Why our politicians love Robert Caro

A mix of Atlanticism and morality has British ministers swooning for Caro's biography of LBJ.

“In some wonky circles,” Salon’s Erik Nelson wrote recently, the release of a new Robert Caro volume “is heralded like the Summer of Love release of Sgt. Pepper’s”. This is particularly true in Britain, where the ruling politicians are Old Carovians almost to a man. As volume four, The Passage Of Power, reaches British shelves, it is worth considering just what it is about The Years Of Lyndon Johnson that enchants our leaders so.

While in the US Caro is a favourite of liberals and Democrats – from Barney Frank to Bill Clinton – in the UK Caro is venerated in right-wing policy circles. Michael Gove once read the whole of volume three, Master Of The Senate, while waiting for his wife to give birth (£), while William Hague chose that same volume as his castaway book on Desert Island Discs. George Osborne’s calling of the SNP’s bluff over an independence referendum was attributed by Nicholas Watt to the influence of Caro’s biography, the Chancellor’s “favourite political work”. Throw into the mix Ed Vaizey, Mark Hoban and Daniel Hannan – not to mention Michael Howard, who once swapped houses with Caro on holiday – and the biography’s influence is nothing short of remarkable.

It is not enough to rehash the truism that politicians are obsessed with posterity. Of course, this is inescapably a factor: Michael Gove wrote that the biography brings out Johnson’s underlying “tragic greatness” (£), and any politician will sympathise with a reconsideration of a politician vilified during his lifetime.  However, this does not explain the cult behind this particular work. Nor will it work to cite Caro’s exuberant narrative style. Ben Pimlott’s masterly biography of Hugh Dalton is also paced like a thriller – but no politician has chosen it for a desert island.

The biography’s richness and length definitely comes into it. One of the main reasons that Caro’s biography appeals to wonks is that it is, unashamedly, wonkish. Caro’s dissection of political processes is arguably the most extensive ever written outside of academia. Master Of The Senate, the third and most exhaustive volume, dedicates approximately 300 pages to the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill and devotes considerable discussion to arcane legislative procedures such as Senate Rule XXII. What prevents this from being dry is Caro’s flair for drama: he gives a biblical sense of scale to the constitutionality of the filibuster.

Still, this alone will not explain the enthusiasm for the biography among the current governing elite: after all, the entire political establishment relishes esoteric legislative detail. What does mark out Caro addicts Gove, Hague and Osborne is that they are the most staunchly Atlanticist triumvirate of ministers in British parliamentary history. Gove is a self-confessed neoconservative; Osborne is, says Fraser Nelson, a Kissinger obsessive; Wikileaks showed William Hague promising diplomats that the Conservatives would run a “pro-American regime”. All three, significantly, sat on the board of The Atlantic Bridge.

Much of Caro’s appeal to these ministers, we can surmise, boils down to a simple syllogism. The trio are intoxicated by American politics; The Years Of Lyndon Johnson is the most sweeping single work exploring American politics; ergo, the books appeal to their unswerving Atlanticism.

However, allied with this Atlanticism is a vital dimension that completes the picture: morality. Appropriately for their subject – a cowboy hat-wearing Texan rancher – the Johnson volumes have the moral character of a Western. This is particularly true of Caro’s second volume, Means Of Ascent, which narrates the primary contest between Johnson and Texas Governor Coke Stevenson for the Democratic Senate nomination. The scheming Johnson is Liberty Valance, while Coke Stevenson, “the living personification of frontier individualism”, is Tom Doniphon and Rance Stoddard combined. What’s more, a central Caro theme is that “power reveals”. As the wily Johnson operates power, his latent idealism, on matters such as poverty reduction and civil rights, shines through.

The appeal is obvious to ministers such as Hague and Gove, notable in their moral conception of politics. Gove is evangelical in his rhetoric, speaking often of “moral purpose”; Hague, like Gove, stresses the moral impulse of foreign policy and even wrote a biography of that arch-moralist William Wilberforce. (This does raise the question of why Tony Blair, who personifies these traits, is not a declared Caro lover – but it is perhaps not surprising, as the former Prime Minister was famously indifferent to history.)

It is this heady mix of Atlanticism and morality that attracts our present governors to Caro’s biography. American politics has a scale and, at least on paper, an idealism far removed from the omnishambles of British politics: compare The West Wing with The Thick Of It. The Years Of Lyndon Johnson embodies these values in their entirety. However, we would do well to pause for a moment and ask whether our politicians might be reading the wrong Caro book. Whereas the LBJ biography charts Johnson’s transformation from “a devious schemer to a kind of idealist”, The Power Broker – Caro’s seminal profile of New York urban planner Robert Moses – charts exactly the opposite: a reforming idealist who turns into a corrupt despot. Politicians, take note.

Lyndon B Johnson, subject of Robert Caro's monumental biography, in 1965 (Photo: Getty Images)
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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge