Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing by Robert A. Caro
Knopf, 207 pp.
By Michael Bobelian
As the “low man on the totem pole,” the acclaimed biographer Robert Caro was assigned to work Saturdays at Long Island’s Newsday early in his career. One day, an FAA official called the newspaper offering to share documents exposing a scheme benefiting local corporate executives at the expense of low-income college students. Forced to take on the assignment because veteran reporters were unavailable, the experience changed Caro’s life. “I will never forget that night,” Caro writes in Working. “There are certain times in your life when you suddenly understand something about yourself. I loved going through those files…. I felt at home.”
He also learned a valuable lesson. “Turn every page,” Alan Hathway, a brusque editor later told the impressionable reporter. “Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.”
Through a combination of essays and reprints of previous interviews, Working recounts Caro’s research and writing process in producing his award-winning biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses, the two men he has spent a half-century chronicling. While offering bountiful advice, Caro’s succession of colorful anecdotes keeps the memoir breezy and accessible. His masterful storytelling oozes out of every page, transforming seemingly mundane topics—combing through archives or traversing the barren hill country of Johnson’s youth, for instance—into stirring dramas.
Caro’s diligence stands in sharp contrast to the current media environment driven by instantaneous reactions and boundless conjecture. “It’s the research that takes the time,” he explains. Writing comes no faster to him. Starting his drafts in long hand before switching to a Smith-Corona Electra 210 typewriter, Caro purposefully slows down the process to think “things all the way through.”
His persistence jumps from nearly every page. In one episode, Caro relays the story of Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston, who had glorified Johnson’s childhood during his initial interviews with the author. To break through Sam’s wall of obfuscation, Caro brought him to Johnson’s family home, which had been preserved by the National Park Service. There, Caro sat Sam down at the dinner table and situated himself behind him. When Sam’s defenses came crashing down hours later, he renounced the rosy accounts he had recited in years past. The truth was that a bitter and combative relationship between Johnson and his father left the future president scarred. When Caro asked Sam to repeat “those wonderful stories” of Johnson’s early years, Sam responded: “I can’t…. Because they never happened.”
In another instance, Caro explains how reviewing reams of records at the Johnson Library that seemed to be a waste of time ultimately bore fruit, illuminating Johnson’s rapid yet inexplicable rise to power as a junior member of the House.
This fascination with political power is what inspired Caro to spend most of his adult life singularly focused on the lives of two men. “Why political power,” Caro asks? “Because political power shapes all of our lives.”
As the most consequential president of the post-WWII era and aptly named “Master of the Senate,” Johnson was a natural choice for Caro. Moses, an occupant of various obscure government agencies, was not an obvious “vessel” for examining “the essential nature . . . of political power,” however. “Yet here was a man . . .who had never been elected to anything,” Caro writes of Moses’s lordship over New York, “and he had enough power to turn around a whole state government.” Reading Caro’s description of Moses’s veiled influence—which surpassed that of any public official within the state over a span of decades—despite Moses’s lack of constitutional or legislative authority is an eye-opening experience, like discovering a hidden yet malevolent force at the center of a dystopian saga. “I came to feel that if what I had for so long wanted to do was to discover and disclose the fundamentals of true political power… then perhaps the best way to do that was through portraying the life of Robert Moses.”
Eager to broaden his exploration of power beyond these god-like figures, Caro conveyed the “effect of power on the powerless” throughout his books. Individual accounts of those who benefited from or were victimized by this use of power—such as African-Americans who won access to the ballot box after passage of Johnson’s voting rights bill or the New Yorkers whose communities were trampled by Moses’s unilateral decision to plow a highway through their neighborhoods—personalized the impact of the sweeping actions taken by Johnson and Moses.
Caro rarely strays beyond his professional life in these pages. Yet in the most intimate and revealing passage of the memoir, he addresses those who, eagerly anticipating the final volume of the Years of Lyndon Johnson series, have questioned why the 83-year-old author took time away from his magnum opus to publish Working. “I can do the math,” Caro writes, acknowledging the concerns that he may never finish Johnson’s biography. “I have so many thoughts about writing,” he offers as an explanation, “so many anecdotes about research, that I would like to preserve…. I decided that, just in case, I’d put some of them down on paper now.”
For anyone who reads this virtuoso expound upon his craft, Working will be worth the extra wait. “It takes time to write all this,” Caro explains. “Truth takes time.” At 83, he’s still trying to turn every page after all.
Michael Bobelian is a Contributing Writer at Forbes.com. He is the author of Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-Long Struggle for Justice, and his new book Battle For The Marble Palace: Abe Fortas, Earl Warren, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Forging of the Modern Supreme Court is forthcoming in May.