Robert Caro: (Obsessively) Working

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Robert Caro might well go down in history as the greatest American biographer of all time. Through two monumental biographies, one of Robert Moses – perhaps the most powerful man in New York City’s history – and the other an epic multivolume treatment of the life and times of Lyndon Johnson – perhaps the president who wielded the greatest political power of any in American history – Caro has illuminated what power and especially political power is all about, and the lengths men will go to acquire and hold on to it. Part deep psychological profiles, part grand portraits of their times, Caro has made the men and the places and times indelible. His treatment of individuals, while as complete as any that can be found, is in some sense only a lens through which one understands the world at large, but because he is such an uncontested master of his trade, he makes the man indistinguishable from the time and place, so that understanding Robert Moses through “The Power Broker” effectively means understanding New York City in the first half of the 20th century, and understanding Lyndon Johnson through “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” effectively means understanding America in the mid 20th century.

By drawing up this grand landscape, Caro has become one of the most obsessive and exhaustive non-fiction writers of all time, going to great lengths to acquire the most minute details about his subject, whether it’s tracking down every individual connected with a specific topic or interviewing them or spending six days a week in the archives. He worked for seven years on the Moses biography, and has worked an incredible forty-five years on the years of Lyndon Johnson. At 83 his fans are worried, and they are imploring him to finish the fifth and last volume as soon as possible. But Caro shows no sign of slowing down.

In “Working”, Caro takes the reader behind the scenes of some of his most important research, but this is not an autobiography – he helpfully informs us that that long book is coming soon (and anyone who has read Caro would know just how long it will be). He describes being overwhelmed by the 45 million documents in the LBJ library and the almost equal number in the New York Public Library, and obsessively combing through them every day from 9 AM to 6 PM cross-referencing memos, letters, government reports, phone call transcripts, the dreariest and most exciting written material and every kind of formal and informal piece of papers with individuals who he would then call or visit to interview.

But he also talks about the sheer excitement and pleasure he encountered, thinking of the countless mysteries hidden in the LBJ archive, or using the Allen Room at the NYPL for his research. Anyone who has done any kind of archival research will know the feeling of approaching old documents with a feeling of mystery and excitement and great expectations about what one would find in them. The pillar of strength standing beside Caro has been his wife Ina, and she has accompanied him to the archives, hunted down documents, and softened up the women of the Texas Hill Country for her husband to interview. She may not have co-written his books, but she is in every way his co-researcher. Robert and Ina mortgaged their house to pay for the research for the Moses biography, and he tells us how, after the biography was finally published, Ina told him that they could finally afford to do dry cleaning again. This is a man who has turned the process of research and writing into a world-class ultra-marathon unlike any before.

The scope emerging from all that research is stunning – Caro interviewed 522 people for the Moses biography and thousands for the LBJ books. Many of these individuals were very reluctant to talk and had to be cajoled through many visits, some like Lady Bird Johnson abruptly stopped talking to him, and others like LBJ’s press secretary Bill Moyers have never agreed to talk to him. Along the way he offers some clever advice for interviewing; for instance he attests to how important the art of listening and letting the other person speak is, and says that the George Smiley character from John Le Carre’s books used a technique in which he would polish his glasses with his necktie to fill pauses and silences during his interviews; Caro’s tactic is to look down at his notepad and write “SU” for “Shut Up” until the other person speaks.

This quality was tested well when he interviewed Lady Bird Johnson and she suddenly launched into a surprisingly candid narrative on one of LBJ’s mistresses. And it was tested when he interviewed Margaret and Robert Brown who were bullied and threatened with death when trying to register as African-American voters in Eufala, Alabama in the early 60s. Many of these interviews will be familiar to those who have read Caro’s works, because they form the basis of some of the most riveting stories in his narratives. The writing itself is, if not exactly a breeze, an easy affair after all that painstaking, exhausting research, and Caro still does all of his on a Smith Corona Electra 2010 after making drafts in longhand on paper. He has fourteen of them just to make sure he has enough, and worries that three of them are breaking down; he orders cotton spools from a Pittsburgh specialty shop and types “black and heavy”.

Perhaps the most poignant account of an interview in the book is when he spoke to Sam Houston, LBJ’s brother, about the terrible arguments and shouting matches LBJ and his father Sam Ealy Johnson used to have at the dinner table when the boys were young. Sam Johnson had been a proud state senator who knew everyone in town, but he lost most of his money through a foolish decision to pay an extravagant amount of money to buy back the Johnson family ranch, money he could never recover because of bad investing decisions. After that Sam Johnson became an object of mockery and pity, and Lyndon couldn’t stand that; all through his life he was haunted by not wanting to be poor and not wanting to be an object of mockery, and these feelings go a long way in explaining his obsessive need to gain power and to dominate other men. Caro wanted to capture exactly what those arguments between Lyndon and his father were like down to the last detail, and for this he decided to secure permission from the National Park Service to sit with Sam inside a replica of the Johnson family living room in Johnson City, Texas. After disappearing in the background, he waited and watched as Sam Houston lost himself in the grip of memory: “I can still see the scene – see the little, stunted, crippled man sitting at that long plank table, see the shadows in the room, see myself, not wanting to move lest I break the spell, sitting there with my notebook against the wall saying, “Tell me those wonderful stories again.”

His obsession with detail was legendary. He woke up at 5 AM for a few days and trotted out to Capitol Hill in Washington to get a sense of how hopeful Johnson must have felt when treading the same path while starting his political career in 1932 and working 18 hours a day to make his name known. And he talks about deciding to actually live in the Hill Country of Texas where Johnson grew up to get people there who knew Johnson to open up to him; he and Ina lived there for the most part of three years.  He slept in a sleeping bag in the rural Hill Country to get a sense of how lonely and scared LBJ’s mother must have felt at night, with the lights out, when Johnson Sr. was away on legislative business. And, encouraged by an old woman in the Hill Country who asked him whether he, a city boy, knew anything about how hard life in her young days was, he performed the backbreaking work of drawing heavy buckets of water from wells, washing clothes in vats and moving them from one vat to another himself to get an idea of how arduous life in the then unelectrified Texas Hill Country was in the 1930s, and how indebted the residents were when Congressman Lyndon Johnson brought them the gift of electricity. After speaking with the Hill Country’s old women about the trials and tribulations of childbirth and that backbreaking domestic work, Ina was just furious with all those John Wayne Westerns which portrayed the frontier as belonging to gun slinging cowboys, with the women as props in the background; in truth the frontier belonged as much to the women she spoke to, the ones who suffered perineal tears during childbirth and had to haul buckets of waters up the hill and cook and clean with primitive implements. And just as the middle class-bred Caro was shocked by the tales of poverty in the Hill Country, so does he recount being shocked by the poverty and filth in New York City tenements whose residents Robert Moses relocated cruelly for his grand engineering projects to transform the New York City skyline. Or by the farmer whose field could have been saved had Moses moved a planned expressway by about 400 feet.

A man with boundless energy and passion, Robert Caro will not stop until he drops. At 83 he says he has the same energy that he had twenty years ago, and still spends five days a week from 9 AM to 5 AM in the Austin archives and in his New York office. Every day he wears a suit and tie and walks to his office in Columbus Circle; the suit and tie impose a sense of discipline on him that he has maintained without flagging for more than forty-five years. Because he is a rather private man who prefers working and writing to talking, this book is as close as we can get to understanding his work ethic, his research philosophy and his thought process. That is, until we get to read his thousand-plus page autobiography, and hear those wonderful stories again. Carry on, Mr. Caro.