Okay, for you non-opera lovers, that above is the title of an aria from Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini. It has zero to do with what's below, other than the Caro part...
Robert Caro is probably my favorite historian. My only complaint with him is that he does SUCH freaking meticulous research that it takes him years, sometimes over a decade to write a book. So, he's only written five histories. But he's won two Pulitzer Prizes. And for all I know, he'll win a third for his latest, The Passage of Power, which just was released in paperback. He had planned to write three books on Lyndon Johnson, but has already done four, and this latest only takes LBJ up to his first year of his presidency. He began the series, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, in 1982 -- 31 years ago! Thank goodness he's stuck around this long to get this far.
The longest wait between books was between volume 2, Means to Ascent (largely about Johnson's first race for the Senate, when he got the nickname "Landslide Lyndon" for winning by the Democratic primary by 87 votes, in a race that probably had vote theft on both sides) and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Master of the Senate. That was 12 years. It was a mere 10 years to this new one. He's said that the fifth volume shouldn't take as long because he (and his wife, Ina, his only other researcher) have done much of the research for the Johnson Presidency.
Here's how meticulous Caro is. For the first in the series, Path to Power, he thought it critically important to understand the Hill Country in Texas -- the land, the conditions and the people -- in order to understand who Lyndon Johnson was. So, Caro and his wife moved there to live for two years.
Great as these books are, his first book -- which won the Pulitzer Prize -- may be his best, The Power Broker. It's about Robert Moses and the development of New York City. The books is as great a primer about big city politics as any political science book as you'd ever come across. But like all of Caro's books, it's not just brilliant history, it's just as brilliant writing. He writes like a novelist, tell Dickensian stories, and makes these massive volumes into page-turners. With Robert Moses, Caro is able to paint a character who at times is so stunningly brilliant and noble that you're in human awe -- and at times (too many times), you get so furious at Moses's malevolence that you want to fling the book at a wall. And as you're reading this 1,000-page masterwork, you wonder how Caro can possibly end it properly, to put such a Machiavellian character as Robert Moses into appropriate perspective. There's just no way. And he does.
Also great in Caro's books are the digressions he goes off into, in order to let the reader better understand a side topic that is critical to understand in order to understand the main issue. The best example is that Caro feels it's absolutely necessary to understand who the powerful Sen. Robert Russell of Georgia is, because he was Lyndon Johnson's mentor, who LBJ sort of manipulated for his own benefit. And so Caro goes off into a brilliant sidetrack of 40 pages on Russell that is as minutely detailed and riveting as any full biography on the man. (The section, Caro always credits, was researched by his wife, Ina.)
Caro was on The Colbert Report this week, to coincide with the paperback release. If you didn't see it, it was wonderful. For starters, Colbert was as deferential as I’ve seen him with any guest other than Stephen Sondheim, and maybe even more so. And then, when he finally goes into “Colbert-character Mode,” Caro was great – he laughs along with the put-downs, but also does as good a job as any guest in occasionally refuting Colbert so wonderfully that the Colbert-adoring audience not only doesn’t “boo” him when he dares contradict their hero, but he gets them cheering on a couple of occasions.
Here's that appearance. (If for some reason the video doesn't play on your end -- I'm aware of some reports -- you can find it here.)
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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