Sunday, May 6, 2012

Robert Caro's LBJ Book: Did I Read What I Think I Did?

So, a change in blogging topics is in order.

I have spent much of the weekend reading the latest volume of Robert Caro’s ongoing biography series about LBJ.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power starts with the 1960 presidential campaign, covers Johnson's unhappy vice presidency, and concludes with the seven weeks immediately following LBJ’s succession to power. It is the fourth volume in a planned five volume series.

LBJ not being one of my favorite presidents, I resisted reading the lengthy Caro books for a long time, even though I’d picked up two of them at book sales. Once I picked up the first volume, however, I ploughed through it and the two succeeding entries in very short order. I have never experienced a biographer with a better understanding of his subject than Caro has.

I’m about halfway through this latest tome. It’s a good read, even though I have already read quite a bit about the Kennedy presidency, making some of the material redundant from my perspective. And, I noticed that Caro relies on secondary sources more than he seemingly did in prior volumes.

That may explain the reason for the factual error I found.

On page 281 of the book, Caro related an incident in which disgraced former LBJ senatorial staffer and fixer Bobby Baker visits the former president at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, Texas. He pins the date of the visit as October 1973. 

Below is a copy of the paragraph in question.

The first time I ever saw a “Special Report” on television, I was six years old. The event in question was the death of former President Johnson at the age of 64. The date: January 22, 1973.

In the end notes, Caro cites Baker’s own book as the source for the incident, so it seems that the error originated with Baker and was repeated by Caro or his researcher. Still, it seems like a surprising thing for a master biographer and the reigning expert on all things LBJ to let slip by.

This probably says less about Caro than the extent to which I am a presidential history geek. Anyway, I hope to finish the book over the next week, and to share my additional thoughts about it when I am done.   

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