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.
Did you grow up in a house full of books?
No. My mother got very sick when I was five, and she died when I was eleven. My father was a Polish immigrant. He wasn’t really a reader. Books were not part of the house, but my mother, before she died, had my father promise to send me to Horace Mann. When I think of my childhood, it’s Horace Mann.
I was the editor of the school newspaper. Every Friday, I’d take a trolley up to Yonkers with a rotating cast of the other editors. We’d get off at Getty Square, take all our copy over to a Linotype shop, and then we would stay there while the hot type came out, and when the page was complete they’d ink it and put a piece of paper over it with a roller, and that’s how you’d read it.
The nicest thing that’s happened to me, really, is that four years ago Horace Mann said they wanted to name a prize after me. I said that would be great, so long as they made it for something that I really wanted to be studied. And they said, Well, what is that? I said, I want students to learn that writing, the quality of the prose, matters in nonfiction, that writing matters in history. So they created the Robert Caro ’53 Prize for Literary Excellence in the Writing of History. My wife, Ina, is always saying, when I win awards, You’re not excited. I say, I’ll pretend to be excited if you want. It’s like those awards are happening to somebody else, you know? But to go back up there to that school that I loved and to see tacked up on the door of every classroom, deadline for the caro prize—you say, My God, that’s exciting.
When you were at Horace Mann, you thought you would pursue journalism?
Not journalism, necessarily. I wrote short stories for the literary magazine. Then, when I went to Princeton, I wrote for the Nassau Lit, the literary magazine, as well as The Princeton Tiger. The Tiger once devoted almost the whole issue of the magazine to a story I wrote.
But Ina and I wanted to get married right after graduation, so I really needed a job. I got offered a job by the New York Times, but they had a rule then that if you had no professional journalism experience—which I didn’t—you had to start as a copy boy for, I think, $37.50 a week. We couldn’t live on that, and the New Brunswick Daily Home News offered me $52 a week. So I went to work for them. But I didn’t like working on that paper particularly. The line between the paper and the Democratic county organization was nonexistent, basically. Although I was a reporter, I had to write speeches for the five candidates for the New Brunswick City Council. So I went to graduate school at Rutgers, as a teaching assistant. And while I was there, the president of Rutgers approached the English department because a guy named Lansing P. Shield—then the president of the Grand Union company—wanted to run for governor, and he needed a speechwriter. The head of the English department recommended me because I had written speeches for the city council. Now, I wrote speeches for this guy, Lansing P. Shield. But I didn’t want to write speeches and I didn’t want to stay in graduate school, so I applied to various newspapers and Newsday hired me. I was looking for a crusading-type paper, and that was what Newsday was then.
When did you start to gravitate to the kinds of large nonfiction projects that would define your career?
I loved being a reporter. I loved finding out about how things really worked and trying to explain them in my stories, and I became more and more interested in politics because I was starting to feel that it was important to explain political power. The paper assigned me to cover this bridge that Robert Moses wanted to build. The bridge was supposed to run from Oyster Bay to Rye. I can’t remember the details, but it would have required something like six more lanes on the Long Island Expressway just to handle the traffic. And the bridge itself would be so big that the piers on which it crossed Long Island Sound would have disrupted the tidal flow and caused pollution.
The bridge was still years away, but there was some minor measure, a bill or appropriation or feasibility study, perhaps, pertaining to it that Moses needed to keep the project moving forward. I went up to Albany, I saw Governor Rockefeller, I had a long session with his counsel. I saw the assembly speaker, a guy named Tony Travia, and I saw the president of the state Senate, Joseph Zaretzki. They all understood that this bridge was just a terrible idea.
So I went back and told my editor, The bill is dead. And then a couple of months later, a friend in Albany called me and said, Robert Moses was up here yesterday. You better come back up. And I drove back up there and walked into the assembly chamber just as they were approving the bill by a huge majority.
See, before that, I had written articles on politicians, investigative pieces, and I had won a couple of journalism awards. They were really minor awards, but when you’re young and you win any award, you think you know everything. So I thought I was accomplishing my purpose, which was to explain political power to my readers. But driving home from Albany to Roslyn that night, all the way I kept thinking, Everything you’ve been writing is bullshit, because everything you’ve been writing is based on the belief that political power comes from the ballot box, from being elected. Here was Robert Moses, a guy who was never elected to anything, and he came up to Albany for one day and changed the entire state government around, from the governor to the assembly. How did he have the power to do that? You have no idea and neither does anybody else. I said to myself, If you really want to explain political power, you’re going to have to understand that. So I decided to apply for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard to study urban planning, and I got it. I was taking a course taught by two professors who had written a textbook on urban land-use planning, and they were explaining why highways get built, where they get built, and they were explaining it as if it were a mathematical equation, and with every class, they added a couple of factors—population density, grade elevations, things like that. Totally rational. I would sit there diligently taking notes, and then one day I suddenly said to myself, This is all wrong. They don’t know why highways get built where they’re built, and I do. They get built where they’re built because Robert Moses wants them built there.
