Through his scrupulously researched books chronicling the rise to power of President Lyndon Johnson and New York urban planner Robert Moses, Robert A. Caro, NF ’66, set a new standard for political biography. Almost 40 years into his multi-volume Johnson biography and now at work on the fifth book, Caro remains fascinated by his subject. As part of the Nieman Foundation’s 75th anniversary celebration in September, The Washington Post’s Anne Hull, NF ’95, conducted a Q&A with Caro about reporting rigor, interviewing techniques, and unreliable memories. Edited excerpts:
ANNE HULL: How did your newspaper reporting prepare you for your life as a biographer?
ROBERT A. CARO: I was thrown into investigative reporting. I was 23 years old, and I told my editor that I didn’t know anything about it, and he said, “Just never assume a damn thing.” He said, “Turn every page.” That’s really what I’ve tried to do.
When you get down to the [LBJ Presidential] Library, there’s this glass wall, four stories high. You see all these boxes there with the presidential seal in 24-karat gold; they are the papers of Lyndon Johnson. The last time they released the figures they said they had 44 million documents there. You can’t actually think of turning every page—it would take many lifetimes.
When I was doing the first volume [“The Path to Power”], which was about Lyndon Johnson as a congressman, I realized that the number of boxes that dealt with his congressional career was manageable. I said, “I’m going to do what I was taught and turn every page in there.”
People are always asking me, “How did you find out about how Lyndon Johnson used money in his political career?” There’s a point where Johnson suddenly gets national political power. He’s a junior congressman, he’s in his third year in Congress. It’s October 1940.
When Johnson writes a committee chairman or another senior member of Congress, he’s writing in the tone of a junior to a senior, very deferential. “Can I have a few minutes of your time?” All of a sudden, in November 1940, it’s the other way around. The senior congressmen are writing him: “Can I have a few minutes of your time?”
I was asking all the people who remembered Johnson at that time, what happened in October 1940? I asked a guy named Thomas G. Corcoran, who was a political fundraiser and fixer, what happened in October 1940, and he said, “Money, kid.” He used to call me kid. “Money, kid, money. But you’re never going to be able to write about it.”
I asked why, and he said, “Because Lyndon Johnson never put anything in writing.” And of course, he was right. Johnson was a political genius, and he had thought of something: Although he was a junior congressman, there was one thing he had that no other congressman had. He was the only congressman who knew the big Texas oilmen and contractors who wanted all these favors and contracts from the government and were willing to give campaign contributions to get them. And he also knew all the liberal Northern congressmen who needed campaign contributions.
He persuaded the Texas oilmen to give money only through him, and it became known in Congress that you had to go to him to get money, and that’s what happened. But I thought I was not going to be able to write about that in any detail.
Then I was going through all these boxes, and there were all these file folders that seemed to have nothing to do with anything you’re interested in. I was going through one, which seemed to have nothing to do with the label on it, but all of a sudden, there was a telegram from George Brown of Brown and Root, which was the firm that was really financing most of this. And the telegram began, “Lyndon, hope you received the checks.” [laughter]
I was going through other boxes. All of a sudden, I came across a list that was compiled by John Connally, Lyndon Johnson’s administrative assistant.
The list contained three columns. In the lefthand column was the name of the congressman who had asked Johnson for money. In the center column was what he wanted the money for. “Lyndon, if I just have one more round of ads, I can win this.” “Lyndon, we need poll watchers. They’re trying to steal the election.” Whatever.
In the third column was how much the congressman had asked for. The amounts were so small then, $1,000 or $1,500.
In the lefthand margin, Lyndon Johnson had written something next to each name. Again, next to some of the names, it said, “OK.” I asked Connally what “OK” meant. He said that meant that Johnson was giving the amount the congressman had asked for.
Sometimes, in that lefthand column, Johnson had written “No,” which meant he was giving no money. But sometimes, he had written, “No. Out.” I asked Connally, “What did ‘No. Out.’ mean?” He said, “That guy was never going to get money.” [laughter]
You never crossed Lyndon Johnson. If I hadn’t been doing that simple thing and trying to turn every page, I never would have found that out.
It takes a lot of work to get to that box with that one document. Back up the process a bit. How did you come to seize on Robert Moses as your first big subject? You were a Nieman then, in ‘65, ‘66. How did you spend your year at Harvard?
I had been covering politics in New York. It had gradually sunk in on me that although we all believed that power comes from being elected, here was a guy who was never elected to anything. He had more power than any governor, more than any mayor, more than any governor and mayor combined. He had held this power for 44 years.
I had no idea where this power came from, and I was supposed to be writing about political power. I had realized that when I was at Newsday. The reason I was coming up here was to learn more about urban planning, which I didn’t know anything about. I spent a lot of evenings thinking.
What I realized was I couldn’t possibly do this in the context of daily journalism. I would have to do a book [“The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” published in 1974]. I wrote a book proposal, and that got the world’s smallest contract. [laughter]
You and your wife ended up selling your house to subsidize this project. How did you decide to pursue something at that cost?
