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)
LORRAINE MALLINDER
Show Hide image

A dictator in the family: why Ebrima Jammeh wants retribution in Gambia

“I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

On 21 January Yahya Jammeh left Gambia. Within minutes of the erstwhile dictator’s departure on a private jet, relieved crowds began to gather at Westfield Junction, a popular meeting point in Serrekunda, the largest town in the country.

For 22 years, Jammeh had cultivated a sorcerer-like persona, claiming he could cure HIV with herbs, ordering a nationwide witch hunt and magicking away countless dissenters to fates unknown.

After losing elections in December, he brought the country to the brink of war, staring down the West African troops waiting at the Senegalese border to remove him. Unable to conjure a way out, he eventually agreed to be exiled to Equatorial Guinea.

Leaning against a car at Westfield, Ebrima Jammeh (pictured above) watched the celebrations with a bitter-sweet expression. Shouting over blaring car horns, he said that he wanted justice for his father, murdered by the regime in 2005. His father, it turned out, was Haruna Jammeh, a first cousin of Yahya. The story of how Haruna and his sister, Masie Jammeh, were “disappeared” by security forces is well known here – a striking example of the former ruler’s ruthlessness.

Days after Yahya Jammeh’s departure, I met Haruna’s widow, Fatimah, with Ebrima and his sister Isatou. They recalled the early Nineties, when “Cousin Yahya” would drop by for green tea in his army officer’s uniform and brag about becoming the next leader of Gambia. “He was very arrogant,” Fatimah said.

Haruna and Yahya grew up on the family farm in Kanilai, on Gambia’s southern border with Senegal. They would play together in the fields. Haruna, six years older, would walk hand in hand with Yahya to school. They were more than cousins, Ebrima said. People called them “cousin-brothers”.

Once they were adults, Haruna remained protective of his cousin. He was working as a restaurant manager, and was a rising star in the Novotel group. Often, he helped out the then-impecunious Yahya with money or food. Few expected the hothead lieutenant to become the next president.

But in 1994 Yahya seized power in a coup. “I heard his voice on the radio and I was surprised,” Fatimah told me. “I phoned my mum and said: ‘Look, he did it.’” By 2000 Yahya had coaxed Haruna into ditching his hotel job and returning to manage the farm. The president had big plans for the farm, which grew into a huge enterprise that controlled many of the nation’s bakeries and butchers – thriving allegedly through land-grabs and subsidies.

Fatimah and the children stayed behind in Serrekunda, but would often visit. Ebrima had happy memories of meals with the extended family. Yahya was by now a distant figure, surrounded by bodyguards on the rare occasions when he visited. Ebrima remembered his uncle telling him to “work hard at school”.

In 2004, Haruna accused some soldiers of stealing fuel and food, and started to speak out against the regime’s frequent sackings and arrests. When he was removed from the farm, Fatimah begged him to come home. But he refused. “He was a strong character, a man of his word, a man of truth. He didn’t take nonsense from anyone,” Ebrima said. Haruna did not expect his younger “cousin-brother” would harm him.

In 2005 Ebrima, by then 21, spoke to his father for the last time after he was arrested in the middle of the night. “Dad said: ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back,’” he told me. “I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t think I was going to see him again. I knew the kind of person Yahya was and the kind of rages he had.”

Shortly afterwards, Haruna’s sister Masie also disappeared. “My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing, too,” Isatou said. “We stopped going to the village. We decided to be quiet because we were so scared they would come after us.”

In the years that followed, Fatimah and the children kept a low profile in the backstreets of Serrekunda. Questions about their surname were common but they denied all links to the president. For a long time, they had no idea whether Haruna and Masie were alive.

In 2014 Ebrima learned the truth from an interview on a Senegalese radio station with Bai Lowe, a former driver with the “Jungulers” (an elite presidential hit squad). Lowe said he had witnessed the strangling of Haruna and Masie Jammeh in July 2005. Their deaths were recorded in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.

The interview was conducted by Fatu Camara, a former press secretary to Yahya Jammeh, who fled to the US in 2013 after being charged with “tarnishing the image of the president”. She said Masie had threatened to see a marabout, a spiritual leader with reputed supernatural powers, if Yahya did not reveal Haruna’s whereabouts. Having already set the Jungulers on Haruna, Yahya then targeted Masie, too.

On 26 January Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, returned from exile in Senegal. He leads an unwieldy, eight-party coalition with differing views on how Jammeh should be held to account. Barrow, who claims to have inherited a “virtually bankrupt” state, has promised to launch a truth and reconciliation process to investigate human rights abuses during the Jammeh regime. In interviews, he has chosen his words carefully, avoiding any mention of prosecution.

But, like many of those who have suffered, Ebrima wants retribution. “I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times