“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays
“(Lyndon) Johnson did some wonderful things and he did some terrible things, and they all came out of the same place.”
Robert A. Caro
“The most important thing for Lyndon was not to be like Daddy,” said Sam Houston, Lyndon Johnson’s younger brother.
Sam was approached by writer Robert Caro, who was in the works of a multi-volume biography of Lyndon. Robert is no ordinary biographer — His aim in writing biographies, as he often said, was not to provide an account of a person’s life per se, but to reveal the inner workings of political power — To delve deep into the effects that it has on its wielder, just as well as on the people whom it is wielded against.
Robert and Sam went to Johnson City, and persuaded the National Park Service to let them get into the Johnson Boyhood Home during closing hours — Where everything inside was recreated just as how it was when the Johnsons had lived there.
After the tourists had gone, Robert and Sam stepped into the dining room, where a long plank table stood. In the cool of the evening, mildly warm sun rays shone through the windows, casting soft shadows onto the table, just as Sam remembered in his younger days. He sat in the same place as he used to, next to his father’s chair, and where Lyndon would have been by his side. With his cane placed aside, he seemed like a child again.
Robert sat behind Sam, leaning against the wall with an open notebook in his hands.
“Now, Sam Houston,” Robert said. “I’d like you to tell me again about those terrible arguments that your father and Lyndon used to have at dinnertime — Just take me through them again, like you did before, only with more detail.”
Sam’s memories were first only vague, and Robert had to chime in and ask, “And then what?” As time passed, his memories became clearer, he spoke without pauses, and Robert no longer had to chime in. Sam reenacted his family dinners, nearly yelling out the heated conversations that Lyndon had with his father at the table.
“You’re just not college material are you, goddamnit? You’re just a failure, Lyndon, and you’re always going to be a failure!”
“What are you? You’re a bus inspector, that’s what you are!”
And on the other side of the table was his mother, crying out their names, begging them to stop fighting.
Robert felt that he was finally getting right into the bosom of Lyndon Johnson’s childhood, and Sam sat still, very still, gripping on his early memories as they came back to him.
“Now, Sam Houston, I want you to tell me again all those wonderful stories about Lyndon when you both were boys, stories you told me before — Just tell me them again with more details…Tell me those wonderful stories again,” said Robert.
“Because they never happened.”
“The most intimidating world leader was Lyndon Johnson, who became U.S. president when John Kennedy was assassinated. He exulted in this power and liked to inspire fear.”
Lyndon Baines Johnson. He was perhaps, more than anything, a complicated person. Most biographers and historians would agree that the two cardinal traits that could best define him were his empathy, as well as his ruthlessness.
Having lived his youth in backbreaking Texan poverty, Lyndon had deep reservoirs of compassion for the poor and the minority. But remarkably, this was the same man in office who also saw people as tools, who exploited their weaknesses, who threatened, bribed, cajoled, and seduced, and was willing to go amoral distances in his ascent to power.
To get a clearer picture of how these two traits ran in him, think of this.
At heart, Lyndon genuinely cared for civil rights. But he was also a realist, a pragmatist. He taught himself to see the world around him as they really were, not as how he wanted them to be. He never made the mistake of hearing only what he wanted to hear.
He knew he could never accrue the power to pass a civil rights act, unless he stood by people who were already more powerful than him. At the time, the most powerful senators were Southerners. Some of them were disgustingly racist, in the cruelest sense. Nevertheless, he befriended them, looked up to them as his mentors, convinced them that he would walk to the ends of the Earth for them, and actively opposed civil rights for 20 years — Voting against it every single time. When he eventually rose to power as President, one of the very first things he did was pass the civil rights act.
He once mentioned to one of his young staffers, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
It would be easy to depict Lyndon Johnson in a way that is one-dimensional, to let any of his traits overshadow the other. It takes a consummate writer to provide a true-to-life narrative of him, and such a writer was Robert Caro.
Robert believed that you could never understand Lyndon Johnson without grasping that the core fact that stamped his life and character was his tumultuous relationship with his father. He came to realize that Lyndon’s empathy and ruthlessness did not come from different places.
Lyndon bore a striking resemblance to his father — Both had large ears, both were over six feet tall and had jutting jaws. Even like his father, Lyndon had the habit of putting his arm around the shoulder of the person he was attempting to persuade, while tugging at that person’s jacket lapel with the other hand — Firmly holding him, and leaning towards him as they talked.
But unlike Lyndon, his father was the opposite of a realist. He was a wishful thinker, often falsely optimistic and unwilling to look at hard facts.
