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In An Explosive Biography, Robert Caro Portrays L.B.J.'s Path to Power as the Low Road

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Lyndon Johnson was a liar. Lyndon Johnson was insatiably greedy. Lyndon Johnson was an opportunist who cheated on his wife, betrayed his friends, and sold out his ideals.

These harsh judgments are part of a complex biography of LBJ by Robert A. Caro, 47, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose The Path to Power, the first part of a planned three-volume life of the 36th President, was published last November. Not surprisingly, the massive book—it runs 882 pages and half a million words—has touched off debate among LBJ’s friends, foes and family. (Lady Bird, 70, has not read it, but declared it would “make a good doorstop.”) Critical reactions have ranged from awe (the Dallas Times Herald called it “a magnificent piece of work”) to a Washington Post review labeling it “a work of astonishing arrogance and presumption.” Caro admits, “I would be depressed if people weren’t reading it,” but the book, despite its intellectual and physical girth, is already a best-seller.

Caro spent seven years researching his book, digging through the 34 million documents at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas and conducting some 1,000 interviews. He began as an LBJ admirer. “I thought I would find a man who was shrewd,” he says, “but whose driving motivation was to help the people he grew up with.” Caro had just finished writing The Power Broker, a similarly exhaustive biography that portrayed New York public works czar Robert Moses as a megalomaniacal tyrant, and he says, “I was tired after spending seven years with a character as unsympathetic as Moses.”

Then, however, he began to look hard at Johnson. As he learned more, Caro says, “it was very depressing.” He documents LBJ’s “utter ruthless-ness in destroying obstacles in his path and a seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit, deception and betrayal.” Even in his early years, Caro writes, Johnson had stolen a college election and developed such an ego that he arranged to have characterizations of himself as “Bull” (for “Bullshit”) cut out of hundreds of copies of his college yearbook.

Once in Washington, Caro charges, Johnson exploited his access to Texas oil and construction money, had an extramarital affair with the mistress of millionaire publisher Charles Marsh, and betrayed his mentor Sam Rayburn. “He never could believe people liked, admired or respected him,” Caro says. “You can’t understand him without feeling unbelievably sorry for him.”

Caro may have inherited his research ability from Joseph Caro, a 16th-century Spanish-born Talmudic scholar he believes was his forebear, who spent 20 years compiling an explanation of the complex codes of Orthodox Judaism. Robert’s father, a New York real estate man, raised him and his younger brother after their mother died when Bob was 12. Bob read voraciously and ended up at Princeton, majoring in English lit.

Caro went to work for the New Brunswick, N.J. Home News as a reporter. A brief stint as a political speech writer for local Democrats left him “disgusted” with politics, and he went to Newsday, on Long Island, as an investigative reporter. Quitting in 1967 to write about Moses, he scraped up enough money to work for a year. His wife, Ina, found a teaching job, then sold the house where they had been raising son Chase (now 24 and a “budding entrepreneur”) to pay for two more years of writing.

Finally editor Robert Gottlieb of Alfred A. Knopf provided enough money for Caro to finish the Moses book; Gottlieb later encouraged Caro to do the Johnson trilogy. (Caro covered LBJ’s 1968 campaign briefly but never met him; he would have voted for him in 1964, he says, had he voted.)

Caro once figured to spend 10 years on the LBJ volumes. The second book should take him two more years, but he will not even guess about the third. Understandably, he is anxious to get back to his typewriter after promoting the first volume. Each day he’s writing, Caro takes a train from his apartment in Riverdale, N.Y. to his small Manhattan office. He works even on weekends and holidays; only when he finishes a chapter—it has taken as long as 63 days—does he relax. At home, Ina often cooks gourmet dinners for such friends as Joseph (Eleanor and Franklin) Lash and Robert (Nicholas and Alexandra) Massie.

Caro’s The Path to Power earnings, divided by seven years’ work, won’t make him rich. Still, he says, “The greatest luxury for me would be to know I could be a writer for the rest of my life. Now I’ll be able to.”