“People get so angry at me because I interview them over and over again,” Robert Caro says.
If you read anything about American history and politics, you’ve got to know the name Robert Caro. He’s written about two politicians—just two—but both of them were masters in the art of wielding power. The first book was about Robert Moses, the city planner who shaped modern New York more than any human being. Then Caro began to write about Lyndon Johnson, who signed much of the key progressive legislation of the nineteen-sixties but also presided over the disaster in Vietnam. Caro has already published four volumes on Johnson’s life, with the fifth to come. And that book will cover the crucial years of the Presidency. But to call those books mere biographies kind of misses the mark. They’re so rich in detail, so accurate, and at the same time so broad in scope and dramatic that they’re more like epics of American life. Caro himself has become a kind of legend among nonfiction writers, and he’s just published a book called “Working.” It’s a gift, a collection of interviews and essays that talk about the craft of what he does.
Caro recently sat down at the McCarter Theatre, in Princeton, New Jersey, to speak with David Remnick.
I want to start at the beginning, Bob. Your first job out of college was as a reporter at the New Brunswick Daily Home News. And I’d like to know what you thought you were getting into, what you thought your life would be like as a newspaper reporter, what you wanted out of that job, where you thought you were going.
Well, I didn’t know it. Wherever I thought I was going wasn’t where I found myself. So the New Brunswick Home News then was tied in with the Middlesex County Democratic machine. In fact, it was tied in so closely that the chief political reporter was given a leave of absence each election season so he could write speeches for the Democratic organization. So I had just gone to work there, and he got a minor heart attack. But he wanted to be able to get that job back when he recovered, so he picked as a substitute the guy he thought would be most inept. And I went to work for the New Brunswick Home News for the Middlesex County Democratic machine, and I fell in with a very tough old political boss in New Brunswick. And for some reason he took a shine to me, and he took me with him everywhere. And every time I’d write a speech for one of his candidates, mayor or city council, that he liked, he’d take out this wad of fifty- and hundred-dollar bills. My salary at the time was fifty-two dollars and fifty cents a week. And he’d peel off quite a few bills and hand them to me. And I really liked that aspect of the job.
But, then, you want me to tell you how I left the job.
Yeah. So the following thing happened sort of by accident, but it did, in a way, shape my life. So, Election Day was coming up, and he said, “Do you want to ride the polls with me?” I didn’t even know what riding the polls meant, but that day he picked me up in his big limousine, and instead of his usual driver there was a police captain who drove the car. I didn’t understand why. But then what we were doing is going from poll to poll, and at each poll a police officer would come over to the car, and the boss and the captain would roll down their windows and they’d get a report on that polling place. Generally, the report was, Everything’s under control here. But we drove up to one polling place, I can see it to this day, and there was a police paddy wagon there, and the police were herding in a group of very well-dressed, young, all African-American demonstrators. They weren’t pushing or shoving them, but they were moving their nightsticks to herd them into the paddy wagon. And, all of a sudden, I just couldn’t stand it. And I knew I just wanted to get out of that car. As I remember it, I didn’t say a word. And I don’t remember the boss saying a word. The next time the car stopped, at a light or something, I just opened the door and got out. I felt he must have seen how I felt, because he never said a word, but I went back and I told Ina, my wife, who’s here somewhere tonight—[applause]
I’ve gotta find a newspaper that fights for things. So I made a list of what I considered crusading newspapers, and—
Who was on that list at that time?
Well, Newsday, that I went to.
The Long Island newspaper.
Well, I’m not sure I can remember the whole list. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I remember, was on it, but [also] Newsday.
So you got to Newsday, which, seemingly, was the job of your dreams. And one of the things you did, as I recall, you wrote a six-part series on a proposed bridge that was going to really dig into every ramification—political, financial, environmental—on this bridge in the New York area. Could you tell that story? Because it seemed to play a pivotal role in your career.
