Book review: “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing” by Robert A. Caro

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Book review: “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing” by Robert A. Caro

For more than half a century — for 52 years, to be exact — Robert A. Caro has been working full-time to research, understand and write about power in America.

He has done this by looking at the lives of two men. 

First, it was Robert Moses, the unelected holder of a host of appointive offices that he used to reshape the face of New York City — and the result was Caro’s 1974 book The Power Broker (1,336 pages).

Then, he turned his sights on Lyndon B. Johnson, one of the greatest and worst of American presidents — and the result, so far, has been four installments of a series titled The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1990), The Means of Ascent (1991), Master of the Senate (2003) and The Passage of Power (2013). 

A fifth and final volume is in the works, and Caro has told Time magazine that he has already written about 100,000 words.  That sounds like a lot, but, with Caro, it isn’t.

When he wrote The Power Broker, Caro submitted a manuscript that was deemed to be too long, and, as he notes in his new memoir Working, he had to cut 350,000 words.

He had to remove 350,000 words from his manuscript.

Caro had turned in 1,050,000 words, so he had had to cut more than a third of his book.  Even so, the 1,336-page work — that reached bookstore shelves four decades ago and has been lauded ever since — contained 700,000 words.

The Moses book and the four LBJ books published so far — noted for Caro’s painstaking research, his unrivaled ability to synthesize huge amounts of information, his unrivalled storytelling skill and his willingness to work for years digging into the actions, backgrounds and personalities of his subjects — total 4,714 pages.

Or, roughly, about 2.5 million words.

The point is that Caro works hard.  He works long.  He is meticulous to what would be a fault if it weren’t so richly rewarding.

So, why, in nearly the final page of his memoir Working, does Caro tell an interviewer?

“I’m naturally lazy.”

The way he does his job

The full title of this memoir is Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing.  The point, Caro writes, is to use this collection of essays he’s written, old and new, as well as two published interviews, to give an insight into the way he goes about his work:

  • Research: “Turn every page,” a mentor once told him, for instance.  Another lesson he learned on his own: to physically experience as closely as possible what his subjects saw or felt in order to be able to write about it, famously employing former NBA star U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley as a stand-in for the similarly tall LBJ in order to get a sense of how Johnson loomed over the chamber.
  • Writing: Caro writes his early drafts with a pen on narrow-lined white legal-size pads to slow himself down, and he rewrites over and over and over, even into the verboten galley stage, and
  • Interviewing:  It may seem counter-intuitive, but Caro has gotten great results by making his interview subjects feel a bit uncomfortable.  One way, by repeatedly asking them the same question over and over until the subject’s memory is jarred, and new details are elicited.  And keeping quiet, and letting the unsettling silence deepen.

“The weapon”

That keeping quiet — Caro devotes an entire essay to it.  An essay that is made up of just about 150 words, titled “Tricks of the Trade.”

Actually, it’s only one trick.  He starts off:

Interviews: silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it — as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer.

Caro mentions that two great fictional interviewers, Georges Simenon and George Smiley, each have a little business they do to keep from talking — Simenon by cleaning his pipe, Smiley by cleaning his glasses.

While Caro doesn’t have a maneuver that the person being interviewed can see, he does have one:

When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut UP!) in my notebook.  If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SUs” there.

The highest level of achievement

Anyone who is not a reporter or an historian — i.e., someone who has to dig into records and ask people questions and think through a chaotic mass of material to come up with some insights, and them write about them — is likely to find this book to be a glimpse into the way writers work. 

This is how a book like The Power Broker gets to the bookstore shelves, and also how the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune ends up with information for you to read online or on paper.

Anyone who is a reporter or historian will recognize these skills and tactics — and also recognize how Caro takes them to the highest level of achievement. 

Yes, as a reporter, I know the need to go to a place to be able to describe it for readers, but never have I gone to the extent that Caro has to do this, such as spending a dark night alone on the bleak, black Texas landscape, listening to the animals and feeling the isolation and emptiness of being in total darkness from sunset to sunrise.

