Power, chapter 35) tells how he, with his longtime friend and lawyer Alvin Wirtz, had a private audience with President Roosevelt – and the next day the IRS investigation, that had been looking into the illegal money which poured into Johnson’s unsuccessful senatorial campaign, was quashed!

[Mr. Wirtz was at one point the #2 man at the Interior Department under Harold Ickes. Wirtz was a type of genial thief who, after hammering out a contractual deal, secretly "adjusts" some of the wording before the parties actually sign the document].

UPDATE: Check out this earlier post regarding the hatred between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy, covered by Mr. Caro in the fourth book.


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