So Robert Moses wanted to build a bridge across Long Island Sound, between Rye, in Westchester County, and Oyster Bay, on Long Island. Newsday assigned me to look into it. And I discovered it was just the world’s worst idea, because it would have generated so much traffic from New England that the Long Island Expressway would have needed, as I recall, twelve additional lanes just to handle that traffic. And Newsday sent me up to Albany, and everybody seemed to understand that this was a terrible idea. So I wrote a story saying, basically, the bridge was dead. And I went on to other things. So I had a friend in Albany then. And, about two weeks later, he calls me and he says, “Bob, I think you’d better come back up here.”
And I said something, like, “Oh, I don’t think so. I think I took care of that bridge.”
“My work here is done.”
Yeah. And he said, “Well, Robert Moses was up here yesterday. And I think you ought to come back up.” And I came back up and I saw Nelson Rockefeller, and Rockefeller’s counsel and speaker, and they now thought this was the world’s best idea. And, not only that, the state was going to pay for getting it started.
So, I remember driving home from Albany that night was a hundred and sixty-three miles to my home in Roslyn. And all the way down, David, I was thinking, Everything you’ve been doing is basically baloney, because underlying everything that you do on politics is the belief that we live in a democracy. And in a democracy power comes from being elected, from our votes at a ballot box. So here was a man, Robert Moses, who had never been elected to anything, but he had more power than a mayor and governor put together. And he had held this power for forty-four years, almost half a century, and with it he had shaped New York City. He built six hundred and twenty-seven miles of parkways and expressways, every modern bridge in New York, reshaped the whole park system, et cetera. And I didn’t have any idea where he got the power to do this. And I realized, driving home that night, neither does anybody else. And that was really the genesis of “The Power Broker.”
That power is something invisible to even the most entrepreneurial newspaper reporter.
Nobody had ever explored, in any depth whatsoever, where he got this power from.
Were there biographies, were there books, were there things that you were reading that impressed you as a potential model?
Well, I don’t know that any impressed me as a potential model, because what I was thinking was, Well, you can do so much of it if you manage to find out where Robert Moses got this power, that no one knows now where he gets that power. You will be learning something, and teaching some, about political power. So at first I actually thought I was going to do it as a long series, you know. And then I just said, No, I can never do this as a series, it has to be a book. So I at that time knew only one editor in the entire world in the book world. So I wrote him a letter, and I got what I call the world’s smallest advance to do a biography of Robert Moses.
Enough time has elapsed, so who was the editor, and what was the advance?
I’d rather not say who was the editor. The advance was five thousand dollars.
Five thousand dollars.
Of which they gave you twenty-five hundred dollars.
So you went to town. Now, at a certain point in your research, you had a meeting with some of the public-relations guys that were around Robert Moses. What happened?
Well, they said to me, you know, many people, some famous writers, had started doing biographies of Robert Moses, but none had ever done one. And I guess it was said to them, pretty much, what [the P.R. guys] said to me. You know, they worked as a team, they take you to lunch, and they said, “Well, you know, Commissioner Moses will never talk to you, his family will never talk to you, his friends will never talk to you.” And then they had a phrase, I can’t remember the exact wording, but the import was, anyone who ever wants a contract from the city or state will never talk to you.
So they weren’t being very subtle.
It wasn’t very subtle at all. Yeah. No.
In fact, it sounds pretty threatening. What was the mood of the meeting?
It was, you’re gonna waste your life if you try to do this.
And so you leave that meeting thinking what?
Well, I knew by that time I was going to do the book. But I had to figure out a way to interview these people. So what I did, actually, was I drew a series of concentric circles on a piece of paper. And in the center I put a dot. The dot was Robert Moses, and the innermost circle was his family. And then, the next one, his friends. So I said, well, maybe he can stop everyone in the first few circles from talking to me, but he won’t be able to remember all the people that he’s dealt with in the outer circles. I’ll start with them.
Now, why do you think that he eventually wanted to see you? Because he felt the hot breath of the reporter getting closer?