All the Niemans had offices then. I walked back to my office, and I really sat and thought, How am I going to explain to the readers of Newsday about Robert Moses? And the more I thought, the more I realized, My God, I’m never going to be able to do this in the context of daily journalism. It’s going to take a book. To me it seemed that the story of Moses was the story of modern New York. I didn’t have an agent, but I wrote a book proposal and got a $5,000 contract, $2,500 then and the other $2,500 when I finished.
We didn’t really have any savings, and that wasn’t enough for me to quit my job. For a while, I tried to work on the book while I stayed on as a reporter, but I wasn’t making much headway. I got a grant for a year, and that was when I decided I could quit. I told Ina the book would be done in nine months. But after a year, it was still only in the early stages. Ina sold our house—we moved to an apartment in the Bronx—and the money from that gave us another year. But I knew the book still had a lot more years to go. So those were years when we were just plain broke. All I could think was that I was going to have to be really lucky to be able to finish this book without having to go back to work as a reporter. I knew that if I went back to work, I would never finish.
After some years, I got an agent, Lynn Nesbit, and changed publishing houses, and she and my new editor, Bob Gottlieb, made sure I finally had enough money. But the only way she could get enough money for me to finish The Power Broker was for me to sign a two-book contract. The second one was for a biography of Fiorello La Guardia, but after I finished The Power Broker, I didn’t want to do it, because so much of it was covered in The Power Broker. And I’ve never been able to stand doing something that I’ve already done.
I knew what I really wanted to do for my second book, because I had come to realize something. I wasn’t interested in writing a biography but in writing about political power. I could do urban political power through Robert Moses because he had done something that no one else had done. He had shaped the city with a kind of power we didn’t learn about in textbooks, which tell us that, in a democracy, power comes from being elected. He had shaped it with a different kind of power. So if I could find out and explain where he got his power and how he kept it and how he used it, I would be explaining something about the realities of urban power—how raw, naked power really works in cities. And I could do it through his life because I got the right man, the man who did something that no one else had done. I felt it would be great if I could do that kind of book—a book about political power—about national power. And I had had a similar flash about Lyndon Johnson. It was the Senate, it wasn’t the presidency. He made the Senate work. For a century before him, the Senate was the same dysfunctional mess it is today. He’s majority leader for six years, the Senate works, it creates its own bills. He leaves, and the day he leaves it goes back to the way it was. And it’s stayed that way until this day. Only he, in the modern era, could make the Senate work. So he, like Moses, had found some new form of political power, and it was national, not urban power. I wanted to do a book about that. That’s what first drew me to Lyndon Johnson.
Also, I wanted to do Johnson’s life in more than one volume because there were things that had been cut out of The Power Broker that I regretted having to cut. I cut 350,000 words out of that book. I still miss some of those chapters. I expected to have a fight over this, but before I said anything, Bob said, I’ve been thinking about you and what you ought to do. I know you want to do the La Guardia biography, but I think what you should do is a biography of Lyndon Johnson. And then he said, And I think you should do it in several volumes.
In both books, you took pains over the prose.
For seven years, I heard people say—I heard my first publisher say—No one is going to read a book on Robert Moses. It will be a very small printing. And I believed that. But as I came to write the book, I thought, It matters that people read this. Here was a guy who was never elected to anything, and he had more power than any mayor, more than any governor, more than any mayor or governor combined, and he kept this power for forty-four years, and with it he shaped so much of our lives.
