Working by Robert Caro

(New York: Knopf, 2019), 240

I thoroughly enjoyed Robert Caro's memoir Working about his life as a journalist and biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. And he's not just a biographer, unless that term expands to include researcher and storyteller and historian and psychologist of political power. I have not read his biographies yet, but I certainly will now knowing a bit more about why and how they were written.

Caro's relates how as a journalist he wrote some stories on Robert Moses but was nagged by the unanswered questions about how this man, never elected to political office, wielded such power. It was in attempting to answer that question that Caro found new purpose that would see him through many long years of hardship and insecurity before The Power Broker was published.

Caro's deep curiosity and relentless pursuit of the truth is evident again in his research for The Years of Lyndon Johnson. He tells of the rows upon rows of boxes of documents across several floors at the Johnson Presidential Library and the many long years spent with his wife studying the contents of those boxes, all to fulfill his mentor's advice to Turn every page. Never assume anything. Nothing speaks to his dedication more than the fact that he is still, at 85 years old, more than 40 years after he started, research and writing to complete his volumes on Johnson.

Caro's biographies are of course about more than Moses and Johnson, and he states his purpose as illuminating the times of these men and the forces that molded those times. I found impressive the lengths to which he has gone to also illuminate the lives of powerless impacted by these powerful men. In Moses' case it is farmers and tenement dwellers who saw their homes and communities condemned for the completion of one of his great public works projects. For Johnson it is the farmers of the rural hill country in Texas who so benefited from his efforts to bring electricity to the region. Caro and his wife even moved to the hill country for three years to earn the trust of these people and learn more about their lives and the young Lyndon Johnson, who turned out to be rather different than the one depicted in previous biographies.

Caro's fascination with Moses and Johnson is how they obtained and exercised political power. He has a great line near the end of his memoir where he says that power does not always corrupt someone, but it does always reveal the truth about someone. We all have power in certain domains of our lives—what does our exercise of this power reveal about us?

Notes

  • "I never had the slightest interest in writing the life of a great man. From the very start I thought of writing biographies as a means of illuminating the times of the men I was writing about and the great forces that molded those times—particularly the force that is political power." (3)
  • "I always liked finding out how things work and trying to explain them to people." (5)
  • "If I could find out where Robert Moses got his power—this power that no one understood; this power that nobody else was really even thinking about, the power was just sort of there, it had been there for more than four decades—if I could explain it, I would be adding something to the knowledge people ought to have about political power, no the kind of things you learn in a textbook but the raw naked realities of power, about how power works in cities, how it really works." (14-15)
  • "To really show political power, you had to show the effect of power on the powerless, and show it fully enough so the reader could feel it." (61)
  • On community in your work: upon joining the Allen Room of writers at the New York public library and hearing that his 5 years of work on The Power Broker so far was reasonable given 7 and 9 years others had been working: "In a couple of sentences, these two men—idols of mine—had wiped away five years of doubt." (77)
  • Research advice he received: "Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page." (84)
  • "There had been a lot of stolen elections in American political history; it wouldn't be exaggerating much, in fact, to say that the stealing of elections was an integral part of that history." (112)
  • Daily Routine/Writing (162-163, 200):

    • get up at 7 and put on jacket and tie to remind himself he's going to a job and has to produce

    • outline writing while walking to work through Central Park

    • start the day by reading what he wrote the previous day

    • write first drafts in longhand (pen or pencil on narrow-lined white legal pads), then on typewriter

    • Context Switching: "Any interruption is a shock, a real jolt." (162)

    • Unwind at the end of the day with single-malt Scotch or Weller 107

  • "An executive order...is just a piece of paper and can be repealed by another piece of paper. But to write it in the books of law–once you succeed in that it's not so easy to change." (172)
  • "My book are an examination of what power does to people. Power doesn't always corrupt...But what power always does is reveal, because when you're climbing, you have to conceal from people what it is you're really willing to do, what it is you want to do. But once you get enough power, once your'e there, where you wanted to be all along, then you can see what the protagonist wanted to do all along, because now he's doing it." (206)

Created: 2021-10-09
Updated: 2021-11-09

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