On my Facebook account, I had posted:
"Just found out that is planning to publish the fourth and last volume of his magisterial The Years of Lyndon Johnson in 2012. The first three volumes comprise the best biography I have ever read. When Caro publishes his final work on LBJ, he will have been writing about the US's 36th President for over 30 years."
Some of my friends subsequently wondered why I would be so drawn to a work about such a controversial figure. It's certainly not because of his sterling moral qualities.
Caro became interested in LBJ after writing his Pulitzer Priz winning The Power Broker, which covered the life of Robert Moses, perhaps the most important developer in 20th century New York. What fascinated Caro was what he learned about the exercise of power through his study of Moses. It was this interest in power that led Robert Caro to then begin studying the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Caro had a distinct advantage as Johnson's biographer. Johnson died relatively young at the age of 63 in 1973, not long before Caro began his research. Accordingly, there were a multiplicity of eyewitnesses still alive who were not constrained in their candor by the presence of a living ex-President. The wealth of detail that was therefore made available to Caro gave him the ability to craft an interesting psychological portrait of the man. I'm not sure I've ever read a more complete biographical treatment.
Johnson attracted Caro's interest because while Johnson's presidential legacy is uneven, largely due to the Vietnam War, many considered him to be the most effective Senate Leader in history. Caro eventually came to this conclusion and fellow Johnson biographer and historian Robert Dallek (who has a sturdy one volume treatment of LBJ that covers his presidency, for those who don't wish to wait for Caro) has concurred. Caro details Johnson's career as Senate Leader in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Master of the Senate.
It is Lyndon Johnson's talent as a leader that's captured my interest. Much of my consulting practice revolves around helping leaders maximize their own specific talent set in their performance and Lyndon was masterful in his ability to influence.
Talent is amoral. It can be used for either good or ill. It can be exercised from good motives or from bad motives. Accordingly, Caro presents Johnson as a man with both good and bad motives. On the plus side, Johnson had a genuine motivation to help the disadvantaged. Caro, whose biographies are highly critical of LBJ, details how as a young man Johnson was motivated to help his Mexican students when he was a school teacher near the Mexican border. Similarly, Johnson is considered by many to have had the second best presidential record on Civil Rights, second only to Abraham Lincoln.
And so while there are far many other biographies that are more instructive when it comes to personal integrity, nevertheless Caro's ongoing magnum opus has much to teach us about how to influence and lead others, though those lessons must not be garnered uncritically.