I’ve never known the answer to that question. His chief deputy, a guy named Sidney Shapiro, who I became friendly with over the years, told me years later something—well, it’s very complimentary to me. But this is the only explanation I ever got. He said that Commissioner Moses—they all called him Commissioner all the time—had realized that finally someone had come along who was going to do the biography whether he wanted it or not. I don’t know if that’s true.
And, you know, maybe you disagree with me, but Robert Moses was not the subject of countless books at that time.
Political attention on the front page of newspapers went elsewhere, to officeholders, world leaders, and all the rest. He did not hold an exalted-seeming office. Is it possible that he was, in some perverse way, flattered by your attentions?
I gave it my best try. Some people wield political power, they’re in it for the money. Some people are in it for, I don’t know, possible foreign business opportunities after they leave office. Other people are in it because they have colossal egos that we can’t even begin to understand. What was Robert Moses in it for?
Robert Moses was in it to build his dreams. You know, as a young man he did wonderful things, and his dreams were incredible. He would tell me these stories about thinking of the West Side Highway and Riverside Drive. And you’d sit there just in rapture—and you saw, this was a guy who had these great dreams, and when he’s young he doesn’t know how to accomplish that, because he’s an idealist. But he learns how to accomplish them by using power. And then he changes. So his dreams—I think I have a phrase like this in “The Power Broker”—were no longer for ideals but they’re for whatever increment power could give him.
And so he starts to build different kinds of projects. So the story of his—I mean, you looked at his life. I remember thinking, How did this one man turn into this other man, this idealist who just wanted to dream dreams, how did he turn into this guy who controls city and state and really destroyed whole neighborhoods in New York for his parkways?
One of the things that so fascinates me about this book and the writing of it is that, at a certain point, Bob, you think of the last line of the book hundreds of pages before you get there, and you write toward it. Tell me about that.
So Moses had long since stopped talking to me, you know, but I would go and—
Forgive me, just to put a pin in that—why did he cut off communications with you?
Why? Because I asked them the wrong—Robert Moses built the Northern State Parkway out into Long Island. And I found the original maps, and the parkway was a straight line right through the estates of the great robber barons of the nineteen-twenties. But that’s not how the road runs. In two places, the road suddenly dips down about three miles before it comes back to the other route. I couldn’t understand why that happened, and then I came across a letter in Franklin Roosevelt’s papers which explained it, which was that the legislature, which was controlled by these robber barons, was stopping Moses from building the Northern State Parkway by cutting off his funds. And they wouldn’t even give him money for surveys. The Northern State Parkway was supposed to run right across the private eighteen-hole golf course of a financier named Otto Kahn, and Otto Kahn said, “I’ll give you”—not to him, but to the Long Island State Parkway—“I’ll give you ten thousand dollars for surveys if the surveys find the route around my golf course.”
So Moses accepted the money, so he had to move it south almost four miles, as I recall. So, O.K., I have the story. But I’m looking at these maps, and the route that it finally takes, on the bottom of that estate, there are twenty-three little dots, but I realize they must be little farms. So I said to Ina, “You know, I wonder—let’s try to find a couple of these farmers.” And I found a man who had been named as a boy Jimmy Roth, and his mother. And they told me the story how they had bought this farm. It was so filled with trees and rocks that it was not arable. And they finally got the farm so that the center portion was clear. And then one day, right then, a representative of Robert Moses shows up and says that the Long Island State Park Commission is condemning the middle part of your farm, the good part of your farm, for the Northern State Parkway. And Jimmy said to me, “I remember my father pleading with this man, if you just move the parkway four hundred feet south, we could make the farm pay. If he took it right out of the center of the farm, the farm would never work for us.” And he said, you know, “My father’s life was ruined by this.”
Now, I knew that, in fact, the road ran through his farm only because Robert Moses had bowed to the power and the money of the Otto Kahns and the J. P. Morgans. And I remember thinking, So, you’re doing this book, you’re writing about the guy who has power. You haven’t even thought about writing in detail about the people who have no power, and what power does to them.