When Lyndon was in his teens, his father got them into financial trouble. He had overbid on a ranch that ultimately did not sit on arable land. Its soil was solid and shallow, and the most it could have grown was grass — Definitely not good enough for growing crops or grazing cattle. His father didn’t want to see that. He deluded himself, thinking it was all beautiful. But life in lonely Texas Hill Country was unforgiving. If a family failed, it meant that they would have to pack their bags into their car, oftentimes with nowhere else to go.
Lyndon experienced firsthand the upshot of false optimism. To make ends meet, he worked on a highway gang, leveling unpaved highways with an old device called a Fresno — An iron slab with a handle on each side, and it worked by pushing the sharp end of it into hard soil, while at the same time being pulled by mules. Since both hands were busy working the Fresno, the reins were painfully looped behind Lyndon’s back. He worked in harness with the mules for long hours every day, living with his father’s great mistake for nearly all his youth.
You could have that picture in mind, whenever you mull over Lyndon’s ruthlessness, or empathy, in fact. In his mind and heart, he had to win, no matter what it took. Because he had lived the consequences of losing. As Robert Caro put it, “It was the bite of the reins into his back as he shoved, hour after hour, under that merciless Hill Country sun, pushing the Fresno through the sun-baked soil.”
That bite in his back never left him, even as an older man.
Below are some ways in how Robert Caro was able to provide a life-like narrative of Lyndon Johnson in his biographies The Years of Lyndon Johnson. With that are also insights from other great writers or figures that we could just as well incorporate in our own work.
Approach Your Work With A Beginner’s Mind
“It was said first of all that he was a realist. And indeed he often reiterated that the artist should apply himself to the pure imitation of nature, ‘without rejecting, despising, choosing anything’.”
Marcel Proust on his favorite author, John Ruskin
An artist must never be satisfied with a surface-level understanding of her subject. To create great work, she must head straight to the seat of intelligence, and travel down whatever rabbit holes necessary for her to be deft in what she’s trying to say.
It wouldn’t hurt to always keep an open mind, especially when it comes to something that you’re used to learning and doing. There’s always something new to learn every day, and sometimes our long-held assumptions are really worth questioning.
When Robert Caro first started researching on Lyndon Johnson, he thought that interviews regarding Lyndon’s early life were merely supplementary, as there were already plenty of details from other biographies that he could borrow from.
Anyhow, Robert traveled to Texas Hill Country, where Lyndon grew up in. As he interviewed people who knew Lyndon as a child, he would repeat anecdotes from other biographies. In response, his interviewees would say, “Well, that’s not quite what happened”, but would not give any more details. It was as if they were reluctant to tell the true story of Lyndon Johnson to outsiders.
Robert came to know that the Hill Country folks called these outsiders “portable journalists”. There were many of them before Robert who would come and stay in Hill Country for 3 or 4 days and then leave once the interviews were done.
Determined to learn more about Lyndon Johnson, Robert and his wife rented a house in Hill Country and lived there for about 4 years as he worked on his first volume. As they spoke in Southern accents and adapted to their way of living, the Hill Country folks’ behaviors softened, and they began to speak to them differently. They started to give more details, more stories about Lyndon Johnson and life there.
In a similar vein, so much of what we know about chimpanzees today can be credited to Jane Goodall and her research. Prior to that, scientists studied chimpanzees only from afar through the lens of their binoculars. Jane, who didn’t have any scientific credentials, did something unusual by actually being close to the chimpanzees. She entered their elusive world, and soaked as much knowledge and made as many discoveries as she possibly could.
At first, they got afraid and ran away. But over many months, they slowly started getting used to the friendly sight of her, and allowed her to come closer. During that time, it was groundbreaking to learn that chimpanzees, and most animals, are not so different from human beings in their tool-making, their feeling of emotions, attachments, team cooperation, and even warfare.
Provide A Sense of Place
“You have to choose small details in describing nature, grouping them in such a way that if you close your eyes after reading it you can picture the whole thing. Nature will become animated if you don’t disdain comparing its appearance with human actions.”
It’s a universally-known reality that places elicit emotions in people.
As Robert Caro explained, “By ‘a sense of place’, I mean helping the reader to visualize the physical setting in which a book’s action is occurring : to see it clearly enough, in sufficient detail, so that he feels as if he himself were present while the action is occurring. The action thereby becomes more vivid, more real, to him, and the point the author is trying to make about the action, the significance he wants the reader to grasp, is therefore deepened as well.”
If a writer could describe well enough a protagonist’s actions and the settings in which they commenced, as well as give an honest portrayal of that protagonist’s character, her readers would be able to empathize greatly with the emotions and motivations that the protagonist was experiencing, and the gravity of the actions that were taken in that setting.