I told myself, You have to try to write an introduction that makes the reader feel what you feel about his importance, his fascination as a character, as a human being. I remember rewriting that introduction endless times. For instance, Moses built 627 miles of roads. I said, Come on, that’s just a bare statement of fact—how do you make people grasp the immensity of this? And I remembered reading the Iliad in college. The Iliad did it with lists, you know? With the enumeration of all the nations and all the ships that are sent to Troy to show the magnitude and magnificence of the Trojan War. In college, the professor kept talking about Homer’s imagery, Homer’s symbolism, et cetera in the Iliad and the Odyssey. I would be sitting there thinking, Look what Homer does with the ships! Not that I would ever think of comparing myself with Homer, but great works of art can be inspiring as models. So in the introduction to The Power Broker, I tried listing all the expressways and all the parkways. I hoped that the weight of all the names would give Moses’s accomplishment more reality. But then I felt, That’s not good enough. Can you put the names into an order that has a rhythm to it that will give them more force and power and, in that way, add to the understanding of the magnitude of the accomplishment? “He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway.” I thought I could have a rhythm that builds, and then change it abruptly in the last sentence. Rhythm matters. Mood matters. Sense of place matters. All these things we talk about with novels, yet I feel that for history and biography to accomplish what they should accomplish, they have to pay as much attention to these devices as novels do.
There’s a chapter in Means of Ascent called “The Flying Windmill” where Johnson is far behind in his campaign for the Senate. This is his last chance—he’s either going to get to the Senate or his career is over. He’s desperate, right? Gets out of the hospital and he’s far behind in the polls. Someone gives him the idea of flying around Texas in a helicopter. Lyndon Johnson and the helicopter, whipping its side with his Stetson to make it go faster—it’s a great dramatic story, and you almost cannot not tell the story well because it’s such a great story. But I wanted to show desperation. I was trying to write about a desperate man whose last chance is these helicopter trips. I thought, You have the scenes, but it’s your job to make the reader feel the desperation. How do you do that? You do it with quotes from his aides showing how desperate he was, how he never slept. But how else? Rhythm. I tried to infuse the descriptions of his campaigning in that chapter with a rhythm of desperation. And I actually had a note card attached to the lamp on my desk here. I sometimes put a card on there as a reminder to myself. This one said, Is there desperation on this page?
How do you research a subject?
First you read the books on the subject, then you go to the big newspapers, and all the magazines—Newsweek, Life, Time, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Star, then you go to the newspapers from the little towns. If something appeared there, you want to see how it’s covered in the weekly newspaper.
Then the next thing you do is the documents. There’s the Lyndon Johnson papers, but also the papers of everyone else—Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower—whom he dealt with. Or for The Power Broker, Al Smith’s papers, the Herbert Lehman papers, the Harriman papers, the La Guardia papers. But to stick with Johnson, the LBJ Presidential Library is just massive. The last time I was there, they had forty-four million pieces of paper. These shelves go back, like, a hundred feet. And there are four floors of these red buckram boxes. His congressional papers run 144 linear feet. Which is 349 boxes. A box can hold eight hundred pages. I was able to go through all of those, though it took a long, long time. This was when we were living in Texas for three years. Ina and I were spending five and a half days a week, typically, at the library.
The presidency is different. There’s no hope of reading it all. You’d need several lifetimes. But you want to try to do as much as possible, because you never know what you will find. You have to rely on all of the cross-referencing that the archivists have done. If it’s something really important, like a civil rights file, from 1964, 1965, or voting rights, you want to see everything. So I called for everything. But otherwise, you know you’re not seeing even a substantial percentage. You hope you’re seeing everything that really matters, but you always have this feeling, What’s in the rest?
So that’s the first three steps—the books, the newspapers and magazines, the documents. Then come the interviews. You try and find everybody who is alive who dealt with Johnson in any way in this period. Some people you interview over and over. There was this Johnson speechwriter, Horace Busby. I interviewed him twenty-two times. These were the formal interviews. We also had a lot of informal telephone chats. Once, he had a stroke. After he got better, he wrote Ina—he had a crush on Ina—“All I could think of when I went into the hospital was, ‘This will be hard on Robert, nobody else can tell him about the vice presidency.’ ” I came to love Buzz. But none of this is enough. You have to ask yourself, Are you making the reader see the scene? And that means, Can you see the scene? You look at so many books, and it seems like all the writer cares about is getting the facts in. But the facts alone aren’t enough.
I’ll give you an example. In the first volume, there’s a chapter called “The First Campaign.” Everyone I talked to about Johnson’s first run for Congress would say, I never saw anyone who worked as hard as Lyndon Johnson. Well, it’s one thing to tell that to the reader, but how do you show it? Who would really know what this means?
I thought, There’s one guy who’s with Lyndon Johnson most of the day, and it’s not his campaign manager, it’s his chauffeur! Because in the Texas Hill Country, a lot of anything is driving—that’s ninety percent of the time. His chauffeur was a guy named Carroll Keach. He lived in some place outside Corpus Christi, and it was hard to get to. It was, like, a 180-mile drive or something. But I kept going back to him.