And then, at the end, that final line—
Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot your question.
No, no, no, but it goes to this. At the end, you’re writing about someone who couldn’t quite understand why he was not universally loved and adored.
Yes. So the last line of the book is, “ ‘Why weren’t they grateful?’ ”
So, Bob, documents are essential. Interviews are essential. And there’s another thing that seems absolutely essential to your work, and that is living and breathing the physical environment. It seems revelatory to you. I will never forget the experience, in the eighties, of picking up Volume I of Johnson. And reading about the Hill Country, about the physical environment in which he grew up, and electrification, that came later. All this stuff is absolutely thrilling, which would seem routine, usually, in a nonfiction book. You and Ina moved to Texas. And you didn’t just go for a tourist week or two, you were there for a long time. When you interviewed Sam Houston, the brother of Lyndon Johnson, sure, you interviewed him a bunch of times at first, but he turned out to be a kind of, I don’t know, guy who bragged and drank a hell of a lot, and it really—you did this amazing thing of bringing him to a replica of the childhood home of the Johnson brothers, and that had an effect, too. Can you talk about that?
Yes, well, you summed it up very well. You know, he was Lyndon Johnson’s brother, was the younger brother, was one of the first people [he knew], and I spent a lot of time with him. And, basically, you know, he was a big drinker, as you said, and a lot of the stuff that he said was exaggerated or false.
Or he had repeated a million times before.
Or he would repeat these anecdotes that everybody told, and they were part of every biography on Lyndon Johnson which portrayed him as sort of a Horatio Alger figure, you know, popular, charismatic, who rose to power. By this time, I knew that whatever the secret was that drove Lyndon Johnson to this was his desperate ambition, you know, that everybody talks about. Whatever that was came out of his relationship with his father.
So I thought of a way to try to put Sam Houston back in the mood where he would tell the true story. I asked the National Park Service, could I bring him into the Johnson boyhood home—which is re-created just the way it [was], accurately—after the tourists were gone for the day?
So we went in there about dinnertime, and I took him into the dining room. It was a plank table with two benches. The father sat in a high-back chair at one end, and the mother at the other end. Then on one side are the three Johnson sisters, Lyndon’s three sisters. On the other side are Lyndon and Sam Houston. So I said to Sam Houston, “Sit down in the place you sat as a boy.” And I didn’t sit where he could see me, because I wanted him to feel he was back at his boyhood home. I sat behind him. So I said, “Now, tell me about these terrible arguments that your father used to have with Lyndon at the table.” And at first it was very slow going. You know, you’d have to keep prompting. But finally he was just shouting it out. “ ‘Lyndon, you’re a failure. You’ll always be a failure.’ ” “ ‘What are you, you’re a bus inspector!’ ” You know. And I felt he was back in the moment. So I said, “Now, Sam Houston, I want you to tell me again those wonderful stories that you told me before, and that everybody tells about Lyndon Johnson.” And there was this long pause. And then he says, “I can’t.” And I said, “Why not?” And he says, “Because they never happened.” And without me saying another word he starts to tell the story of Lyndon Johnson, which is a very different story, of a very ruthless young man, that’s in my book. And this time, when I went back to the other people involved in the anecdotes, they said, “Yes, that’s what happened,” and would tell me more details.
Incredible. Incredible. It’s almost as if your work extends to the psychoanalytic, in some way. No kidding around. That by coming back, and back, and listening, that you get to a level of revelation that just is far deeper than you would even dream of.
People get so angry at me because I interview them over and over again. And I say, “But if I were standing there next to you, what would I see?” You know, they get really angry. “I told you what I would see. I was standing in the Oval Office and Lyndon Johnson was walking around.” And you say, “Well, what would I see?”
