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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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution