Since 1976, Robert Caro has devoted himself to The Years of Lyndon Johnson, a landmark study of the thirty-sixth president of the United States. The fifth and final volume, now underway, will presumably cover the 1964 election, the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the launch of the Great Society, the deepening of America’s involvement in Vietnam, the unrest in the cities and on college campuses, Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection, and his retirement and death—enough material, it would seem, for four additional volumes. If there is a question that annoys Caro more than “Do you like Lyndon Johnson?” it is “When will the next book be published?”
This interview took place over the course of four sessions, which were conducted in his Manhattan office, near Columbus Circle. The room is spartan, containing little more than a desk, a sofa, several file cabinets, and large bookcases crammed with well-thumbed volumes on figures like FDR, Al Smith, and the Kennedy brothers—not to mention copies of Caro’s own books. One wall is dominated by the large bulletin boards where he pins his outlines, which on several occasions he politely asked me not to read. On the desk sit his Smith-Corona Electra typewriter, a few legal pads, and the room’s only ornamental touch: a lamp whose base is a statuette of a charioteer driving two rearing horses.
Caro was born in New York in 1935. He was educated at Horace Mann and Princeton; after college, he worked for a New Jersey newspaper and then Newsday. It was there that Caro first heard of Robert Moses, the urban planner who would become the subject of The Power Broker (1974), which is not so much a biography as it is a thirteen-hundred-page examination of the political forces that shaped modern-day New York City. After conceiving of the book as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Caro persisted through seven difficult years of being, in his words, “plain broke.” With the support of his wife, Ina (to make ends meet, she sold their house on Long Island without telling him), he finished, and The Power Broker won Caro his first Pulitzer. It also won him the freedom to dedicate himself to his next subject, LBJ. (For his third volume, Master of the Senate , he won another Pulitzer.)
In addition to the countless hours he has spent in archives poring over memos and correspondence, Caro has camped out alone in the Texas Hill Country; persuaded former senator Bill Bradley to serve as a model on the Senate floor (Bradley is roughly the same height as Johnson, making him a useful stand-in); and tracked down virtually everyone who ever knew Johnson, from his siblings to his chauffeur. Many of these sources are now deceased, to the frustration of Caro, who valued the ability to call Johnson aides like George Reedy or Horace Busby for spur-of-the-moment clarifications.
Caro now spends most of his days in the Columbus Circle office, writing. Though it is clear that he values uninterrupted time at his desk above almost anything else, he always received me with warm courtesy, except for one occasion, when I arrived fifteen minutes late for our meeting. My tardiness visibly irritated Caro, who had broken off his work in anticipation of my arrival. Waving aside my offer to postpone, he ignored my apologies and began answering my questions in a taut, quiet voice. But as the interview progressed, Caro was warmed by his enthusiasm for his subject, speaking faster and more animatedly, chopping at the air in his eagerness to bring Lyndon Johnson to life.
How do you create vivid character studies while staying true to the factual demands of biography?
You try to learn as much about the people as you can. I try never to give psychohistory. There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts. The more facts you get, the more facts you collect, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. The base of biography has to be facts.
That’s especially true when it comes to describing Johnson, whom I met only once, only very briefly. With Johnson, if you went around on my interviews with me, in every interview probably, I’m asking—let’s say Joe Califano, one of Johnson’s aides—So if I were standing next to you in this scene in the Oval Office, Joe, what would I see? They never understand. They kind of hesitate—they don’t know what I mean. And I would say, Was he sitting behind the desk or was he getting up to walk around? And they might say—and this actually happened—Well, he jumped up from that desk all the time because he had the wire tickers over there. He had these three wire tickers, and he’d go over to them every few minutes to look.
So I would ask, But what were you seeing? How would he look at the wire tickers?
“Well, you know, it was interesting, it was like he couldn’t wait for the next lines to come, so he’d open the lid, and he’d grab the paper with two hands, as if he was trying to pull it out of the machine.”
So you keep saying, What would I see? Sometimes these people get angry because I’m asking the same question over and over again.
If you just keep doing it, it’s amazing what comes out of people. Eventually, a lot of people tell you about his bad breath. And the couches—if he wanted something from you in the Senate cloakroom, Johnson would take you over to sit on the couches. So I’d ask, What was it like sitting on those couches? And people would say something like, He’d be towering over you, leaning over you.
So you keep saying, What was it like sitting there?
They’d say, Oh, I remember those couches. They were so downy you thought you’d never get up. And then you realize that Johnson made the couches in the Oval Office softer so people would sink down and he, sitting in his rocking chair, would be higher, towering over them.
I spent a large part of these last decades trying to see Johnson. It’s a product of hundreds and hundreds of interviews.
But then there has to be something more than facts. You know, I used to be a judge for one prize or another, and you’d get two hundred books or something in the mail, and you’d go through them, and often it would only take a few pages to realize that the writer of this book thinks the only thing that matters is getting the facts down, not letting the reader see the place. Now, if you let the reader see the place—if you do it well enough and have shown the character of your protagonist well enough, so that the reader can see the scene and be involved in the scene—then the reader can see things, sense things, understand things about your protagonist that the writer doesn’t have to tell him, that the reader can grasp for himself.
