AP: Robert Caro writes, and waits, during the COVID-19 outbreak

Robert Caro

 

When This Thing We Are Going Through Got Serious, this was my 10th Thought of 10 🙂 ! LOL! So yes, it looks right now we will get our volume 5 after all…. 🙂 He has talked about this Viet Nam trip FOREVER! LMAO!

NEW YORK (AP) — On most days since the coronavirus spread through Manhattan, Robert Caro has held to a familiar routine. He rises early, walks to his office down the street, spends hours on the fifth and final volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography and enjoys a late-day stroll in Central Park with his wife, Ina, both of them wearing protective masks.

“The park is sort of beautiful without people in it,” he said during a recent telephone interview with The Associated Press.

The 84-year-old Caro jokes that he has a long history, like many writers, of social distancing. But the pandemic has touched him personally and professionally. A close friend, the author and actress Patricia Bosworth, died last month from the virus. Spring is usually a prime season in New York for literary events, but all have been canceled and the Caros are staying in their apartment when possible, letting one of their children bring them groceries.

The historian had been hoping to visit Vietnam in March as part of his research for his Johnson book, but postponed the trip. He needs to looks through some papers in the Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas, but is resigned to waiting indefinitely. “That’s a great frustration,” he acknowledged.

Meanwhile, he is so immersed in one section of the last Johnson volume, set during 1967, that he is not leaving for his more rural and presumably safer home on Long Island until he’s done. The section, he says, “is as long as many books,” a description his many readers would find easy to believe.

Caro began the Johnson books in the mid-1970s, around the time he turned 40. He has completed four volumes, totaling more than 3,000 pages, and has outlived many of his key sources. He was loathed by some Johnson loyalists for his second book in the series, “Means of Ascent,” which presented Johnson as a boorish man and a singularly ruthless and unprincipled politician. But the mood shifted after Vol. III, “Master of the Senate,” published in 2002 and a defining chronicle of Johnson’s legislative genius that politicians today still study.

His most recent book, “The Passage of Power,” came out eight years ago this month. Its story ended in mid-1964, with Johnson on the verge of passing an extraordinary run of legislation that had many celebrating him as a fulfiller — and even exceeder — of the hopes and vision of the assassinated John F. Kennedy.

But by 1967, when Joan Didion wrote “the center was not holding,” the country and Johnson’s presidency were unraveling. Riots devastated Detroit and Newark, New Jersey, among other cities; hundreds of thousands of troops were in Vietnam; inflation was taking hold and Congress was resisting continued funding for his Great Society domestic programs.

“He’s in a moment of crisis,” Caro says. “I’m trying to show in this section of this book what it’s like to be president of the United States when everything is going wrong.”

According to Caro’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, no book receives more inquiries about its completion than the last Johnson volume, even though anyone with a long memory, a love for history or access to Wikipedia knows how his life turns out. The escalation of the Vietnam War, and the failure to win in it or reach a negotiated settlement, drove Johnson to announce in March 1968 that he would not seek re-election. He lived just four years after leaving the White House, dying of a heart attack in January 1973, at age 64.

“As great as his (Caro’s) earlier books have been, this is the culmination, the one many of us have been waiting for,” the journalist-historian David Maraniss, whose books include a prize-winning work on 1967, “They Marched Into Sunlight,” wrote in an email to the AP. “Everything that came before leads to these years, all of LBJ’s work and all of Caro’s amazing reconstruction and assessment, when the world explodes at home and overseas and Johnson struggles with his powers, his beliefs, and his soul.

The highlights of Johnson’s career are well chronicled, but Caro’s books stand out for the moments when he pauses the narrative and explores in depth how government works — whether the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bills that Johnson shepherded while Senate Majority Leader, or his first days as president, when Kennedy’s death instantaneously transformed Johnson from a depressed and endangered vice president to the world’s most powerful man.

“Bob has an unusually devoted following among readers because he has a powerful narrative voice that lends high drama to everything that he describes,” fellow historian Ron Chernow wrote in an email to the AP. “Those who don’t read biography imagine that great length is a deterrent. But genuine readers of biography crave stories on an epic scale and that Bob always delivers reliably and brilliantly.”

In the new book, Caro plans a takeout on what it was like to be elderly before the passage, in 1965, of Medicare. Talking about his section on 1967, he explains that Johnson had once been confident that the country could fight wars both home and abroad — defeat the North Vietnamese overseas and conquer poverty in the United States.

By 1967, “he’s found out that he’s wrong, although he doesn’t admit that he’s wrong,” Caro said.

When asked, inevitably, how soon he will be done with Vol. 5, Caro declines to say directly and give what he calls his standard answer: “It doesn’t matter how long a book takes, what matters is how long a book lasts.” He has received virtually every literary prize, but he savors more private and unexpected tributes, like seeing a young person carrying a copy of one of his books. He then speaks of a recent letter, sent to his literary agent by the fiancee of a judge dying of cancer, that compelled him to respond.

