Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.
The opening scene of "Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb," a documentary debuting locally on Friday, features the sound of a typewriter and the sight of pencils. The artifacts aren't artifice. Rather, they're the enduring tools of the trade for biographer Caro and his longtime editor Gottlieb, who over half a century have collaborated on seminal examinations of power.
First, on New York City master builder Robert Moses, profiled in "The Power Broker" (not only a must-read for Beltway pundits, but a must-display on their bookshelves for cable-ready Zoom calls, as the documentary displays).
"Because Caro was such a genius at what he does, it was instantly hailed as a classic," Gottlieb says in the film. "Little did we know that in this case Lyndon Johnson was looming on the horizon. And Lyndon Johnson is still looming on the horizon."
In literary terms, yes, as Gottlieb, 91, and Caro, 87, both face what Gottlieb terms "an actuarial issue" in finishing the fifth and final volume.
But LBJ looms in political terms, too, especially over today's legislative leaders, who don't seem as consequential as Johnson was when he was Senate majority leader.
Caro's dedication to his craft, and especially his subject, has made the reserved writer something of an unexpected pop-culture (even cult) figure. And he's had an outsize impact on interest in the larger-than-life LBJ.
"I think it's impossible to exaggerate the importance of Robert Caro's work in driving interest in Lyndon Johnson," said Mark Lawrence, a University of Texas associate professor of history who is director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum.
The interest may also be heightened because, like the clacking typewriter and redlined copy, Johnson's approach to power — particularly as Senate majority leader — was itself a throwback.
Or, in some cases, a pushback, rhetorically but almost literally in what became known as the "Johnson Treatment," which then-columnist Mary McGrory described as "an incredible, potent mixture of persuasion, badgering, flattery, threats, reminders of past favors and future advantages." Or, as Hubert Humphrey, who would become LBJ's VP, simply called it, "a tidal wave."
The tactic wasn't tacit — indeed, it was often tactile — as captured in a series of famous photographs showing then-Sen. Johnson bending Rhode Island Sen. Theodore Green to his will (while almost bending him backwards).
"There really was a force of personality to Lyndon Johnson," said Norman Ornstein, senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. Ornstein, a Minnesota native, said that there was "both his size and his persistence, but also his ruthlessness and understanding that if you crossed him, there could be consequences."
The contrast with the congressional leader most prominent now, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, couldn't be starker, as evidenced by the 15 votes it took to secure his speakership. To achieve his career quest, McCarthy didn't have a treatment, but treats for resistant Republican representatives, resulting in the most extreme members of an increasingly extremist party playing a disproportionate role in the debt-limit brinkmanship gripping Washington.
"I'm really worried that there are enough [House] members who actually are either willing or eager to see us go into default, believing that if we blow up the government that people will taste freedom, that they can discredit the government, and that they will benefit from it," said Ornstein, who added that getting to a 218-vote majority to raise the debt ceiling "means that you're going to have to get at least five or six Republicans to sign on publicly. Imagine what happens to that five or six with people like Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Alex Jones and others whipping the base into a frenzy. This would be seen as traitorous, and the consequences could be severe for these people."
McCarthy's situation is similar to previous Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, said Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota associate professor of political science whose scholarship focuses on American politics. "The problems have been ideological," she said, because members of the Freedom Caucus, "by and large, aren't interested in compromise. They don't care as much about the institution."
Indeed, they're not institutionalists, but individualists, with representatives like Matt Gaetz building their personal brands or George Santos running their personal scams.
Johnson was an institutionalist, Lawrence said, in a Senate "environment that was perfectly suited to his skill set."
And perfectly suited to his times, which were distinctly different from today's political-media industrial complex.
Johnson "had a base of power within his own party, but of course he also had this ability to work across the aisle because of the nature of the Republican Party of that era," said Lawrence. "These days, it seems to me there's nothing even remotely similar to that kind of flexible world that LBJ inhabited."
Back then Americans, added Lawrence, "didn't have these high expectations of ideological purity."
Which means "If Lyndon Johnson were around today he couldn't be Lyndon Johnson," said Ornstein, who added that there was not a "permanent campaign" back then. "Now, every action you take that may benefit the other party could have consequences for who's in the majority."
Majorities are much more slender than the postwar Democratic dominance LBJ governed under. But that doesn't mean McCarthy had to empower the more radical faction of his party. And he needn't look back decades to Johnson's era for an example, but just months ago, when former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was able to coalesce Democrats into an effective majority.
She "was as close to the equivalent of a majority leader like Johnson as we've seen," said Ornstein, who said she was often operating with a single-digit majority that included an ideological span of Abigail Spanberger and other so-called national-security Democrats as well as well-known members of "The Squad" like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
"Pelosi is going to go down as one of the great [congressional] leaders in history," Ornstein stated. In fact, said Pearson, "the comparison between Pelosi and McCarthy is so striking because it's the same time period, same chamber, same margin."
There are some similarities with Johnson, she said, although "there wasn't as much conflict."
The conflict LBJ afflicted on fellow lawmakers was in part pursuit of power, Lawrence said, but also in pursuit of policy for people he deeply identified with, something the LBJ Library director thinks the LBJ biographer intuitively interpreted.
"The big takeaway from me from Caro's work is that LBJ both pursued power and acted on the basis of compassion," Lawrence said. "And when those two things aligned, he did extraordinary things."
The writer and the editor profiled in "Turn Every Page" have also done extraordinary things. And the big takeaway about Caro comes in the film from the self-effacing author himself.
"I never was interested in doing a book just to tell the story of a great man," says an on-camera Caro. "I was always interested in trying to use that life to show things about political power.
"We live in a democracy, so political power is ultimately supposed to come from us. So therefore, the more I could find out about how political power really worked, not how it worked in textbooks, but really worked, then the more I could tell people about that in a way that would make them understand, then the better informed their votes would be, and then, hopefully, the better our democracy would be."