Reporting the Past

‘Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing’
Robert Caro (Penguin Random House)

Since I took only one journalism course in college, I had a lot of catching up to do when I became a daily newspaper reporter some forty years ago. Fortunately, I read Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. It became my textbook for understanding how political power works, and a technical manual for where to look for municipal corruption and double-dealing.

So anytime Caro speaks about his method, I listen. Now aged eighty-three and working on a fifth volume of his biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson, he has paused to pass along his ideas for researching, interviewing, and writing. Working includes previous articles and interviews—his fans may be familiar with some of this—along with some new material. If you’d like to hone these skills, I recommend this book strongly; I’d assign it to my college journalism students if I were still teaching. If you’d like to hear some entertaining war stories from a masterful writer, it’s also a good choice. If you’re looking for a searching memoir, however, this book is not it. Caro reports that he hopes to write such a book, but at his age, he can’t be sure of both accomplishing that and completing his portrait of Johnson. Hence this book, now.

For me, the most revealing detail comes early in the book, when Caro describes his introduction to research, interviewing, and writing as a young reporter at the Long Island newspaper Newsday in the 1960s. (I reported for Newsday in the 1980s and ’90s). Surprised that the recent Princeton graduate had shown savvy investigative skills, the managing editor, Alan Hathaway, gave him advice that helped shape his career: “turn every page” when going through a stack of documents. Then the editor took another step important to Caro’s development: he gave him a desk next to “an already legendary investigative reporter,” Bob Greene. Caro credits Greene and Hathaway with teaching him how to be a reporter. “And these weren’t lessons you’d be taught in journalism school,” he writes.

Greene, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who died in 2008, is recognized as a father of modern investigative reporting; his “Greene Team” is considered journalism’s first permanent investigative team. Like FBI agents, Greene’s reporters filed frequent memos to build a file on their target. Their investigations could take years: a Pulitzer-winning 1969 exposé of Long Island land deals took three years, an eternity in a newsroom—then and even more so now. Caro is among many accomplished investigative reporters Greene mentored. I don’t know if this kind of mentoring is as common in today’s overtaxed newsrooms as it once was, but for reporters of an earlier era, it very often left a lifelong imprint. It did in Caro’s case: his advice on research and interviewing essentially applies the techniques of investigative reporting, which he learned in those early years, to narrative history.

For Caro, a list is more than just a list. He uses lists to build a rhythm, then shifts the meter sharply in the last sentence.

These techniques have yielded many a memorable scoop. Caro shares the thrill of discovering the truth behind Johnson’s quick rise to power as a thirty-two-year-old member of Congress. After a prodigious chase through the 32 million–document collection of Johnson’s papers, Caro finally found a key piece of evidence in a bulging folder with the unpromising label “General—Unarranged.” It showed how even as a fledgling congressman, LBJ brokered power in Congress by funneling campaign donations from his benefactor, owners of the Texas contractor Brown & Root, to grateful colleagues. “For someone interested in the sources of political power, as I was, those boxes in the Johnson Library contained such clear evidence of the use to which economic power could be put to create political power,” Caro writes. He had followed his managing editor’s maxim to “turn every page.” It worked for him time and again.

There are other single-minded historical researchers, of course, and some employ teams of researchers or rely on their graduate students. (Caro relies on his wife, Ina, who obviously plays a big role in their work.) Where Caro differs is that unlike most academic historians, he is not content to rely on the documented record, and he is not shy about using aggressive interviewing techniques. In Working, he relates how he learned the basics of interviewing as an investigative reporter; his editors’ advice on squeezing information from reluctant officials sounds like a primer for law-enforcement agents. (Not coincidentally, Bob Greene had been an investigator for the U.S. Senate Rackets Committee and its counsel Robert F. Kennedy in the 1950s.)

Caro’s persistence and skill in interviewing helped distinguish his work on Johnson from seven previous biographies, which, he writes, related the same set of Horatio Alger anecdotes about LBJ’s youth. It wasn’t easy. Caro, a loquacious Manhattanite, found it difficult to interview the laconic women and men who’d grown up with Johnson. They often lived on isolated ranches in the Texas Hill Country. Their answers to his questions were honest but terse, as if they were taking a polygraph test. To break through, Caro and his wife moved to the Hill Country. In a characteristically long and rhythmic sentence, Caro writes:

I began to hear the details they had not included in the anecdotes they had previously told me—and they told me other anecdotes and longer stories, anecdotes and stories that no one had even mentioned to me before—stories about a Lyndon Johnson very different from the young man who had previously been portrayed: stories about a very unusual young man, a very brilliant young man, a very ambitious, unscrupulous and quite ruthless person, disliked and even despised, and, by people who knew him especially well, even beginning to be feared.