He wasn’t a loquacious Texan, he was a laconic Texan. I would ask, What was Johnson doing between campaign stops? And he would say something like, Oh, he was just sitting there in the backseat. I just had to keep asking him questions. I mean, you’re driving, Carroll, and Lyndon Johnson is in the backseat? What was he doing in the backseat? Finally, he told me that Johnson often would be talking to himself. So I’d call and say, Carroll, when you said he was talking to himself, what was he saying? Finally, Carroll told me, It was like he was having discussions with himself about whether he had had a successful day, and if he had made a good impression on voters or not. So I’d say, What do you mean by that? How do you know that’s what he was talking about?
“Well, lots of the time, he felt he wasn’t doing too good. And he would tell himself that it was his own fault.”
“What do you mean, he would tell himself it was his own fault?”
“Oh, I don’t know, I don’t remember.”
So I’d call him later and ask again, and I’d finally get something like, Well, Johnson would say, Boy, wasn’t that dumb! You know you just lost that ballot box. You lost it, and you need it. And he would talk out—rehearse, over and over, out loud, what he would say to the voters in that precinct the next time.
It was Ed Clark, who they called the secret boss of Texas, who was one of the first people to say to me, I had never seen anyone work that hard. And finally, after looking at documents like Johnson’s daily campaign agenda—which Johnson would put little handwritten notes on—and doing all these interviews, I was able to write, “ . . . and Clark didn’t know how hard Lyndon Johnson was really working. No one knew, with the exception of Carroll Keach, because only Keach, alone in the car with Johnson for hours each day, knew what Johnson was doing in the car.”
That’s just one example of the kind of work that can go into making a scene. These things didn’t come out in the first or second interview with Carroll Keach but something like the fourth or fifth or tenth. You have to keep going back to important people—people who were important not necessarily because of their status but because of what they saw. For just this chapter, “The First Campaign,” I read all the newspapers, the local newspapers, from the little Hill Country towns. And then there were three boxes in the library—the records of Johnson’s campaign headquarters are boxes one, two, and three of the Johnson House papers. So then Ina and I also looked at, you know, the Austin American-Statesman, and Ina drove to all these little towns and found old newspapers like the Blanco County News and the Johnson City Record Courier. But
I interviewed one, two, three, four [counting names in bibliography] . . . Well, I got twenty-nine people on that campaign. And I spoke to most of them, like Carroll Keach, many times.
What about your outlining process?
I can’t start writing a book until I’ve thought it through and can see it whole in my mind. So before I start writing, I boil the book down to three paragraphs, or two or one—that’s when it comes into view. That process might take weeks. And then I turn those paragraphs into an outline of the whole book. That’s what you see up here on my wall now—twenty-seven typewritten pages. That’s the fifth volume. Then, with the whole book in mind, I go chapter by chapter. I sit down at the typewriter and type an outline of that chapter, let’s say if it’s a long chapter, seven pages—it’s really the chapter in brief, without any of the supporting evidence. Then, each chapter gets a notebook, which I fill with all the materials I want to use—quotations and facts pulled from all of the research I’ve done.
When you say that the boiling-down process can take weeks, are you doodling? Are you sitting at your desk? What does that process entail?
The boiling down entails writing those paragraphs over maybe . . . I can’t even tell you how many times, over and over and over. The whole time, I’m saying to myself, No, that’s not exactly what you’re trying to do in this book.
If you saw me during this process, in the first place you’d see a guy in a very bad mood. It’s very frustrating. I can’t actually say anything nice about this part of the work. It’s a terrible time for me. I sometimes think, You’re never going to get it. There’s just so much stuff to put in this book. You’re never going to have a unified book with a drive from beginning to end, a single narrative, a single driving theme from beginning to end. There’s just too much stuff.
I come home and Ina doesn’t even want to see me for several hours, because I’m all wound up. I get up during the night to write that couple of paragraphs. I think, Oh, I’ve got it, I’ve got it, and then I get up in the morning and I look at it and I say, No, this isn’t it. But of course if I finally get the narrative theme, then while I’m writing the book, every time there is a digression—and I have large digressions—I have an easier time bringing the digression back to my theme and keeping the theme in the digression, so the unity, the story, is there in the narrative all the time . . . I hope.
When you say that’s not “it,” what is “it”?
Let’s say The Path to Power. That first volume tries to show what the country was like that Johnson came out of, why he wanted so badly to get out of it, how he got out of it, and how he got his first national power in Washington through the use of money. That’s basically the first volume—at the end he loses his first Senate race, but it’s pretty clear he’s going to come back.
