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."
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