Caro provides details on some of his most successful interviews. Among them are Johnson’s classmates at Southwest Texas Teachers College, who told Caro that LBJ had fixed his election as senior representative on the Student Council; and Luis Salas, a county election judge who confirmed, after decades of rumors, that Johnson had stolen the 1948 Democratic primary runoff for U.S. Senate from a former governor, winning by eighty-seven votes. All this helped Caro illustrate Johnson’s character in ways that had not been done before—and show how LBJ’s ruthlessness grew out of his humiliation from growing up dirt poor after his father lost the family ranch. “Hundreds of writers—journalists and the authors of books—all agree that Lyndon Johnson was ruthless,” Caro writes. “I try to explain why he was ruthless—and a large part of the explanation is the place he came from.”

This deep sense of flawed character also drives Caro’s biography of Robert Moses (no relation to me, although the question has often been asked). Caro’s key insight was that Moses had figured out how to use public authorities to build a power base that made him more powerful than any elected official. Acquiescent mayors and governors piled titles on Moses: New York City parks commissioner and construction coordinator, head of New York State’s power commission and parks council, chairman of numerous public authorities. He held a dozen public jobs at the same time, and exploited the power they gave him.

In another writer’s hands, this could have made for an important but dull study that maybe would have alerted a small audience of academics, pundits, and urban-affairs journalists to the dangers of ceding too much power to public authorities. But Caro’s prose style is in a class of its own; it draws from the depth of his research in the way a hurricane strengthens as it crosses warm waters.

Caro, as his readers know, is a fan of lists. He recalls listing all the highways Moses built to convey the magnitude of his accomplishments: 

He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway.

Caro says he learned about the power of lists from The Iliad, “with the enumeration of all the nations and all the ships that are sent to Troy to show the magnitude and magnificence of the Trojan War.” For Caro, a list is more than just a list. He uses lists to build a rhythm, then shifts the meter sharply in the last sentence. “Rhythm matters. Mood matters. Sense of place matters,” he writes. “All these things we talk about with novels, yet I feel that for history and biography to accomplish what they should accomplish, they have to pay as much attention to these devices as novels do.”

Of course, none of that novelistic detail can be fabricated. Caro offers some useful interview tips on how to capture what really happened—how he pushes interviewees to recall exactly what a scene looked and sounded like. He went to such lengths as getting the National Park Service to open Johnson’s boyhood home so that he could interview LBJ’s younger brother, Sam Houston Johnson, at the long plank table in the dining room. He had Sam Houston re-create arguments LBJ had with their father over the dinner table: “You’re a failure, Lyndon, and you’re always going to be a failure.”

Caro succeeds at what he set out to do in Working—to show how and why he creates his books—but there is a larger story about the meaning of his work that is beyond his scope here. He hints at it late in the book:

There is evil and injustice that can be caused by political power, but there is also great good. It seems to me sometimes that people have forgotten this. They’ve forgotten, for example, what Franklin Roosevelt did: how he transformed people’s lives. How he gave hope to people. Now people talk in vague terms about government programs and infrastructure, but they’ve forgotten the women of the Hill Country and how electricity changed their lives. They’ve forgotten that when Robert Moses got the Triborough Bridge built in New York, that was infrastructure. . . . We certainly see how government can work to your detriment today, but people have forgotten what government can do for you.

Is Caro expressing second thoughts about having exposed such deep flaws in two of the most accomplished public figures of the twentieth century? When Johnson was president, some three-quarters of the American public trusted “the government in Washington always or most of the time,” according to Pew Research Center polling. The number slipped sharply over the next decade and after some ups and downs was at 17 percent in March. The question of how much the media—using this plural term broadly—contributed to the public’s cynicism about government can’t be ignored. Caro’s great biographies illustrate the wonders both Johnsons and Moses worked in the public arena, and yet the focus is on how power finally corrupted and crippled them. I hope Caro does write that memoir. 

Working
Researching, Interviewing, Writing

Robert A. Caro
Knopf, $25, 240 pp.

Published in the September 2019 issue: 

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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