Evan Thomas is the author of “First: Sandra Day O’Connor.”
By Robert A. Caro. Knopf.
207 pp. $25
About 30 years ago, before writing the biography of a powerful Washington lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams, I decided to motivate myself by reading the introduction to “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s massive biography of New York City shaper Robert Moses. Caro’s writing was so rich, so penetrating, so vivid — so impossibly good — that I immediately lay down and took a nap.
Caro has been inspiring and intimidating writers for years. His work is the gold standard of deep-dive biography; he has become an almost mythic figure, the Ahab of nonfiction, relentless in the ever-elusive pursuit of truth. In “Working,” he shares tips on researching, interviewing and writing, showcased in wonderful, revealing, often funny anecdotes. “Working” is a slender volume, but its real theme goes far beyond authorial tradecraft. Caro’s own life has been an epic of human endeavor, a tale of obsession.
Caro spent eight years producing his 700,000-word book on Moses (he had to cut more than 350,000 words). He has been chasing and chronicling Lyndon Johnson since 1976. Caro writes that he has no interest in writing the lives of great men: His subject is power. As a reporter for the Long Island paper, Newsday, he realized that Moses, the city parks commissioner, had more power than any of the dozen or so mayors and governors he had served under for four decades. He had transformed the New York metropolitan area with hundreds of miles of bridges and highways, opening up thousands of acres of parks and beaches to the average citizen but also displacing about a quarter of a million people, many of them poor.
When Caro set out to discover how Moses accomplished all this, his subject threatened to punish anyone who spoke to the author. Faced with such resistance, other scribes might have returned to daily journalism. Caro persevered, boring in from the outside before Moses finally agreed to speak to him — seven times, until Caro confronted him about a shady deal. Denied access to his official papers, Caro found carbon copies in a dank garage. In 1975, “The Power Broker” won Caro the Pulitzer Prize, his first of two.
Along the way, Caro went broke. His wife had to sell their house, without telling him first. Instead of speeding up, Caro intentionally slowed down. He still writes in longhand, copying drafts with an old-fashioned typewriter. When he interviews people, he often writes himself a reminder in his notebook: “SU” — for “shut up!” Caro understands that human nature abhors a vacuum. Keep quiet and interview subjects will talk — eventually.
Having blown open urban power, Caro set his sights on national power. He told his forbearing wife, Ina, who is his trusted researcher, that they would be moving to the Hill Country of Texas for three years to begin work on the early life of LBJ. “Why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?” asked Ina. (Many years before, Caro promised his wife that after he finished his biography of Moses — in about nine months, he predicted at the time — they could move to Paris.) A city boy himself, Caro was so determined to capture the sense of place in the lonely hills of Central Texas that he slept some nights near the Johnson ranch in a sleeping bag.
Caro’s motto, borrowed from his old newspaper editor, is “turn every page.” When he got to the Johnson presidential library, he saw row upon row of boxes of papers — 40,000 boxes. After feeling sick to his stomach, he and Ina began the usually tedious, occasionally thrilling work of digging and sifting through as many as possible of the 32 million pages of documents. In a box labeled “General-Unarranged” in Johnson’s congressional files, he found documents that showed how LBJ channeled oil money to other congressmen to enhance his power. It had been long rumored that Johnson stole the 1948 election that propelled him to the U.S. Senate. After months of searching in Texas and Mexico, Caro found the man, the ballot counter, who actually did the deed.
There was always one more phone call to make, one more piece of paper to read. Caro writes that couldn’t stop if he wanted to. He had to know. Caro, the biographer, would surely demand to know: Why? Caro, the memoirist, is unforthcoming. In part, he is an old-school newspaperman who dislikes employing the first-person pronoun. He wants us to know how he gets inside the secret lives of other people. “In doing this,” he writes, “I have also provided, I’m afraid, a few glimpses into me.”
He does hope to write an eventual full-bodied memoir, but only after finishing his fifth and final volume of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.” Caro is 83 years old. As he sardonically puts it, “Do the math.”
Caro is still putting on his coat and tie every morning and going to his spare office with its manual typewriter, cranking out 1,000 words a day. But he will not be rushed. “If there is a question that annoys Caro more than ‘Do you like Lyndon Johnson?’ ” writes one Caro interviewer, “it is, ‘When will the next book be published?’ ” He has an enormous challenge ahead, of reconciling his hero, LBJ, champion of civil rights, with his villain, LBJ, prosecutor of the war in Vietnam, all while stuffing his entire presidency into one volume. Could it be that Robert Caro is intimidated by Robert Caro? Doubtful, but writing truth to power takes time.
By Robert A. Caro
Knopf. 207 pp. $25