Yes, as a reporter, I know the need to call back a source to double check some piece of information or to get a little more, but never have I gone to the extent that Caro has to return again and again to the same source to ask the same question in the hope — and, it seems, often, the fulfillment — of getting a more complete answer.

“Easy to fool yourself”

So Working is a little bit of a primer for readers and for reporters.  But I don’t think that’s the main reason for the book.

Go back to Caro’s “lazy” comment.

It came in response to a question about whether Caro sets a daily quota for the number of words he writes in a day.  He replied that he had to because “it’s easy to fool yourself that you’re really working hard when you’re not.”

So, as someone who’s “naturally lazy,” he counts the number of words he writes each day and records that number.

And, in order to remind himself what he is about, he goes to work in a jacket and tie to remind himself that “I’m going to a job.  I have to produce.”

“Random glimpses”

Working is, first, a placeholder for the more substantial memoir that Caro wants to — and plans to — write.  On the first page, he writes that this book is comprised of “some scattered, almost random glimpses” of his work on The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

On the same short page, he writes:

I am, in fact, planning to write such a memoir and readers who prefer longer books will not be unhappy with its length.

Which means to me — after reading this one and all of the others, as well as having interviewed Caro a couple times for the Chicago Tribune — that he has probably outlined the work already and may have even written some drafts of some chapters.

That one will describe in some detail my experiences in researching and writing my biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson — my experiences in learning about these two men and their methods of acquiring and using power — and it will describe also the efforts that were made to keep me from learning about these men (or their methods)…

Constantly pointed out to him

In one interview I had with Caro, he mentioned that, once the LBJ books are finished, he wanted to compress them all into a single volume. 

That would be a massive undertaking for any writer, but maybe not insurmountable given that no new research would be needed.  My sense of Caro, though, is that he would want to rethink it all, resynthesize it all.  It could be quite a challenge.

Also, he told me this idea about a single LBJ volume 16 years ago. So, odds are, it’s no longer in the cards. 

As Caro points out — and notes that it’s constantly pointed out to him — he’s now 83. 

He will still require some unspecified number of years to finish the research and writing for the fifth and final Johnson book which will look at his immense positive impact on the nation through his Great Society programs and on his immense negative impact on the nation through his continuation and extension of the Vietnam War.

Once the final volume is published, would Caro turn first to condensing the five into one or to his long memoir?  My bet is the memoir would be his choice.

“Quite aware”

However, even then — and even if he has some work already sketched out or even written — he’ll be nearing 90.  Those who complain that he took time out from the Johnson work to produce Writing often have said and still say, “Do the math.”

About their complaints, Caro writes:

Well, I can do the math.  I am quite aware that I may never get to write the memoir, although I have so many thoughts about writing, so many anecdotes about research, that I would like to preserve for anyone interested enough to read them.  I decided that, just in case, I’d put some of them down on paper now.

“Writing those biographies”

So, Caro has written Working because he wants to share his insights into researching and interviewing and writing, and he’s right, they will be of great help to other writers now and in the future.

But my sense of the deeper reason for Working is rooted in something Caro says on that short but packed first page.

[I]n writing those biographies, I tried to keep myself out of their narratives, and seem to have done so with such success that over and over again I get asked what it was like to do them.

I think Caro wants to come out from behind the curtain.  After more than half a century of putting two major American political figures in the foreground, he wants to take centerstage himself.

Writing it like that, I’m afraid it will come across as something petty, and that’s not my aim.

Moses

Let me try to explain:

Before Caro wrote The Power Broker, very, very, very few people realized how powerful Robert Moses was during his half century of reshaping New York City with parks, bridges, highways and apartment buildings.

And even fewer realized how he garnered such power.

Moses, who died nearly 40 years ago, would be virtually forgotten today — his influence ignored, misunderstood or, most likely, never recognized — if Caro hadn’t written his biography.

