Issue 216, Spring 2016
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.