“The fiancee wrote this beautiful letter, saying that my books meant a great deal to him, and that a letter would mean a lot to him,” Caro says. “So I spent a couple of hours composing a letter. I try to answer handwritten letters and I’ve been getting more of them since the pandemic. I used to get mostly emails. Handwritten letters had almost stopped.”

Mumia Supporters Zoom Through An Active Weekend

This sentence is being produced as Day 3, Hour Five (of 24!) is about to begin. It’s been interesting seeing, feeling such concentrated Mumia stuff in one 72-hour or so period. For those of us old-heads (my first article about Abu-Jamal was written in early 1995, before Live From Death Row was released, it’s Old Home Week–all the old interviews joined with the original and more recent commentaries. Joined with activists young and not-so-young, sharing rhymes of all sorts. Powerful video collection starring Debbie and Mike Africa Sr., married members of the MOVE 9, and Jr.! (HOUR 10/11 UPDATE: Very detailed Inside the Activist Studio interview with Sekou Odinga.)

Since I already knew that Abu-Jamal has written so many columns, you can divide them into categories and display them chronologically, here are two important things I’ve gotten thus far:

  • During Friday’s Teach-in, Johanna Fernandez, who correctly described how Abu-Jamal “disciplined his prose” in prison, said she and her fellow organizers were inspired by the fact that the movement to stop Abu-Jamal from being executed on August 17, 1995, was the first radical movement to use email and the Internet.
  • Kathy Boudin, a legend in radical Left circles, proclaimed that Abu-Jamal was a “tremendous inspiration” to her because of his example of resistance and his very productivity, his very effective use of time.  Boudin said the imprisoned writer, 38 of 66 years in jail now, was worthy of celebration because of a) his leadership in showing how to use incarceration and b) his life of resistance. Abu-Jamal, she explained, is someone who “has been able to both immerse himself inside of the actual reality of the life he’s living in prison and at the same time he is able to work to define the larger system we are in,” of which COVID-19 is just a metaphor (if not a symptom).  As an Abu-Jamal biographer with a full first draft to read and review, her comments were undeniably incisive.

Some freestyling comments from the subject, dated on his birthday (4/24/20):

Netflix “Who Killed Malcolm X?” Doc: Nine Thoughts On Malcolm As CSI, Stagecraft Over Sincerity

1) Now everyone will see Newark the way I see it: as a small town. Treating it as a “small town with deadly secrets” was amusing. It is a place where, if you ride a bus or sit somewhere and be quiet, you will hear Old Heads talk about their time with The Nation. Now I finally understand why, in a city where historically you can get killed for looking at someone wrong, Bradley was able to walk around untouched. You also now know that we, as a group, care more about collective, community advancement than ideology and argument: the comment by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka that he learned from his father to “leave that alone because that won’t advance our cause” is classic Newark. Congrats to my brother, Baba Zayid Muhammad, for his honesty in this documentary. He educated me a lot about what this Black Power city is still like. I absolutely believe that Newark “got there first” in Black Power zealotry.

2) Continuing with Newark: why would Bradley be in Booker’s Newark mayor campaign commercial? Why would New Jersey Lt. Gov. Shelia Oliver be at Bradley’s funeral when she knew?!? Point-blank, Newark is a community service city, and all the community servants know each other. If you do “change your life around” and “do something positive,” particularly for our youth, we wipe your slate clean. That how we be. If Bradley had killed, say, Rahim Johnson, it wouldn’t even be brought up.

3) Last Newark note: I love the irony of Bradley’s high school being eventually being renamed after Malcolm. 🙂

4) It was extremely annoying that Peter Goldman, who wrote 85 percent of this documentary’s content back in the 1970s (!!!!!), was almost invisible, blotted out. The only thing more annoying is that Baba Zak Kondo was “second historical bananna” to David Garrow–this documentary’s Obi-Wan Kenobi. Kondo should have been the main voice here, and his wrap-up almost redeems this time-waster.

5) The big winner here was WABC-TV, who clearly sold a lot of footage. (Why did the documentarians keep misdating that Talmadge Hayer interview as 1970? That was very annoying and needs to be fixed!) See how great “Like It Is” was, folks outside of New York? Today I am very proud to have a doctoral dissertation that has a small part devoted to it. I will appreciate this Nextflix series forever if it leads to the show finally getting archived.

6) The “search” for Bradley was ridiculous stagecraft. And where were articles like these, since Bradley was so difficult to find? LOL! This program could have easily been cut by three hours. The phony drama should have been replaced with more on the Ali-Malcolm schism. That deserves its own doc or movie.