Not only did The Power Broker reveal how power worked in the case of Moses, but it made Moses a star.  No history of American cities can be written without directly or indirectly taking him into account.

Johnson

Johnson, by contrast, was never going to be forgotten because he was linked inextricably with the most hated war in American history. 

If Caro hadn’t started his LBJ books, Johnson would now be heavily identified solely with that failed conflict, and his Great Society initiative would be fading fast from memory.  War is just a lot easier to picture and understand than government programs for the poor are.

At some point, Johnson would have become simply a vague figure in the past.  If you think not, let me ask you:  Know anything about James K. Polk?

He was the 11th U.S. president and had one of the most consequential White House tenures, bringing into the United States a huge hunk of territory: Texas and, after the Polk-backed Mexican War, all or part of seven present states — California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.  You don’t know much, if anything, about Polk because no Caro has written his biography.

Not only have the first four volumes of the Johnson series revealed how Johnson acquired and used power, but they have also made LBJ a star.  No history of the American presidency can be written without directly or indirectly taking him into serious account.

Caro

Indeed, no history of power in the United States can be written without taking Caro’s books into consideration, without taking seriously the lessons he has learned and given to his readers.

His books have spelled out in incredible detail how, in two cases, power in the U.S. was accumulated and employed.

In other words, Caro has had a direct impact on the way Americans now understand power.  He has had a direct impact on the way Americans understand how those who make decisions in the nation — its power brokers — come to exert such force and strength.  How power is more than position.  How power is more than ambition or will.  And how power puts its imprint on the landscape and the people.

Drive over one of the bridges Moses built.  Consider what your life now or at some future point would be without Johnson’s Medicare program.

Caro’s power

What I’m saying is that, in writing about power and in revealing so much about power, Caro has exerted, in his own quiet, behind-the-curtain way, power.

My thought is that he recognizes this.

He recognizes that, in his books, he has shown how Moses and Johnson have gained and exercised power.

Now and, hopefully, later, he wants to show how he, himself, has gained and exercised the power to make the stories of Moses and Johnson unforgettable in terms of American history.

Moses used a lot of bureaucratic and political jujitsu to achieve the power he wielded, for better and worse.

Johnson used hard work, laser-like ambition, corruption, parliamentary brilliance, courage and a host of other abilities to achieve what he achieved, for better and worse.

Caro has used his researching art, his internal drive against his tendency to be “lazy,” his literary élan and a host of other skills to achieve what he has achieved — telling the stories of Moses and of Johnson, and of America.

Handed power to each American

That’s what’s going on here, I think.

In Working, Caro is saying, essentially:  I got power through these skills, hastily sketched in these few pages, and I used that power to enable you, the reader, to know more about what power is and where it comes from.

I think he’s saying:  Not only have I make Moses and Johnson stars, but I have handed each and every American power.  Knowledge is power.  If you know how individuals go about gaining power, you can know how to make sure the wrong people don’t get it and that those who have it use it rightly.

That’s a lot of responsibility for a 207-page book to carry.  But it’s there, just in case.

I hope we get to see the longer memoir.

Patrick T. Reardon

5.24.19

2 Comments

  1. Bob Saigh says:

    Makes me wonder what Caro does when he’s not researching, interviewing, experiencing, and finally writing; what’s left in his day for eating, exercising, relaxing, being normal? How does he avoid being consumed by his prodigious energy and output? Maybe this is answered in his book, which I haven’t read yet. A persuasive review, thanks.

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      Bob — Not much in the book about his personal life although he does mention that he used to play basketball. I believe he or his wife told me that he plays tennis and used to surf. I know he is a big fan of the novels of Anthony Trollope. A lot of the time, his wife Ina and he travel together, and she helps with his research. (She’s also published her own researched books about France, and I think he helps her with that.) They raised a son. My sense is that, for him and his wife, this researching-interviewing-writing is so much fun that it’s like ball players being paid to play a game they’d play for free. I have a bit of that in me. Pat

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