"I was never interested in writing biography just to show the life of a great man," Robert A. Caro once told Kurt Vonnegut, who interviewed him for Hampton Shorts. What Caro wanted to do instead "was to use biography as a means of illuminating the times and the great forces that shape the times -- particularly political power."
As an idealistic reporter for Newsday on Long Island, the young Robert Caro thought he understood how political power worked. He had written several prize-winning investigative pieces, including a series denouncing a bridge project proposed by public-works developer Robert Moses. When Caro's editor sent him to Albany to lobby against the bridge, he met with legislators and explained why the project was a terrible idea. The legislators agreed with him -- until Moses made his own trip to Albany and changed their minds.
"I remember driving back home that night and thinking that it was really important that we understand this kind of political power, and that if I explained it right -- how Robert Moses got it and what was its nature, and how he used it -- I would be explaining the essential nature of power," Caro told Vonnegut.
Caro left his job at Newsday to write a biography of Moses, a project he estimated would take one year. It took seven. During that time, Caro scraped by on a Carnegie Fellowship and the advance from his publisher -- an amount so small that he and his wife were forced to sell their house to make ends meet. But Caro persevered, constructing his story of back-room politics from scores of interviews and drawers full of old carbon copies. When his editor at Simon & Schuster left, Caro was free to seek a new editor, and a new publisher. Robert Gottlieb at Knopf shepherded The Power Broker into print in 1974. It would eventually be chosen by Modern Library as one of the best 100 books of the 20th century.
Caro then began work on his magnum opus, a projected four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, spending years not only on the research trail but in the Texas hill country where Johnson grew up. The Path to Power, volume one of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, was published in 1982 to thunderous critical acclaim. Means of Ascent appeared in 1990, followed by Master of the Senate in 2002. Each successive volume has sent critics scurrying for new superlatives to describe Caro's "grand and absorbing saga" (Ron Chernow). "[Master of the Senate] reads like a Trollope novel, but not even Trollope explored the ambitions and gullibilities of men as deliciously as Robert Caro does," Anthony Lewis wrote in The New York Times Book Review.
Among Caro's fans are a number of politicians, including former Senate majority leader Thomas Daschle. "I think the thing you learn from reading that magnificent book is that every day, this body makes history," he told Roll Call after reading Master of the Senate. Even British politicians are hooked: one member of Parliament considered sending a note urging the author to speed up publication.
But time is an essential ingredient of Caro's work, whether he's wheedling an interview out of Johnson's cardiologist or writing and rewriting his chapters in longhand before banging out the final text on an old Smith-Corona. And he has no intention of expanding his research team of one: his wife, Ina. Readers eager for the final installment of the Johnson saga will simply have to follow Caro's example, and be patient.
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From the May/June 2002 edition of Book magazine.
Robert Caro has been running behind schedule for the last 30 years. It may just be the secret to his success. The story started back in the 1960s, when Caro assured friends it would take him just nine months to write his first book. The author even swore to his wife, Ina, that they'd finally have a chance to visit Paris after he was finished.
That book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, took Caro seven years to complete. Now that the author has written three volumes of his epic biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, which began with 1982's The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, he's no longer surprised when he misses a deadline. He expects it.
"Each book has required me to learn another world," explains Caro, who once predicted that Master of the Senate, the forthcoming installment, would hit the presses a couple of years after 1990's Means of Ascent. Adds Caro's editor Robert Gottlieb, "Caro just works harder and longer and gets it right."
Whether Caro "gets it right" has been a matter of debate among Johnson loyalists, who have accused the author of harboring a bias against his subject. "Reviewers have said that my work is more balanced and judicious," explains Robert Dallek, author of a two-volume LBJ biography, "but Caro's clearly a brilliant writer. He engages his reader in a way that I don't have the talent or the inclination to do."
To get a better sense of his subject, Caro repeatedly traveled to Washington, where he mingled with those who had played behind-the-scenes roles during Johnson's ascent. "I really needed a tremendous amount of cooperation from the sort of people who in the 1950s wouldn't have talked much with reporters," Caro explains. "When I started, I would go to the Senate gallery and sit there all day. The tourists would go in and out, and so would the reporters in the press gallery. I'd stay. I was the nut up in the balcony."
Caro is sure his persistence will pay off. "I think readers will see more startlingly than ever before Johnson's genius, the savagery of his determination to accomplish what he wants to accomplish," he says of the new volume, which depicts Johnson maneuvering politicians as if he were playing chess.
Whereas Caro had originally intended his life of Johnson to be a two-volume work, he now assures that the fourth volume will be the last. To explore the world of Johnson's presidency, he and Ina (Caro's partner in research as well as marriage) plan to live in a small Southern city to investigate the effects of Johnson's civil rights legislation on African-Americans, and visit communities that were bombed during the Vietnam War to witness the fallout from his presidency.
When will the book be finished? "Four months from now," Caro replies with a hearty laugh. (Don McLeese)
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