When you distill the book down like that, a lot becomes so much easier. For example, bringing electricity to the Hill Country. In all these early biographies of Johnson, the fact that he founded the largest electricity co-op and brought electricity to the Hill Country gets a few pages, if that—sometimes it only gets a paragraph. But when I was interviewing people out there, they would say, No matter what Lyndon was like, we loved him because he brought the lights. So I suddenly said, God, this bringing the lights is something meaningful. I know what bringing the lights means—it’s creating an electricity co-op. But I suddenly saw that he changed this country. This one man changed the lives of more than two hundred thousand people. He brought them into the modern world. Against unbelievable obstacles. That’s genius, that’s governmental genius. It’s terribly significant. So I have to show that significance, make the reader see it—and feel it, too, so the reader can feel like the people of the Hill Country felt. So, you can go off in a direction and show how hard it was to do this—how there was no dam, how the Rural Electrification Administration would never lay all these power lines, and how he overcame that—but you’re not losing the single thrust of the book, it’s all coming back to how he got out of the Hill Country and what he did for it once he had power.
Getting that boiled-down paragraph or two is terribly hard, but I have to tell you that my experience is that if you get it, the whole next seven years is easier. When you have it, it’s so comforting, because you’re typing away, and you can look over—it’s usually stuck on the wall right there, but I don’t want you to see it, actually. I put it away. I don’t like anyone to see my notes. But you can look over there and say, You’re doing this whole thing on civil rights—let’s take Master of the Senate—the whole history of the civil rights movement. Is this fitting in with those three paragraphs? How is it fitting in? What you just wrote is good, but it’s not fitting in. So you have to throw it away or find a way to make it fit in. So it’s very comforting to have that.
Is that your gauge of when the writing is going well—when it’s fitting in to that paragraph?
I’m not sure I ever think the writing is going well. Every day I reread what I wrote the day before, and I’ve learned from hard experience that it’s a real mistake to get too confident about what I’ve written. I do so much writing and rewriting. And Knopf knows. I rewrite the galleys completely. I even rewrite in page proofs, which they don’t actually allow you to do, but they’ve been very good to me. I’d rewrite in the finished book if I could.
You start writing in longhand, correct?
Yes. I write on white legal pads. I seldom have only one draft in longhand—I’d say I probably have three or four. Then I go and do the same pages over on the typewriter, and then I throw them out. I go chapter by chapter. I can’t go on to another chapter until I feel this chapter is done.
Do you work from nine to five?
I generally get up around seven or so, and I walk to work through Central Park outlining the first paragraphs that I’m going to write that day. But the thing is, as you get into a chapter, you get wound up. You wake up excited—I don’t mean “thrilled” excited but “I want to get in there,” so I get up earlier and earlier. Sometimes Ina says, Do you know what time it is? I say, I don’t want to look.
I work pretty long days. If I’m doing research, I can have lunch with friends, but if I’m writing, I have a sandwich at my desk. The guy at the Cosmic Diner, John, he knows my voice.
Do you set daily quotas?
I have to, because I have a wonderful relationship with my editor and my publisher. I have no real deadlines. I’m never asked, When are you going to deliver? So it’s easy to fool yourself that you’re really working hard when you’re not. And I’m naturally lazy. So what I do is—people laugh at me—I put on a jacket and a tie to come to work, because when I was young, everybody wore jackets and ties to work, and I want to remind myself that I’m going to a job. I have to produce. I write down how many words I’ve done in a day. Not to the word—I count the lines. I do it as we used to do it in the newspaper business, ten words to a line. I do a lot of little things to try to make me remember it’s a job.
I try to do at least three pages a day. Some days you don’t, but without some kind of quota, I think you’re fooling yourself.
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.
What did you learn from living in the Texas Hill Country?
At the time I started these books, my publisher counted that there were already eleven biographies of Johnson published. I had read them all and they each gave a chapter to his youth, usually only one. None of the books seemed to have enough detail or color for me. So when I started the book, we rented an apartment in Austin, and I went to the Lyndon Johnson Library, and every day I would work there from nine to five, and then every day at five I’d drive out into the Hill Country and do one interview. And then the library was only open half a day on Saturdays, so at noon I’d go out, and I’d do maybe two interviews, and Sunday as well. I was interviewing these people just for color, for detail. I had assumed that Johnson’s youth had been dealt with adequately in the earlier books.
