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)
Hydar Dewachi/Owen G. Parry
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Larry is Real: how One Direction fanfiction is inspiring the London art scene

“These fictions are an opportunity to create – for pure expression in their field.

Where does the boundary lie between fanfiction and art? It’s a question that has become more and more prominent as fanfiction’s influence over popular culture continues to rise. London-based artist and Central St Martin’s lecturer Owen G Parry argues that there is no boundary at all. His latest work explores the world of “Larry Stylinson”, that is, fanfiction and fanart that explore a sexual relationship between One Direction band members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson.  

Showing as part of the Jerwood Gallery’s “Common Property” exhibition, Parry’s pieces include Larry Underwater Kiss, a digital silk print, Larry!Hiroglyfics, etched drawings of the couple on Perspex alongside the slogan ship everything, and Larry!Domestic: masks of Louis and Harry in pink containers, alongside a wearable pregnant belly marked with Harry’s tattoos. The exhibiton event included a live piece of performance art, featuring One Direction lookalikes kissing, hugging and undressing one another.

For Perry, these works are just one extension of an existing artistic sphere, exploring “the figure of the fan as an unassuming model for invention, mobilization and revolt”. He told the Telegraph that Larry shippers are “just presenting the normal ideals of a relationship, but actually it’s really subversive”.

“These fictions are an opportunity to create – for pure expression in their field. Fandom is a space where anything can happen. We might go back to a genuine passion in art.”

It’s an important sentiment: fanfiction writers and fanart creators, especially those working within fandoms like One Direction’s, are often young women who are intellectually and creatively dismissed. But fanfiction often provides a space for young artists who might be marginalised in the mainstream to create artwork that reflects their experiences, whether it be by racebending or reimagining characters in different power structures and dynamics.

Shipping is a key part of that, particularly for LGBTQ fans, something perhaps flattened in Perry’s statement, “Creating relationships: this is a method in fandom called ‘shipping’, which I’ve basically taken on and applied to my art practice [...] This whole installation is me ‘shipping’ materials and ideas, theories and passions.”

Of course, as long as fans have existed, fandoms of all shapes and sizes have engaged in shipping. But Larry is a particularly controversial one, because it involves playing with, and sometimes intruding upon, the lives of two real people. Larry shippers are infamous for their dedication to the ship and their insistence that it is a genuine conspiracy, rather than a fiction.

Theories usually rest on the idea that the band’s management Modest is forcing the band members to hide their sexuality and publically date women as beards, with some going as far as to suggest that the mother of Louis Tomlinson’s child, Briana Jungwirth, had a fake pregnancy. The first replies to any One Direction member’s social media posts is usually a variation of “larry” or #LarryIsReal.

Louis Tomlinson has been particularly outspoken about the ship, labelling it “bullshit” in a 2012 tweet, and reportedly saying, “it’s actually affecting the way me and Harry are in public”.

Bandmate Liam Payne called Larry shippers “absolutely nuts”, saying the theories drive him “insane”: “when you know the ins and outs of what is going on with people it's just annoying when it's so stupid. It becomes like a conspiracy or like a cult”. Zayn Malik added in an interview last year, “It’s not funny, and it still continues to be quite hard for them. They won’t naturally go put their arm around each other because they’re conscious of this thing that’s going on, which is not even true.” Some fans argue that the band members are visibly less close as a result.

Perhaps these internal criticisms and controversies miss the point. Perry sees Larry shipping as “a safe place to test out your sexuality, a fantasy space” for many young fans. As a community brimming with “passion and love” and rebellious creativity, perhaps fan-made art can have a positive impact on the art world as a whole.

All photographs by Hydar Dewachi. All artwork by Owen G Parry. Follow his fan-influenced work at fanriot.tumblr.com.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.