Back to the Bronx

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Fern Jaffe, owner of Paperbacks Plus, with author Robert Caro

When Paperbacks Plus in the Bronx, New York, first began working with Knopf to schedule an author appearance for Robert Caro, store owner Fern Jaffe was especially pleased. Not only would Caro be promoting the long-awaited third volume of his ongoing biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, Master of the Senate, but the event would also mark a homecoming of sorts. Caro had lived for many years in the Bronx community of Riverdale, where Paperbacks Plus is located.

However, things got a lot more interesting a few weeks before the event. On the evening of November 20, Christopher Merrill, the chair of the National Book Foundation's nonfiction judges panel, walked to the lectern in the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City and announced that Caro had won the 2002 National Book Award for nonfiction. Suddenly, Paperback Plus' scheduled December 5 event at Riverdale's College of Mount Saint Vincent was even more notable.

Author Robert Caro

Caro's appearance was the latest in a series of author events that Paperbacks Plus has organized in conjunction with the college. The first, in 1998, featured Frank McCourt and filled the college's 1,200-seat Hayes Auditorium. The Caro event was part of Mount Saint Vincent's Elizabeth Marian Murray Lecture Series, which has also featured such writers as E.L. Doctorow and Joyce Carol Oates.

By the time the introductions began at 8:00 p.m., there were over 275 people waiting in the college's Smith Hall, many with well-worn copies of one -- or more -- of Caro's books.

Saluting Paperback Plus, Caro began by saying "how wonderful it is to speak under the sponsorship of an independent bookseller," and he went on to explain how his massive LBJ biography had begun with a much more closely focused inquiry.

The years that Johnson served as the Senate majority leader -- from 1955 to 1961 -- were the only years "that the Senate worked," Caro said, adding that, during Johnson's tenure as leader, the U.S. Senate was "the center of government initiative and creativity." By understanding Johnson's legislative achievement, Caro believed he would have a way "of understanding legislative power" itself.

The project, however, proved a far greater undertaking than the author anticipated. He noted wryly that, when the project began, "I had something much shorter [in mind] than what finally emerged." Working with his wife, Ina, Caro spent 12 years on the latest volume, Master of the Senate.

Robert Caro signs during event

The LBJ that emerged during Caro's talk at the college was a fascinating mixture of committed social reformer and hardball political virtuoso. Answering a question from the audience about Johnson's motivation, Caro said that "ambition and compassion were always mixed up with him."

Robert Caro signs for Fernando Ferrer, president of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, and former borough president of the Bronx

As the "master of the senate," Johnson navigated numerous political shoals to ensure the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. But he was also the man who said of himself, "I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me, I know where to look for it and how to use it." Caro detailed how Johnson used that power without compunction to sweep aside any obstacle. After destroying the career of Federal Power Commission Chairman Leland Olds, Johnson took him aside in a Capitol corridor and said, "Lee, we're still friends aren't we? There's nothing personal here -- it's just politics."

Attendees leaned forward most in anticipation when Caro was asked when he would complete the final volume in the Johnson series. After a pause, in which he appeared to be weighing his words carefully, he said, "My belief is that it will be done in five years." However, he added, too, "My predictions don't have a great track record." -- Dan Cullen