But then I realized—and it was a slow realization—I remember telling Ina one night, I don’t understand these people. Their mores, their whole being, they’re coming from someplace I’m not understanding, and therefore I’m not understanding Lyndon Johnson. And I said, We’re going to have to move out there. And Ina, of course, said sure. Since Ina writes books about France and loves Paris, she also said, Why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?
I first encountered Johnson City, where Johnson grew up, when I was driving out to do these interviews. Today, Austin’s sprawl has almost engulfed Johnson City, but in those days, 1976 or ’77, as soon as you left the outskirts of Austin, there were about forty miles of pretty empty space. On the way, you come to the top of what they called Lookout Mountain. It’s just a hill, really, but as I got to the top of that hill, suddenly something happened and I pulled over to the side of the road on the shoulder and got out of the car, and I was looking at the Pedernales Valley.
I thought about this a lot—What made you pull over? A sense that I was suddenly driving into something that I was not familiar with. And what it was, was emptiness, because there, in front of me, was this valley, which is maybe thirty miles long and fifteen miles across, and there was nothing in it. You didn’t see one human thing. And then something happened, when I was standing up there, like a cloud moved away, and the sun came out and glinted off some tin roofs, and suddenly you saw, oh, there’s a little huddle of houses there. That’s Johnson City! And of course, when LBJ grew up, the population was 323 or something, and at the time I was researching it hadn’t changed much.
You suddenly say, Why was Johnson the way he was? It has to have something to do with this remarkable emptiness and loneliness.
Then you start talking to people, like his brother, who tried to explain how lonely he was. There was one corner of the Johnson Ranch that came down to what they called the Austin-Fredericksburg road. It wasn’t a road then, it wasn’t paved, just a graded thing. He said that he and Lyndon would go down to this corner of the ranch when they were little boys, and sit on a fence there for hours in the hope that someone would ride by, some new person to talk to.
At first, these people were very reluctant to talk to me. Until we moved out there, my interviews weren’t very productive. When we moved there, everything changed. They had a phrase, “portable journalist,” because during the time that Johnson had been president, journalists would come, stay for a week, and go back and write “the true history of the Hill Country.” When they realized that someone was finally coming to stay—to really try to understand them—all of a sudden they started talking to me in a different way, giving me a different picture of Lyndon Johnson, different from any that had been in any biographies before.
For example, Johnson’s cousin Ava, who was his favorite cousin, and probably the person he was closest to. Before we moved out there, she kept saying to me what so many people out there said to me—You’re a city boy, you don’t understand the land, so you’ll never understand Lyndon Johnson. That sentence sounded to me like some piece of bullshit out of a grade B Western—You don’t understand the land.
But one day, after we moved out there, Ava said to me, You don’t understand about the land. Let’s go out to the Johnson place.
She had been telling me how Sam Johnson, Lyndon’s father, had made this horrible mistake, where he thought the land was fertile because there was grass all over it. And when we got to the ranch, she said, Now get out of the car. I got out of the car. And she says, Now, stick your fingers into the ground. I knelt down, my fingers—you couldn’t even get to the knuckle before you hit rock, Hill Country limestone. This beautiful ground—there was only this much soil on top of it. She said something like, You see, Sam didn’t understand that. Didn’t understand that this land was going to wash away, that you couldn’t depend on it for anything. You could only grow one to two seasons of cotton there, and then it would wash away. And Sam bought the place and he went broke. He didn’t understand the reality. He became the laughingstock of the town. Well, that’s bad enough in New York, but here you have a little, isolated town. That failure somehow looms even larger because there’s nothing else around.
That’s about all she said. But all of a sudden—I thought I understood it before, in these clichés, but all of a sudden, I understood it. Johnson’s dad had made this one mistake about the land—trying to grow things where they wouldn’t grow—and it cost him dearly. Then a lot of things about Lyndon Johnson just came together in my mind. For example, he was the best vote counter in Washington. I did a little essay in Master of the Senate on the nature of vote counting and on the reasons why everybody in Washington counts votes but very few people can count them accurately. And if a senator says, I’m on your side, I’ll be there for you, wishful thinking makes most men believe they can count on him, and so does the feeling that since you understand that this is the right side to be on, so does the senator. And then, when the actual voting begins, he’s suddenly not there, and you’ve lost. Well, Johnson never lost when he was majority leader. He never. Lost. A vote.
I said, I understand that, because he had learned from his father’s failure the cost of not looking reality in the face, of wishful thinking, of thinking that this land is beautiful so it will support cotton when it won’t. You can’t be wrong.
