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‘Studies in Power’: An Interview with Robert Caro

Phil Penman
Robert Caro, New York, December 2017

A curious security guard at a venerable Manhattan office building near Columbus Circle inquired what sort of work the man I was visiting did—was he a lawyer?

“No,” I answered. “Robert Caro is an author. He writes books.” 

He certainly does. Caro has won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards. When the Society of American Historians honored his work with the Francis Parkman Prize, it was noted that Caro “best exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist.” His first work, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974), chronicled how an unelected official shaped the destiny of the nation’s foremost city. Since 1977, Caro has been writing what will be a five-volume biography of the thirty-sixth president of the United States, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. At this moment, in 2018, he can visualize an end to what has been the center of his life for more than forty years. He doesn’t know when he’ll finish the fifth and final volume—two years, five, ten? But, at eighty-two, Caro is considering new projects.

We spoke for three hours on a recent frozen afternoon. What follows is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.


Claudia Dreifus: It’s been four years since Knopf released The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of your five-volume Lyndon B. Johnson biography. That ended in Johnson’s first months in the White House—1963 through early 1964. Where are you now with the final volume?

Robert Caro: Well, I’m not doing a section that’s chronological. I’m writing about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy.

Kennedy plays such a large role in this volume that it’s almost as if he’s the protagonist. They hated each other. That becomes a very interesting thing in this book because a surprising amount of what Johnson did was in reaction to what he thought Bobby Kennedy would do.

So, you asked where I am now: I’m writing about 1965 and 1966.

That was a pivotal moment in American history—when Lyndon Johnson made a series of decisions that irretrievably moved the US into a land war in Asia.

Right. So I’m past the moment when Johnson has beaten Goldwater. Between January and July of 1965, he’s passed the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, twelve different education bills, a liberalized immigration law and much of the War on Poverty. What he’s done is a great drama of legislative genius, almost without precedent. The Voting Rights Act: I wonder if we’d have it today—and what we have is still significant, even after the 2014 Supreme Court decision to strike down Section 5—if there hadn’t been a Lyndon Johnson to seize that moment.

And at the same time that he was passing this legislation, he was secretly planning to escalate the Vietnam War.

It’s fascinating. I don’t know if I can write it well enough. But it’s almost unbelievable. You can see these great ambitions, which Johnson is on the way to realizing, get swallowed up by Vietnam. You can follow it almost minute by minute.

Did you watch the recent PBS Ken Burns/Lynn Novick series on Vietnam?

No. Well, yes. But I’m trying to keep my head out of Vietnam. I’m doing a section now that’s in a different mood, and I’m trying to finish it. So I will watch the entire series. To tell you the truth, I saw the first three episodes and then I said [to myself], “You’d better stop because you’re thinking about Vietnam now.”

If you start to think about Vietnam, it’s hard to think of anything else.

Do you think there was something personal to Lyndon Johnson, something in his character, that made the escalation of the war inevitable?

The answer is partially yes. It’s not the only factor, of course. Forgive me if I don’t talk about that. In the early 1960s, when I was a young reporter at Newsday, if you wanted to get your story up front, you had to sell it to three different editors. I found then that by the time I’d “sold” my story, I had no interest in writing it anymore.

Did I read somewhere that you were planning to travel to Vietnam to research this volume. Have you done that yet?

Not yet, no. This is a very long book. And there’s a lot to do before that’s necessary. I’m getting close to it now. I want to go to the sites of some of the big battles and to the some of the villages. Lyndon Johnson used to pick bombing targets himself, sometimes. I want to go to those villages.

More than many biographers, you do extensive field research. What do you find in the field you might not find in a library or on the internet?

Oh, that’s such a good question. I go to get a sense of place. I think the sense of place is just as important in non-fiction as it is in fiction. I’m convinced that whenever you go into the field, whether you know it or not, you’re absorbing a lot.

So, when I began the Lyndon Johnson books, my wife, Ina, and I moved to Texas for the better part of three years. Ina, is, of course, the only person besides myself who did research on the Johnson books.

