When it comes to writing history, Robert Caro is a giant among men. This past year, Caro released the fourth installment of his projected five-volume biography of the 36th president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Caro has devoted nearly 40 years researching and writing The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and he does not appear to be letting up anytime soon. Caro’s life ambition crystallized in his mid-thirties – to write the definitive biography of LBJ, a biography that would truly stand the test of time. This goal has propelled Caro vocationally throughout the lion’s share of his life and now sustains him into his sunset years.
Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson has served to percolate increased interest in the 36th president and to position its author as an internationally recognized biographer. Yet, as interesting as Caro’s ever expanding biography of Johnson is, a public intrigue with Caro himself has also piqued. Indeed, Caro is a fascinating figure; we might even say a cultural icon.
Caro is eccentrically devoted to his life’s work. His lifestyle and work ethic resemble a 21st century sweatshop, albeit civilized. For decades he has slavishly worked seven days a week, rarely breaking his routine even for holidays. He enjoys no professional help, no research assistant or transcriptionist. Caro foregoes modern conveniences such as a personal computer, preferring to draft his manuscript in longhand. He dresses in a suit every day, only to work in solitude in his Manhattan office. Caro’s office is a Byzantine gamut, littered with copious notes, stacked files, marked books, and walls covered with charts and graphs. Eyewitnesses testify that Caro’s work environment more resembles a war room than a writing den.
Caro’s life-long effort to unearth Johnson’s life in pedantic detail is impressive enough, but not altogether satisfying for the accomplished author. Rather, Caro aspires to know the mind and heart of Johnson; not merely Johnson’s actions, but what propelled his actions. Thus, Caro has coupled with his assiduous research a practice of imbibing Johnson’s way of life. Over the years, Caro has relocated his family in order to spend extensive time in Texas, Washington and even Vietnam. All of this has been in an effort to feel what Johnson felt, see what he saw, and know what he knew. Herein lies Caro’s genius. He is driven by a desire not merely to master the facts of Johnson’s life, but to know the very essence of the man.
As followers of Christ, perhaps we can learn something about discipleship from Robert Caro. When we weigh Caro’s devotion to Johnson in the scales of our pursuit of Christ, we may be found wanting. Caro has settled for nothing less than a deep and personal knowledge of his subject, LBJ. Too many Christians settle for a superficial knowledge of Christ that fosters a superficial commitment to Him.
But, we need not look to Caro to be chastened. We can simply look to the Apostle Paul, who aspired to know Jesus, writing, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… that I may know him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil 3:8,10).
Our eccentric commitment may never be classified alongside Robert Caro’s in the world’s eyes, but knowing Jesus – and laboring to make him known – will prove unmatched in personal benefit and eternal consequence.topicsOther