7) And speaking of future MX media products, my vote for the next movie or documentary needs to be solely based on his extraordinary travel diary. The fact that Malcolm tried to unify the African-Muslim world–and that he chose to return to America when he had choices to possibly stay alive longer–is a story that desperately needs to be told.

8) Um, where was this part? Did I miss it when I was in the bathroom? Did I miss any mention of the Minister? What’s going on? And if Goldman and Kondo were read so carefully, why didn’t Obi-Wan tell Luke that the FBI reported that Louis X was at the Newark mosque on the day of the assassination?!?

9) This could have been a lot worse, seeing that Henry Louis “Skip” Gates was the exec producer and Manning Marable’s wife a consultant. At least this is better than Spike’s treatment. This puts Spike’s movie in the fiction category the way Marable’s disastrous bio, at its best, put The Autobiography in that same category.

My Latest, On Lerone Bennett, Jr. and Ebony,……

……can be found here.

My Latest On Mumia Abu-Jamal (This Time, About The Young Lords Party)…….

…..can be found here.

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Update: 

For Zayid: Some Brief Impressions From My “Blacksonian” Visit

My friend Annette Alston, who signed and sold 40 of her Harriet Tubman books there Sunday, told me Zayid Muhammad–an activist and poet who is a member of the People’s Organization for Progress (as is Annette)–wanted me to write a few words about my impressions of the “Blacksonian.” So, Brother Zayid, this very poor Amiri Baraka imitation/homage is dedicated to you:

*****

This is as much truth as white people can take and give in 2019; of that, there is no doubt. It turned out at least some of them had listened to Baldwin, and perhaps now Coates, and began to at least take the first step toward understanding. Not that I cared about that at first; I had read not one but two highly critical pieces about the NMAAHC in The New Yorker magazine, not exactly a known journalistic forum for Black radicalism. What’s so bad to merit such a harsh Black critique from a white liberal bastion? I came to Dee Cee like a Black Johnny Storm: Hate On!

What I found was eye candy for the Race Man and Woman, a serious feast for all five senses. (The food in the caf… ) The Smithsonian has used all it has learned and has created by all accounts an extraordinarily powerful experience.

So, Sankofa. We go down to the bottom of the historical well in an elevator that makes me, a certifiable geek, think of an African-American TARDIS, and as we move upwards from Africa to Africa-America (hmm!) we are bombarded by photos, documentaries and exhibits. Harriet’s shawl.  A slave cabin. Funder-approved themes such as “The Paradox of Liberty” greet us. (Us was in paradox?) “Life and Work.” (Wait, slavery is equivalent to work?) Ulp, no time to think, because now we’ve been emancipated and still we rise.

The Jim Crow era had all you could expect: the coolest segregated lunch counter you will ever see, with interactive video Tony Stark would love. I was all, blah-blah-blah, yeah-yeah, saw-the-movie….and then I went into a corner with a guard out in front of it, should we forget that what lay in state ahead of us was not for cameras. So I disappeared into the corner, cynical as hell, and then it confronted me.

Emmett Till’s casket. The actual one.

My critic’s haughtiness fell off of me like a jacket quickly yanked off. I stared. One minute. Two. Then I had to walk away. I couldn’t look at it. Like a good American, I immediately tried to bury the memory and move forward.  But the casket followed me for a long time.

Movin’ on up, I was bombarded by Barack Obama’s voice and face on the big screen. (Of course; reminds me when I heard in 2009 that nonfiction book publishers on Black topics made an edict that every Black nonfiction book had to end with Daddy-O painting the White House Black.) Wait, there’s an Oprah Winfrey Theater in here? Not even stoppin’ to check the part about my birth year, 1968, I refused to be present; I didn’t want to be told that I had overcome because Spike Lee and Queen Latifah have had long careers.

The reason that (two Black writers at) The New Yorker was pissed was that it saw what I saw: a muted historical voice. I walked up to the small but nice Black press exhibit, and it said the same thing I have read millions of times. Malcolm X’s exhibit had nothing about his Pan-Africanism–his trip to 13 African nations as an unofficial Black American head-of-state, his attempt at World African Revolution. I looked in vain for any discussion of Black Marxism. Yes, Kwame Ture was there, permanently frozen as Stokely Carmichael before he split (the American from his mind). A friend of mine who walked around told me he didn’t see anything about the Million Man March. The what? Minister who? There is a high level of sophistication in the air: in the 21st century, Oreos are out and smoothies are in, didn’t you know that?

Ironically, museums and exhibits are not in stone. So let’s grat the Newark brother who built it (’cause this ain’t no con!) but follow The New Yorker’s lead and be as critical as possible. The more criticism, the more the Blacksonian will evolve, the more the white psychic rubber band will be forced to stretch.

 

FEBRUARY 19th, 2020 UPDATE: Okay, imitating me now–I did go back, and I did go to the top floor this time. Good section on Black radio and impressive collection of Black culture treasures (Wow! The Mothership! :)).