The Sad Irons

Published on September 12, 2023

One of the tragedies of modern education is that fascinating subjects are routinely transformed into boring drudgery by listless teachers more concerned about policies, procedures, and standardized test scores than captivating the minds of young people. If history is taught as a collection of dry facts and figures, one cannot expect students to do much more than memorize what is needed to pass the next exam. But history comes alive when the story is told through the eyes of the people who lived through it.

Robert Caro’s loyal readers are used to waiting several years for new books to appear. Caro’s genius is not the number of books that he writes but the extreme degree to which he focuses his attention on a subject. Best known as a biographer, Caro is really a first-class historian who covers the lives of his subjects through the trials and tribulations of the times. Caro’s biography of Robert Moses is actually a history of power in the early to mid-twentieth century. In the same way, his four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson tells the story of America from the dust bowl days of the Great Depression through the tumultuous advances of the civil rights movement.

The image of a historian sitting in a wood paneled library poring over source material is not necessarily inaccurate. All great writers are prolific readers skilled at the art of assimilating disparate information from a wide variety of sources. 

But when it comes to telling the story of human beings, there are things one cannot learn solely from books. Robert Caro’s devotion to his subject was so extreme that he and his wife relocated from New York City to the Texas Hill Country for several years in order to better understand Lyndon Johnson’s view of the world. Through this experience, Caro was also in a position to better understand the lives of ordinary Americans who lived in conditions modern readers find unimaginably primitive.

I recently returned to The Path to Power, the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, because I recalled that he covered the electrification of rural areas in Texas during the Great Depression. I am trying to better understand the challenges of electrification in rural areas during our own times given the hazards of above-ground power lines in western states prone to fire. 

Several electric utility companies, including Pacific Gas & Electric and Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s PacifiCorp subsidiary, have large networks of transmission lines in rural areas and have been blamed for sparking fires. Is it economically viable for utilities to relocate power lines below ground in sparsely populated areas?

I can’t say that revisiting The Path to Power provided insight on our current challenges in the west, but I do think it is worth the time to discuss Robert Caro’s captivating history of the lives of ordinary people in Texas Hill Country prior to electrification. For all of his flaws, no one did more than Lyndon Johnson to bring a semblance of modernity to his constituents, many of whom were so isolated from the world that they had very little interest in electricity and had to be convinced of its utility.

Fear of the Wires

“They were afraid of the wires. The idea of electricity — so unknown to them — terrified them. It was the same stuff as lightning; it sounded dangerous — what would happen to a child who put its hand on a wire? And what about their cows — their precious, irreplaceable few cows that represented so much of their total assets? … They would say, ‘What’ll happen if there’s a storm? The wires will fall down and electrocute the cattle.’ Or they were worried that the wires would attract lightning — which would kill the cattle.”

— The Path to Power, p. 524-525

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The Sad Irons