So, I’ll tell you one example of what that can do. Joe Califano was Johnson’s chief domestic adviser. He was telling me about a crisis in the Oval Office. And Califano said he was there and Lyndon Johnson was walking around. And I said, “Well, what did he say?” “I told you, Bob, he was walking around. What do you want me to tell you?”
You want him to work harder for you, in a sense.
Well, yes. And I said, “Well, what, exactly, was he doing?” And it took me asking this several times. He said, “Well, you know, there was something, you know. It was like Lyndon Johnson was so hungry for the news.” There were three tickers—the Associated Press, the United Press, and Reuters—that he had in his corner of the Oval Office. And he said he would go over and read it. And I said, “Well, that’s just great, Joe. But what would I see when he was reading it?” I don’t recall exactly what he said to me. But he was annoyed. And I said, “No, Joe, what would I see?” And then he said, “Oh, you know, there was something. It was like he couldn’t wait to see the next line of the news. So he’d bend down and he’d take the ticker tape in both hands as if he was trying to pull it out of the machine faster.” So, you see, it was worth getting Califano accurately.
Now, one of your principles as a writer, and it’s rooted in your, in a sense, rejection of your life as a newspaper reporter, or transcendence of it, is not to speed up but to slow down. Your process seems to be one of bucking the modern world. I’ve been to your office. It has a typewriter, a bunch of very modern file cabinets, I think there was a bulletin board?
No research assistants, no armies of extras. It’s you. And, very often, Ina, working on your behalf on these projects. And that’s it. Tell me about slowing down.
To your question, the slowing-down thing was something that I learned here at Princeton, when I was an undergraduate. I took creative-writing courses here for two years. So the creative-writing professor then was a critic, R. P. Blackmur, then very famous. Now people have forgotten him. And every two weeks you handed in a short story. And the way I was at Princeton, I was always doing things at the last minute, but I always got pretty good marks for them, and I thought I was fooling them.
Then, the second year, my very last time I handed in a short story, he handed it back and he said something complimentary. And then, as I’m getting up to leave, he says, “But you know, Mr. Caro, you will never achieve what you want to achieve unless you learn to stop thinking with your fingers.” And do you ever feel that someone’s seen right through you all the time when you thought you were fooling him? He knew that I hadn’t put much thought into these stories.
Now, I probably think it’s for the best that we’ve talked almost completely about Robert Moses and L.B.J. But we are living in a political moment, and when you watch the current President it seems that one of the saving graces is that, for all his erratic thinking, insulting thinking, his insults directed at minority groups—and, well, practically everyone—that he’s not that good at the exercise of power. He won the election, but if he had Johnsonian capacities in terms of the exercise of power, we might be even in deeper trouble than we already are.
Well, I think that that’s correct. And I think, [what] you say about Johnson, what does it mean to [be like] Johnson? You say, well, he wins election over Barry Goldwater, in 1964, by this tremendous majority. So the next morning he’s on the phone—or the morning after, he’s still hoarse the day of the election—calling the House Majority Leader and saying, “You know, the only thing that can hold this up here is the Rules Committee. Now is the moment to change the Rules Committee. Here’s how to do it.” And in the next couple of months he passes Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the voting-rights bill . . . I’m forgetting the rest of it. The most amazing—he could seize a moment because of this political genius that he has, and change, really, the face of America. It’s hard to remember a day when there wasn’t Medicare or Medicaid.
You write in “Working” that there is evil and injustice that can be caused by political power. But there’s also great good that can come out of it. It seems to me sometimes that people have forgotten this, you write. Why have we forgotten it?
You ask very good questions. I think we’ve forgotten it because we’ve had too many Presidents who don’t use political power—you say, what are things that change people’s lives? In the last century, Social Security, Medicare—like, right now I’m working on a section that, you could say, if I wanted to call it this, is what it was like to be old and sick in America before Medicare. And as I’m doing this I’m thinking, People aren’t even going to be able to imagine this. What was it like to be old in America before Social Security? People can’t imagine it. The power of government to do good for people is immense. And I think we have forgotten that power.