We’d work all day in the Johnson Library in Austin and then at five, I’d drive out to the Hill Country, where Lyndon Johnson had grown up, to do interviews. Driving out there, seeing the emptiness of the place, gave me a feeling for the incredible loneliness, isolation, and poverty he’d grown up with. I came to feel it had shaped Lyndon Johnson.

David Levine
Robert Moses

Sometimes, you find insights in some surprising places. While working on my first book [about Robert Moses], The Power Broker, at a certain moment, we’d run through a $5,000 advance and needed money to finish the book. To buy some more time for me to write it, Ina sold our house on Long Island and we moved to an apartment in Riverdale. From our window there, we could see the very spot where the Hudson River and the Harlem River came together. It’s at the Henry Hudson Bridge, built by Robert Moses. I later learned that Moses had actually changed the course of the river by doing this! Whenever I looked out of my window, I thought, “My God, this is a guy who changed the very landscape of New York, the physical contours.”

The scope of what he did: it was staring me in the face.

About The Power Broker: Knopf published it in 1974 as a 1,200-page volume (not counting the notes). I’ve heard it was originally a much longer book. True?

Well, the finished version I gave to my editor, Bob Gottlieb, was about 1,050,000 words. That was a polished finished version, not a draft. The book you read is roughly 700,000 words, or 1,280 pages, the maximum that Knopf’s production people felt they could get into a trade book.  

At the time, I asked, “Can’t we do it in two volumes?” Bob Gottlieb answered, “I might get people interested in Robert Moses once. I could never get them interested in him twice.”

Cutting the book down must have been difficult.

I don’t want to pretend: it was hard. The cuts are the equivalent of two novels. Whole chapters were cut. It took months to do it.

It was a huge job: rewriting, shortening stuff. Somehow, the section that I wrote on Jane Jacobs disappeared. To this day, when someone says: “There’s hardly a mention of Jane Jacobs,” I think, “but I wrote a lot about her.” Every time I’m asked about that, I have this sick feeling.

So, when I decided to do Lyndon Johnson, I said, “I want to do it in volumes because this time I don’t want to cut anything that I feel people should know.”

Did your editor agree to five volumes?

I originally thought it was going to be three. Bob readily agreed to three. I thought the first volume would go up through Lyndon Johnson’s race for the Senate. But then, I said, “No, I have to show people the Hill Country and what he grew up with.” Then we have a stolen election. That became the second book. All along, my aim was to explain the reality of how power works in a democracy. Stolen elections are a surprisingly big part of that reality.

David Levine
Lyndon B. Johnson

And then, I thought, you’ve got to show what the Senate was before Lyndon Johnson led it, which was basically the same dysfunctional mess it is today. During Johnson’s six years as majority leader, the Senate became the center of governmental ingenuity and creativity. So, there I had another book. And then, the assassination and how a president takes over was yet another.

The final volume will be about Johnson and Vietnam and civil rights and about his death. He was young when he died: sixty-four.

You’ve been working on the Lyndon Johnson books for forty years. Do people ever ask what you’re going to do when you are finished with them?

They do. People always go, “You’ve been working on this book for seven years,” or whatever. I don’t even care anymore. When I was doing The Power Broker, after a year, friends went: “Is that the same book you’re still working on?” “Yes, it’s still the same book!”

When that came out and it had whatever recognition it had, I said to Ina, “We won’t have to be hearing that question anymore.” One year into the Johnson book and people started going, “Are you still working on same book?”

Now, I do have some plans for when it’s finished. I’ve written a lot of a memoir. It’s about the fights I had with Robert Moses and the Johnson people to write these books. There’s also another biography I’ve been thinking about to show some other aspects of power. I don’t want to say more, though.

Many biographers working on a long project complain that their subject has eaten up their life. Did that happen to you?

No. Because I don’t really regard my books as biographies. I’ve never had the slightest interest in writing a book to tell the life of a great man. I started The Power Broker because I realized that there was this man, Robert Moses, who had all this power and he had shaped New York for forty-four years. And nobody knew where this power was coming from, and neither did I. I regarded the book as a study of power in cities.

After I finished that, I wanted to do national power. I felt I could learn about how power worked on a national level by studying Lyndon Johnson. Rightly or wrongly, I regard all these books as studies in political power, not biography.