In writing about Lyndon Johnson, two vital settings for him were the place where he came from, Texas Hill Country, and the place where he ascended to power, Capitol Hill. These two settings helped Robert, just as they would help the reader, understand Lyndon as an individual, as well as his significance in history. It is from Hill Country that we could understand how he came to desire power, and it is from Capitol Hill that we could grasp how he worked to attain that power.
“Hundreds of writers — Journalists and the authors of books — All agree that Lyndon Johnson was ruthless.” Robert said. “I try to explain why he was ruthless — And a large part of the explanation is the place he came from.”
In his writings, Robert has been generous in providing us with articulate and riveting contexts of life in those two places for us to have a glimpse into Lyndon Johnson’s character. In Hill Country, having resided there for a few years himself, he detailed how difficult and quiet life there was, especially more so in Lyndon Johnson’s time. When Lyndon was growing up, the folks lived without electricity. They were always without company too, as households lived miles apart from one another. They worked from “dark to dark”, from early morning till night, and many of the women became old and bent before their time, as they carried heavy buckets of water for their families, and did other grueling chores every day.
In the case of Capitol Hill, Robert learned from interviews that Lyndon would get up early in the morning and walk to work. Every day, one would catch the sight of young Lyndon, in his ill-fitting clothes, breaking into a run as he approached the steps of the Capitol. And Robert sought to understand why.
Robert woke up at 5.30 a.m., and walked the same route that Lyndon did. As the sun rose above the Capitol, and its marble exteriors gleaming from the flares, Robert now understood what made Lyndon run. He said, “I felt I had found a way not to lecture the reader on the contrast between what Lyndon Johnson was coming from and what he was striving toward, and how that contrast helped explain the desperation, the frenzied, fanatic urgency of his efforts — A way not to tell the reader but to show the reader that point instead.”
It was the contrast between the beaten path of poverty that Lyndon Johnson trampled on in Hill Country, and the dreams, the ambitions of power that he saw reflected in the shiny whiteness of the Capitol.
Details, Details, Details
“You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of actual life across — Not to just depict life or criticize it — But to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience that thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides — 3 dimensions and if possible 4 that you can write the way I want to.”
If you’ve done creative work for any period of time, it wouldn’t be a trouble for you to understand how imperative it is to have an immense attention to detail in your work. Let’s jump into two particular aspects of that, namely research and narrative.
When he was a young writer, Robert Caro used to write really fast. That habit might have served him well as a journalist, when he had to quickly find a story and build an article around it. His work etiquette changed when a professor advised him, “You’re never going to achieve what you want to, Mr. Caro, if you don’t stop thinking with your fingers.”
Robert has since then taken an average of 10 years to write one book, and he has built a solid reputation for his painstaking amount of research and detail. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page,” according to another advice he has always lived by. He isn’t afraid to take his time.
Research is always important, no matter what field you’re in. Because no one wants to listen to balderdash. Even if you’re writing fiction — Yes, fiction — The same applies. Nothing is good when you have nothing to say.
In an interview with Robert Caro, novelist Kurt Vonnegut was asked about whether fiction needs research. He responded, “There has to be. Because you can lose a reader in a blink of an eye.” When writing his novels, Vonnegut always stressed on getting the details right. “If a person is an engineer or chemist or an anthropologist or whatever, you spoil the whole book for that person if there’s obviously ignorance here,” he said.
He even wrote a novel about evolution called Galapagos, and because of the scientifically-accurate details, the book is now used in university courses.
When it comes to narrative, it is often overlooked, especially by non-fiction writers. Narrative is where the line is drawn between non-fiction writing that endure and ones that don’t. Even as you’ve got the facts and points down, you can never forget that in writing, you’re essentially telling a story. It’s not just about what you let your readers know, but what you let them see, and how you make them feel.
Evidently, narrative is why we remember great books, even years after we first read them.
Referring to Lyndon Johnson’s senate campaign, Robert Caro said, “That was a thrilling campaign, you follow it day by day, it really excited the whole State of Texas. If your account of that campaign isn’t thrilling, it’s false, even if it’s factually accurate — You’re not being true to that campaign. You’ve got to make the reader live through it again.”
He added, “You learn from talking to Lyndon Johnson’s helicopter pilot, and his aides that he was desperate and frenzied during the last days of the helicopter campaign. So you say to yourself, if you want to show this truly, there must be desperation in your writing, desperation and frenzy in the words and the rhythm of the words.”
As he wrote the helicopter section, he pinned a note on his desk lamp, “IS THERE DESPERATION ON THIS PAGE?”
You must show, rather than only tell your readers what you’re trying to say. Your words need to embody the entire spectrum of emotions that come with it, and that’s never an easy thing to do. There’s a lot of tedium and detail in that, and that’s what makes writing, as well as any art, so difficult. But that’s what makes it so special too.
What is writing anyway? As Stephen King put it, it’s telepathy, of course.