You seem to describe Johnson in epic terms. Do you consider your biographies epics?
I don’t think about my work in terms like that. It’s true that I think of the Johnson books in terms of very large historical events and trends, because the books are the story not just of Lyndon Johnson, although even in those terms it’s a monumental story—the desperate young man who pulled himself out of this incredibly lonely and impoverished place, who rose to the very height of power in America, what he had always dreamed of, and then gave it up. But the books are also supposed to be a picture of America during the years of Lyndon Johnson. That’s why they’re called The Years of Lyndon Johnson. I mean, when I was starting The Power Broker and when I was starting the first volume, I said, You don’t really have to show what the Depression is like in New York City or what it’s like in Texas. That’s been done. But I quickly realized that if I was going to do in these books what I wanted to do, I had to do the whole picture of what America was like.
So here is this figure—a huge figure—this young man who’s rising, who’s ruthless and cruel, nothing can stand in the way of his ambition. And who at the same time has this immense compassion, along with a very rare talent—a genius, really—for transmuting compassion into something concrete, into legislative achievement. That’s why, of all the sentences Johnson spoke in his speeches, I think one of the most meaningful was when he was speaking about John Kennedy’s civil rights program, he said, “Now it’s time to write it into the books of law.” Lyndon Johnson, if I do him right, he’s this huge figure with these complexities. I’m trying to show him moving through American history, rising through it, political step by political step. And what was America in his times? And how did he change America? Because certainly he changed America. But you’re not making it a monumental story on a grand scale. It is a monumental story on a grand scale. And the greatest historians—I’m not saying I’m one of them—but with them, there’s a monumental, majestic, epic quality to their work, not because they’re inventing history, but because they’re seeing the epic scope of it. They’re being true to history. Take this book I’m writing now. You see Johnson when finally he has the power to change America, and America is a completely different place when he leaves the presidency in January 1969 than it is when he becomes president, on the day John Kennedy is assassinated. So what is this? Great, huge protagonists—I don’t want to use the word heroes—fighting great battles. Think of the battles. Congress’s mighty, invincible Southern Caucus and the battle for civil rights. The mighty robber barons and Robert Moses’s battle for the parkways. You say to yourself, I’ve got to write in a way that makes people realize that this isn’t just politics.
When Moses has this great dream of the parkways, how do I show the greatness of the dream? How do I show the magnitude of the fight? I have to show the immense power of the men he defeated. That means showing the whole background of the robber barons. You’ve got to make people see the robber barons, with these magnificent estates in the path of the parkways he wanted to build so poor families from the city could get to the Long Island beaches. You can’t just say, The robber barons were opposed to him.
And again, you have to base all of this in fact. When Moses was walking around Long Island looking at the mansions of the robber barons, he had a companion walking with him. I found the man who walked with him. So I could really put myself in there and describe these great estates. This is the man who’s going to take on the entrenched power of the Gilded Age and the robber barons and he’s going to beat them. So I wrote,
And in the summer of 1923, Moses went back to tramping around Long Island.
“I went with him once,” a friend says. “We walked all day through one piece of beautiful wild country after another. And he never slowed down. He was tireless.” He walked alone through vast, empty shuttered mansions, through potato fields where farmers worked peacefully, not knowing that the man looking at them was planning to take their fields away. Walls and guards kept him from getting a good look from paved public roads at the route he was considering for the northern parkway, but he discovered unpaved back roads through many of the estates, and he spent days walking along those deserted paths, a solitary figure with a long stride. Through the trees he could see the great castles; at their gates, on little black and gold signs, he could see the names of the great barons who had built them. And the barons, private behind their walls, did not know that staring at those walls was a man determined to tear them down.
This is a battle that no one knows. And my books are full of these battles. You think of Robert Moses striking down a score of foes, of Lyndon Johnson defeating the Southern senators, and you say, These were epic battles of American history. And the tragedy is that we’re not learning American history anymore. If I want to be true to what I’m trying to do, I have to try to make the reader see the grandeur, the epic, the almost insurmountable difficulties in the face of the man trying to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957, when the Senate is almost completely controlled by the South.