If a brash youngster showed up today, proposing a 1,200-page non-fiction work about a figure like Robert Moses, do you think—in the current cautious atmosphere—that writer could find a publisher?

If they’re good enough, they should be able to. It’s a cliché today that people’s attention spans are short. You know something? David McCullough’s book on Truman is roughly 1,100 pages and it has sold thousands of copies. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals is more than 700 pages and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. I’m sure Ron Chernow’s Grant will sell hundreds of thousands, too.

Was Lyndon Johnson still alive when you began researching your series?

He died in 1973. So, no.

I ask because many biographers say the ideal subject is someone who’s recently died. That way, your subject can’t interfere with your research and there are still plenty of sources around who can supply you with information and anecdotes. Did that maxim hold up for you?

I think there’s an obvious advantage to doing someone whose death was recent. You get a lot of insights by talking to people who knew them.

The tough side was what happened to me with Johnson’s people turning against me because I was asking too many questions. In the very beginning, the Johnson people were actually terribly cooperative. They invited me to all their parties. It seemed like someone was throwing a party in my honor every week. And then, all of a sudden, many of them stopped talking to me.

I think I know what happened. I started gathering information on the building of the Mansfield Dam, the rural electrification project near Austin, Texas. Congressman Lyndon Johnson played a major role in winning the construction contract for Brown & Root—the company that financed his political career. At a certain point, the Johnson people were talking with each other and I think they recognized that they’d each separately given me important pieces of the story. I think they may have gone, “Oh, no, he’s got the whole story.”

That said, I do think that the upside of writing about someone who has recently died outweighs the down. I must have had twenty interviews with George Reedy, [President] Johnson’s press secretary. With him, I could just pick up the phone and ask quickly, “When Johnson was talking with George Wallace, was he sitting in the rocker or the sofa?” “Uh… the rocker.”

Reedy died in 1999. As I write this last volume, I often wish I could talk to him or Johnson’s speech writer, Horace Busby.

What happened to him?

Busby had a stroke. Later, he wrote Ina and said, “All I could think when they were taking me to the hospital was, ‘Now, Bob won’t have anyone to tell him about the vice presidency.’”

Phil Penman
Robert Caro in his office, New York, December 2017

Is it true that you write your books by hand?

My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down. People don’t believe this about me: I’m a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.

When I was a student at Princeton. I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I’d give him a short story I’d produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, “Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want—you think with your fingers.”

Later, in the early 1960s when I was at Newsday, my speed was a plus. But when I started rewriting The Power Broker, I realized I wasn’t thinking deeply enough. I said, “You have to slow yourself down.” That’s when I remembered Blackmur’s admonition and started drafting by hand, which slows me down.

You receive substantial advances for your books. But each volume takes about a decade to produce. When you average it out, that can’t be lucrative.

With The Power Broker, money was difficult. I had a $5,000 advance and I went broke trying to write it. Things changed after 1971, when I moved the book from an earlier publisher to Knopf. Over the years, I’ve had nothing but unwavering support—financial and editorial—from them.

And the fact is that the last three books have been the No.1 best-sellers and they are used as textbooks in high schools and colleges. The Power Broker, at first, didn’t make a lot of money. Today, it’s in its fifty-first printing.

A technical question: your books range from 500 to 1,200 or so pages. How does an author keep track of the storyline when you’re writing such huge books?

I outline. I couldn’t outline The Power Broker, at first. There was too much material. For months, I couldn’t figure out how to organize the book.

Then, one day Robert Moses was giving a speech. Cardinal Spellman had given him an exedra, a huge marble bench for reflection. Moses was speaking at the dedication. In the front row were all these “Moses Men,” engineers, functionaries, officials. Moses said something like, “Let us sit on this bench and reflect on the ingratitude of man.” And in the front, I saw all these guys whispering. Yes, why weren’t they grateful to him?

And all of a sudden, I knew that was going to be the last line of the book. “Why weren’t they grateful?” I drove back home and started outlining.

I learned a lesson from that. Before I start a book, I must know the last line. If I can’t, I can’t do the book. Once I have it, I’ll write toward that last line.

Do you have a closing line for the last volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson?

Yes. Yes.

Would you tell me what it is?

[Laughs] No.