The Austin Chronicle

The Long Arm of LBJ

By Brant Bingamon, May 17, 2002, News

"During the Q&A portion of his May 6 booksigning for The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, at BookPeople, author Robert Caro quietly told the standing-room-only crowd that the LBJ Library's leadership has been "unremittingly hostile" to him for the past 25 years. "I've never really been invited to participate in their conferences," said LBJ's most successful biographer of the lectures and symposia the library sponsors each year.

"Well, that's not true," he corrected. "Harry Middleton, who's been the director since, I think, 1975, in 2001, just before he retired, he did invite me to participate in a conference -- after his term as director expired."

Actually, Middleton became the library's boss in 1971. He never had an amicable relationship with Caro, whose three volumes on LBJ have been hailed as the most important political biography of our time. The series has never pleased Johnson loyalists like Middleton, who wrote in a 1991 newsletter that Caro's loathing for Johnson was so strong that "it coats a steamy sheen over his prose."

The distrust between the Library and Caro may be drawing to a close, however. Betty Sue Flowers, the highly esteemed UT scholar who succeeded Middleton as LBJ Library director in January, says that while Middleton hasn't changed his opinion of Caro's portrayal of Johnson, "He says he's sorry he put his criticism in print. And I think he's very gracious about that." Under her leadership -- and Middleton's -- the library is reaching out to Caro. "We specifically invited him to speak about his book," she said. "We gave him four dates in May, and then all of June to choose from, but we haven't heard back from him." Flowers says she'll try again when Caro's current book tour ends in September.

Over the past 30 years, the library, under Middleton's leadership, has been considered the best of the presidential libraries, and has welcomed hundreds of lecturers and conference participants. Caro has never been among them -- even though the author's first two LBJ books, Path to Power (1984) and Means of Ascent (1991) constitute the definitive, authoritative Johnson biography (up to 1948). When in the past decade the Library has needed an expert on LBJ, it has turned to Robert Dallek, whose two-volume Johnson bio, Lone Star Rising (1991) and Flawed Giant (1998), is more sympathetic than Caro's writings. In 1999, Caro responded, "When they try to ignore and freeze me out, you really say, 'Who do you think they're hurting?'"

Flowers is determined to thaw the ice. "I will have to wait till the fall," she said, "and then I will track him down and pursue some new dates. And I hope he'll say yes. I'd love to have him." As for Caro's books: "I've read the first two and I'm well into the third one. He's a wonderful writer."

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