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Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, Robert A. Caro

Reviewed by Meena Bose

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Robert Caro’s monumental study of Robert Moses (The Power Broker) and multivolume (four books completed and a fifth in progress) work on Lyndon B. Johnson comprise years of intensive data collection about each individual’s formative years, strategic advancement in public leadership and political power, and mastery of policymaking. To develop these unique and authoritative biographies, Caro undertakes a daunting research agenda that includes comprehensive scrutiny of the public archival record, interviews with numerous people who knew or worked with Moses or LBJ, and immersion in the physical setting that molded each individual. In Working, Caro takes readers into his world of analyzing how these two leaders acquired and used political power, providing an inside look at the diligent, indefatigable search for truth underlying these unparalleled biographies.

The advice that has guided Caro throughout his writing career, first as a journalist and then in his books, comes from an editor who memorably said, “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page” (p. 11). Caro heeded this advice when he began working on the Moses book, which he decided to write after learning that Moses, as commissioner of New York City’s Department of Parks, had succeeded in getting state approval for a study to construct a new bridge, despite multiple traffic and pollution concerns. As Caro writes, Moses “had enough power to turn around a whole state government in one day” (p. 13).

To understand how Moses directed the creation of expressways, bridges, parks, and much more in New York, without ever holding elected office, Caro conducted exhaustive research. He turned pages of documents in the Parks Department spanning 30 years, studied many other archival records, spoke with people who had worked with Moses or had been personally affected by his decisions, interviewed Moses seven times, and traversed areas in New York City and Long Island where Moses had walked years earlier and envisioned how these places could be transformed. Caro, with the indispensable research assistance of his wife, Ina, took eight years to write the book, which upon publication was 700,000 words—350,000 fewer than the final draft Caro had originally prepared.

After completing the Moses biography, Caro decided to focus on an individual who had exercised significant political power nationally. LBJ’s ability as Senate majority leader and eventually president to win votes for landmark legislation demonstrated how a single person could forge through seemingly intractable problems. With civil rights, for example, LBJ succeeded in enacting historic laws despite long-standing political opposition. Caro writes, “I wanted to figure out how he changed the votes” (p. 82).

Figuring that out required learning about Johnson’s upbringing and how it shaped his personality and ambitions, so the Caros moved to the Hill County of Texas for three years. As they learned about LBJ’s upbringing, they also learned about the grueling work in people’s daily lives before LBJ and that the federal government brought electricity and other resources to the area. The challenge of getting enough water for daily needs, for example, entailed multiple trips to draw heavy buckets of water from deep wells and carry them home. Hearing about the relentless labor, much done by women, in the 1930s and 1940s, Caro resolved that the LBJ project would “tell the history of America during the years of Lyndon Johnson; this was a significant part of that history, and I wanted… had to tell it, or at least to try” (p. xvi).

Caro ultimately organizes the study into a five-volume biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The first volume traces LBJ’s upbringing and entry into politics; the second volume examines LBJ’s work in the U.S. House of Representatives; the third volume analyzes LBJ’s masterful Senate leadership; the fourth volume evaluates LBJ’s transition from the vice presidency to the presidency and early leadership after the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963; and the fifth volume, in progress, examines the accomplishments and shortcomings of LBJ’s presidency during the tumultuous 1960s.

While Caro’s comparatively brief description in Working of his approach to biography is hardly a full memoir (which he says will follow the last LBJ volume), it gives readers a window into a research and writing process that is like none other. His immersion in a subject’s formative years, painstaking archival work, and numerous interviews represent a formidable investigative agenda that is essential to understanding these individuals as Caro wants readers to see them. The distance that either the subjects or their families in both cases eventually set from Caro’s work is instructive about the thorough and sometimes uncomfortable portrait of how each leader acquired, maintained, and used power.

Whether Caro’s model of biography will be used in the twenty-first century, when the ability of a single political leader to fundamentally direct and shape policy is unclear, remains to be seen. Regardless, Caro’s book about his life’s work is essential reading for anyone who wants to learn how to study the uses, responsibilities, and cautionary lessons of political power.

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