NEW YORK — Robert A. Caro's quest to narrate the life of Lyndon Johnson, and document how Johnson handled and created political power, has lasted longer than LBJ's time in government.
The Pulitzer Prize winning historian and former Newsday investigative reporter has spent some 35 years researching and writing about Johnson, from the Texan's debut in Congress during the New Deal era to his rise to the White House under the most traumatic conditions, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The more Caro learned, the more he needed to tell. A planned three-volume history grew to four, then five. Caro was barely 40 when he started the project and likely will be pushing 80 when he's done.
Book four, "The Passage of Power," comes out in May, publisher Alfred A. Knopf announced Tuesday.
"Passage of Power" will focus on the years 1958-64, from the time he began seeking the presidency, through his years as vice president under Kennedy, and to Johnson's becoming president and his astonishing early run of legislative victories. Caro expects the book to run about 700 pages, modest by his standards. His previous book, "Master of the Senate," topped 1,100 pages.
"Why did three volumes become four? Because I realized I didn't know how the Senate worked and instead of making it rather minor, I wanted to show how power worked in the Senate," Caro said Tuesday during a telephone interview with The Associated Press from his Manhattan office.
"What do I want to show in this volume? I wanted to show how a master of politics can pick up the reins of power in a time of great crisis and what he can do with that power and the extraordinary results Lyndon Johnson did with it."
Caro said he has already done an outline and most of the research for the presumed final volume, which would cover the rest of Johnson's presidency and how the Vietnam War overshadowed his domestic triumphs and drove him to give up on seeking a second full term. Caro expects the fifth book to take two to three years and adds that he even knows the final sentence.
"I'm ready to start writing it now," says Caro, all of whose Johnson books have been edited by Robert Gottlieb.
Over the past three decades, Caro's Johnson books have been among the most celebrated and debated historical works in memory. Caro has received two National Book Critics Circle awards, a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, for "Master of the Senate." The three books have sold 1.5 million copies combined and Knopf receives hundreds of emails each month asking about the next volume, according to publicity director Paul Bogaards.
Knopf plans a first printing of 300,000 copies and Bogaards said Caro will tour to promote the new book, giving fans a long-awaited chance to see him. Knopf Chairman and CEO Sonny Mehta said in a statement that "Passage of Power" was a "riveting look at a pivotal period in our nation's history."
"You do not give a great biographer a timetable," Mehta said. "You let them do their work, and in due course, publish it. This has been our approach with Caro from the outset. The result has been three signature works, and now this fourth, which I immediately recognized as a stand-alone book and insisted that we had to publish next year. There will be a fifth volume, though again, we have no timetable for it, only the expectation that it will be as good as the first four."
Publishing has changed dramatically since "Master of the Senate" was released, in 2002, and the historian's new book will be his first to be published simultaneously in hardcover and electronic format. On Nov. 23, volumes I and II — "The Path to Power" and "Means of Ascent" — will finally be available as e-books. ("Master of the Senate" already can be downloaded.)
"You want the books to go on," said Caro, who personally favors paper. "And I realize that this generation, a lot of it, and the generation after that, is going to be reading in digital form."
Caro's appeal reaches to Washington itself, where Johnson's omnipotence now seems unthinkable. According to Ron Suskind's best-selling "Confidence Men," Democratic senators read Caro's books as they attempted to pass health care legislation in 2009 and Rep. Barney Frank consulted "Master of the Senate" as he urged fellow Democrats to support new financial regulation.
Meanwhile, Caro has been transformed from pariah among Johnson supporters to the former president's definitive chronicler. "Means of Ascent," published in 1990, was an account so harsh of Johnson's 1948 election to the U.S. Senate that former LBJ aide Jack Valenti accused Caro of despising his subject. Lady Bird Johnson, LBJ's widow, stopped granting him interviews. For years, Caro was treated coldly at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. The library limited his access to materials and didn't invite him as a guest speaker. His books were unavailable at the museum store.
But while "Means of Ascent" presented Johnson as boorish and unscrupulous, "Master of the Senate" showed Johnson as a singularly forceful and ingenious majority leader, with stirrings of idealism, as he miraculously pushed through the first major civil rights bill since Reconstruction. Valenti and other Johnson insiders warmed to Caro and agreed to talk. Caro has since spoken at the Johnson center, where his books are now sold and the historian's requests are duly granted.
For LBJ, the Caro books are a narrative of political power gained and lost. For Caro, they're a story of time. He started the series in the mid-1970s, soon after winning the Pulitzer for "The Power Broker," his Dickensian epic about New York's master builder, Robert Moses. Johnson had died just a couple of years earlier and virtually everyone in his administration, and in Kennedy's, was still around.
Caro has conducted countless interviews, but now he seeks survivors. So many have passed away. Just since "Master of the Senate," such family members and top officials as Valenti, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore Sorensen have died.
"Every time I walk home at night, that hits me in the face. My apartment is on Central Park West and my office is in Columbus Circle, so on my way home I pass Ted Sorensen's house," Caro says. "I used to be able to pick up the phone and call (LBJ aide) Horace Busby and ask him, 'Where was Johnson sitting? On the sofa or the rocking chair?' So often I reach for the phone these days and there's nobody to call."Comment on this story