When you’re in a place, it evokes emotions in you. So, therefore, place evokes emotions in the man, let’s say Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson. And if you show the place truly enough, then the reader can better understand the emotions evoked in that character. And if the place is important enough in the character’s life, if on the most basic level he spent enough time in it—was brought up in it or presided over it or exercised power in it—if the setting played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character without giving him a lecture.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean. In The Path to Power, when Johnson comes to Washington the first time, as a congressman’s assistant, he’s living in this little drab hotel near Union Station, and he’s working in the House of Representatives office building. He would come to work quite early in the morning because he was a Texan and people get up very early there, particularly people who were raised on farms or ranches. So he’d come up Capitol Hill, then along the front of the Capitol, and then go beyond into the House of Representatives building.
Working in the office with him was a young woman from Texas named Estelle Harbin, who lived in a boarding house behind the Library of Congress. Sometimes she would see Johnson coming to work. She told me something that she noticed, which was that Johnson would come up Capitol Hill just walking, but then when he would start to come in front of the Capitol she could see him walk faster and then break into a run. He’s very awkward, so he had this gangling, awkward stride. But he would run the length of the Capitol.
Estelle told me that she thought at first that he ran because he didn’t have a heavy suit. He was so poor that he had just a thin summer suit. She thought he was running because he was cold. But then when the weather turned warm, he would still do that—break into a run in front of the Capitol. I thought, Well, that’s terrific to describe. And maybe he’s just running because he is eager to get to work. But was there something more? Was there something that was occurring, something that he was seeing, that made him excited or especially eager to get to work, that in some way fired his senses so that he broke into a run? Was there? For some reason, that struck me as a question I’d like to know the answer to. So I started retracing his route, over and over and over again. But I didn’t see anything that would really account for that.
Then I suddenly realized something. With all the retracing I had done, I hadn’t done it early in the morning, when he would come to work, so I decided to do that. And that was different, because what happens is, he’s walking along the east front of the Capitol. The sun rises in the east. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at the front of the Capitol, but it’s a magnificent thing, white marble, with all these pediments filled with heroic figures and the row of columns and everything. When I was there at five thirty or six, suddenly the sun would come up. It would be low and shining straight at the whole east front of the Capitol, so the Capitol would be lit up, very brightly, the white marble just gleaming, as if it were some sort
of enormous movie set. The whole panorama of the Capitol with the broad steps and the heroic figures and the columns—it was lit up. And suddenly you say, Well, God. That’s sort of exciting.
And then I thought—though I didn’t have this thought all at once—That’s a symbol of what you can have if you have power in Washington. That east front—all that glowing white marble—it’s a symbol of the power of the sovereign state, of what you can have if you get to be something in Washington.
Then I was thinking about that, and I thought of where Lyndon Johnson came from, which was the Texas Hill Country, which was a place of ramshackle little log buildings. That was his youth. And I remembered someone saying that as a boy he loved to look at the Texas capitol building in Austin—he loved to look at it. Suddenly I felt, Boy, I understand something about the depths of his ambition, and why this ambition had this desperate quality to it, so desperate that even people in Washington, who knew ambition, where everyone’s ambitious, thought there was something special about Lyndon Johnson, you know, they would say, I never knew anyone could work that hard, that sort of thing.
I had actually lived in the Hill Country, to see what that was like. I suddenly realized that if I could make the reader see the two places—the Hill Country that he came from and the Capitol at dawn that symbolized what he longed for—then I could make the reader understand something about Lyndon Johnson. If I make this scene true enough so that the reader can see it, then the reader will see into Lyndon Johnson without my having to give any lectures or half-baked psychoanalysis.
To read the rest of this piece, purchase the issue.
Luc Sante, Robert Caro, Jensen Beach, Chris Bachelder, Witold Gombrowicz, Benjamin Hale, Dana Johnson, Craig Morgan Teicher, Anne-Laure Zevi, John Ashbery, Mary Jo Bang, Erica Ehrenberg, Amit Majmudar, J. D. McClatchy, Morgan Parker, Mary Ruefle, Frederick Seidel, James Tate, Cynthia Zarin.
John Ashbery, This Once
John Ashbery, Hillbilly Airs and Dances
John Ashbery, Sitting at the Table
Mary Jo Bang, Self-Portrait in the Bathroom Mirror
Mary Jo Bang, Admission
Mary Jo Bang, An Anatomical Study
Erica Ehrenberg, Pause at the Edge of the Country
Amit Majmudar, Nostalgia
J. D. McClatchy, My After-Dinner Drink
J. D. McClatchy, Sunflowerws in October
Mary Ruefle, The Woman Who Couldn’t Describe A Thing If She Could
Frederick Seidel, Paris
James Tate, Untitled
Cynthia Zarin, Japanese Poems