If you want to be true to these people—these very rare figures who accomplished monumental, world-changing feats—you have to picture the things they’re doing on a monumental, world-changing scale. Really, my books are an examination of what power does to people. Power doesn’t always corrupt, and you can see it in the case of, for example, Al Smith or Sam Rayburn. There, power cleanses. But what power always does is reveal, because when you’re climbing, you have to conceal from people what it is you’re really willing to do, what it is you want to do. But once you get enough power, once you’re there, where you wanted to be all along, then you can see what the protagonist wanted to do all along, because now he’s doing it. With Robert Moses, you see power becoming an end in itself, transforming him into an utterly ruthless person. In The Passage of Power, I describe the speechwriter Dick Goodwin trying to find out if Johnson is sincere about civil rights, and Johnson tells him, I swore to myself when I was teaching those kids in Cotulla that if I ever had the power, I was going to help them. Now I have the power and I mean to use it. You see what Johnson wanted to do all along. Or at least a thing he wanted to do all along.
The turning point in how I approached power really came during The Power Broker. I was writing about the route of the Northern State Parkway on Long Island. [Opens map in Power Broker.] This was his route. When he gets out to here, it would run right through the golf club belonging to his cousin, the financier Otto Kahn. Kahn makes a donation to the Long Island State Park Commission. In exchange, Moses moves the parkway to the south, off Kahn’s land. But because he moves it south, it’s going to hit Henry Stimson’s estate. And this estate south of Stimson’s belongs to a guy named De Forest who is immensely wealthy and powerful, and the next one south is Congressman Mills. So he moves it south again.
So on the map, there are all these little dots along the route far to the south that is finally chosen. And each of these is a little individual farm. By moving this road south, he’s avoiding the big estates completely, but he’s taking all these little farms. There were no names attached to the dots, but I went and found old maps. And Ina helped me find these families. I knew they wouldn’t be there anymore because the parkway went through them, but she found James Roth Jr., whose parents owned one of these little farms. Talking to Jimmy Roth is when things changed for me. I asked him if he remembered the parkway coming through his family’s land, and he said, That was the day that he ruined our lives forever. His mother and father had finally finished breaking their backs clearing this land when the Moses men came and drove the parkway right through the most fertile part. They wouldn’t even move it a few feet further to preserve some of that good soil.
Somewhere in The Power Broker I write that regard for power means disregard of those without power. I mean, we’re really talking about justice and injustice. Every book I was reading on highways and urban planning had this phrase, “the human cost of expressways.” But not one of them showed what the human cost of expressways was. And I said to myself, I’m not doing this book without showing the human cost. I decided I would pick one mile of the 627 that Moses built and show the human cost. And for whatever reason, I picked one mile of the Cross-Bronx Expressway where it ran through a neighborhood called East Tremont, in the Bronx. I think perhaps because it was Jewish, and I’m Jewish, so I could relate to kids growing up there and their lives. I went to talk to the people who, after the expressway came through, had moved into the apartments in East Tremont. It had become a vast slum, and I had horrible experiences. I couldn’t even imagine. You go into these apartment houses, and in the lobbies, the walls would be ripped open and there were piles of feces.
It was a horrible slum, and it was scary. Once, this elderly man who had been watching me walk around the neighborhood beckoned me over and said to me, without preliminaries, You were here after dark last night. Don’t be here after dark again.
I also went in search of the people who had been displaced and now lived somewhere else. Today it’s easier to find people because there’s a computer, there’s a national telephone directory. But then, if someone’s just disappeared from an area, where do you start looking for them? I found a lot of them. I would interview maybe two or three couples every day who lived in different places, and then every night, I would type up the transcripts. And I realized the word I was typing over and over again was lonely. And I remember being filled with real anger at the injustice of this. I thought, God, look what Moses did here. This was political power. You have to write not only about the man who wields the sword, but also about the people on whom it is wielded.
It’s even more complicated with Johnson. Domestically, he did such magnificent things as president. Everyone wants to say that if it weren’t for Vietnam, he would’ve been one of the greatest presidents. But “if it weren’t for Vietnam” is not an adequate phrase. You have to give equal weight to both the domestic and Vietnam. Medicare. The Voting Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act. Sixty different education bills. You’re filled with admiration for his genius, over and over again. Watching some legislative maneuver, you’re saying, Wow, how did he do that, I didn’t know you could do that! And then in the same book, you have Vietnam. This last volume is a very complex book to write.
There seems to be a real idealism behind your project—you hope the books serve a larger civic purpose.
Well, you always hope something. I think the more light that can be thrown on the actual processes we’re voting about, the better. We live in a democracy, so ultimately, even despite a Robert Moses, a lot of political power comes from our votes. The more we understand about the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will be. And then, presumably, in some very diffuse, very inchoate way, the better our country will be.
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, Sitting at the Table
John Ashbery, This Once
John Ashbery, Hillbilly Airs and Dances
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