Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing

Robert Caro’s Working is a slim volume, but when readers come to the end, they might wish it had gone on as long as the colossal masterworks for which the historian is celebrated. In this delightful book, subtitled Researching, Interviewing, Writing, Caro looks back on a half century devoted to exploring the ins and outs of power, a journey he has taken through the lives and careers of just two men —  New York City’s famed “master builder” Robert Moses and 36th U.S. president Lyndon Johnson — but one that has made him one of the great cartographers of American politics.

Caro characterizes the book’s contents, which include new material as well as previously published essays and interviews, as “scattered, almost random,” but there is a through line. It concerns the author’s inability to take the shortcuts that have proven acceptable to other writers. Caro’s life as an author, which began after he spent about a decade as a reporter, has been animated by the quest to understand how political power is wielded and how it affects our lives, in particular the lives of the powerless. He attributes his meticulous research process in part to the advice of Alan Hathway, his editor at Newsday, who many years ago told the rookie reporter to “turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.”

For instance, Caro recalls that as he delved into the career of Robert Moses—the ruthless city planner whose 627 miles of highway, in addition to a multitude of bridges, parks, beaches, and housing projects, shaped 20th-century New York—he kept coming across “some version of the phrase ‘the human cost of highways’ with never a detailed examination of what the ‘human cost’ truly consisted of or how it stacked up against the benefits of highways.” Caro found himself incapable of proceeding with the manuscript that would become 1974’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker until he could bring that shopworn phrase to life.

”I felt I just had to try to show—to make readers not only see but understand and feel—what ‘human cost’ meant,” he writes. To do so, he located, with some difficulty, former residents of a Bronx neighborhood whose homes were demolished to make way for Moses’s Cross-Bronx Expressway in the 1950s. When he spoke to them about their lives after their neighborhood had been destroyed, “the general picture that emerged,” Caro recalls, “was a sense of profound, irremediable loss.” Those “human costs,” vividly conveyed, contribute significantly to the power of The Power Broker.

Caro describes other instances when he could have completed a section but instead kept hunting for information. LBJ’s early biographers addressed rumors that Johnson had stolen his 1948 Senate election, but, in Caro’s words, they all concluded with “some version of the statement: no one will ever know if it was really stolen.” Unsatisfied with that uncertainty, Caro, against all odds, located the man, Luis Salas, who was said to have altered a couple hundred votes for Johnson’s opponent into votes for Johnson, and got Salas, who had lied about his actions under oath, to tell him all about it. “I get asked why it takes me so long to produce my books,” Caro notes drily. “Let me tell you that trying to track down someone who has left the United States years before and returned to Mexico where he ‘moves around a lot’ is not a matter of hours.”

Caro is by now resigned to this quality within himself, writing, “I deserve neither admiration nor censure” for it. He nevertheless describes fighting this tendency on occasion, saying to himself, “Schmuck, this is what you always do. You don’t need any more details. This is the story you wanted… You got it—now just write it.” But inevitably, when he feels there is more information to be found or insight to be gained, he is compelled to keep digging.

This compulsion explains much about Caro’s career arc: why The Power Broker, which he had initially estimated would take nine months to complete, ended up taking nearly that many years; why he and his wife, Ina, who assists him with research, relocated to the Texas Hill Country for three years in the 1970s to better understand LBJ’s harsh childhood; why, at 83, he remains immersed in Johnson’s life, with the fifth and final volume of his monumental biography still several years from completion.

While stories of Caro’s investigative achievements are astonishing, the nuts-and-bolts details of his research and writing process are charming. (I was able to observe some of his process up close when I interviewed the author in 2002, upon the publication of Master of the Senate; I also experienced his graciousness when, following our conversation, he had his publisher send me copies of all of his previous works.) To ensure a deliberative pace, he writes early drafts in longhand before switching to a typewriter, a Smith-Corona Electra 210. He wears a jacket and tie to his office every day to remind himself that he’s at a job. He embarks on each book by spending weeks composing a couple of paragraphs that boil down the volume’s essence; “getting that boiled-down paragraph or two is terribly hard,” he admits, “but…my experience is that if you get it, the whole next seven years is easier.” During pauses in interviews, he jots “SU” in his notebook to tell himself to “shut up” so that his subjects will fill the silences.

It of course doesn’t hurt that the person with these industrious habits also happens to possess considerable literary gifts. Also significant is that he’s put them in service of an ambition that is particularly welcome and necessary today. “While I am aware that there is no Truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either…there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable,” he observes. “And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is.” The humility, the tenacity, the ardent desire to make his readers truly understand a subject, the decades spent taking care to produce something masterful and meaningful—all of it stands in stark contrast to the more punishing aspects of our information cycle. We might not deserve Robert Caro, but we’re certainly lucky to have him.