Caro's Lives: Comparative Biography as Political Theory

The Review of Politics 77 (2015), 99-127

29 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2015

See all articles by David Lebow

David Lebow

Committee on Degrees in Social Studies

Date Written: January 22, 2015


Robert Caro’s biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson prove fruitful for political theory, particularly when approached in tandem, along the lines of Plutarch’s comparative profiles. Building on the supposition that general insights into political power and its ethics lie in biographical particulars, Caro demonstrates that the most exhaustively detailed research of the most extreme subjects can yield otherwise inaccessible findings. Similarities between Moses and Johnson expose common mechanics of accumulating power, converting personal relationships into institutional authority, and show that norms are given effect as tools used by politicians. Contrasts offer the career as a unit of moral evaluation and suggest that although power may corrupt, it also “reveals.” A praiseworthy career should aim at ends distinct from both ideals and means. Assessment depends not only on intents or accomplishments, but on means, weighing their morality against their necessity.

Suggested Citation

Lebow, David, Caro's Lives: Comparative Biography as Political Theory (January 22, 2015). The Review of Politics 77 (2015), 99-127, Available at SSRN:

David Lebow (Contact Author)

Committee on Degrees in Social Studies ( email )

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