That’s a good question. Part of it was simply I had no idea how long it was going to take. The contract was too small. I couldn’t quit so for some months I was trying to start the book while I was still at Newsday. I wasn’t getting anywhere at all with that.
There used to be this wonderful grant called the Carnegie Fellow in Journalism at Columbia University. They paid a reporter his salary for one year and gave him an office there while he wrote a book. I was sure I could finish this book in this year.
In fact, I told [my wife] Ina … We had always wanted to go to France. I said, “I have this schedule. I’m going to be done in nine months. We’re going to get three months in France.” [laughter] At the end of the year, of course, I had hardly started. [laughter]
We were really broke. I came home one day, and Ina said, “I sold the house.” This was before the real estate boom. We hadn’t paid very much for the house, but after selling it, after the mortgage was paid off, we cleared about $25,000. That was enough to live a year. But then I was still only starting … [laughter]
After “The Power Broker” was published, how did you then seize on Johnson as a subject? Why LBJ?
I never thought of “The Power Broker” as being a biography of Robert Moses. I never had any interest in writing a book just to tell the life of a great man. I wanted to explain how political power worked in New York and really all the cities of America, how urban political power worked. That’s what “The Power Broker” is supposed to be.
I had thought, while I was doing the Moses book, that if I could ever do another book, I’d have to pick the right man, like Moses, who had thought of ways to get power that nobody had thought of before.
I wanted to do national political power, and Johnson was the right man to do it because he made the Senate work. That was the thing I first focused on. When he was majority leader, the Senate actually worked and created legislation. Hard to believe, but it’s true.
In the hundred years before Lyndon Johnson, the Senate was the same dysfunctional mess that it is today. Johnson becomes majority leader in January 1955 and for six years, the Senate works. It is the center of governmental energy, creativity and ingenuity in Washington. They write their own bills. The civil rights bill of ’57 is Johnson’s bill; it’s not [President Dwight] Eisenhower’s bill. Johnson leaves to become vice president, and in one instant, the Senate is back in the same mess that it was and has continued to this day.
If you could figure out how Johnson did it—what did he do that no one else did before or since?—then you would find out something about how power really works in Washington.
How did you approach that kind of reporting?
The great thing was, Johnson had died so young. He died in 1973. I was starting this book in ’76 so the people who grew up with Johnson were still around. I would work in the Johnson Library from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then I’d drive out into the Hill Country to interview one of these people.
I came to realize that there was something that they weren’t telling me. They had seen reporters come, and they’d call them “portable journalists.” Ever since Johnson’s presidency, these reporters would come down for a week, and go back and write the true story of the Hill Country or the true story of Lyndon Johnson.
I finally said to Ina, “I’m not getting through to these people. I don’t understand them, and I don’t understand the Hill Country so I don’t understand Lyndon Johnson.” I said, “We’re going to have to … How do you feel about moving?” [laughter] Of course, she said, “Yes,” and we rented a house for three years. We were probably there eight or nine or 10 months of each year.
As soon as the people realized that we were living there, that we had come to stay to try and understand them, the interviews became different, instantly. They started to tell me all the stories about Lyndon Johnson, terrible stories about his ruthlessness.
Then you came to understand that the Hill Country was a big part of him. His favorite cousin Ava said to me, “Hey, you’re a city boy. You don’t understand the land, and if you don’t understand the land you’re never going to understand Lyndon Johnson.”
She took me out to the Johnson ranch. Those of you who have read the book know that the central thing in Johnson’s life was that his father, who he idolized, went broke and lost the Johnson ranch. The reason he went broke was he thought that the ranch could support a certain amount of mortgage because it would grow a certain amount of cotton. He didn’t understand what the land was like.
She took me out there and said, “Now get out of the car and kneel down and put your fingers in the ground.” There was almost no soil there. It’s rock underneath.
She said, “You see, you can’t make a mistake here. This isn’t like a city where there are safety nets and things. Out here if you make a mistake, you lose your home.” I suddenly thought about Lyndon Johnson, how he was the greatest vote counter in the Senate.
If you go down to the Johnson Library, one of the fascinating things that you see are the tally sheets when he was Senate majority leader. When you look at these tally sheets, the pencil marks are smudged. The reason they’re smudged, I found out, is that Lyndon Johnson would go down these sheets. That was his thumb mark, and his thumb wouldn’t move on to the next senator until he knew how the senator would vote.
He would send his staff out to talk to senators and they would say, “I think he’s going to vote.” Johnson would just become infuriated. He said, “What good is ‘thinking’ to me? I have to know.” He never lost a close vote.
I thought back to, “You can’t make a mistake in life.” You know, that’s part of what made Johnson what he was.
Your excitement creates the narrative. Most of us would say, “Yeah, so,” but you’re still going at it. How do you maintain that sense of excitement, and what does a bad day look like for you?
I have a lot of really bad writing days. The first thing every morning, I read what I wrote the day before. I write the first three or four drafts in longhand, and then I type. I try to write a thousand words a day.
You have an office outside of the house, right?
Yeah. I get up every morning. I put on a coat and tie. People laugh at it, but the reason is my publisher is really wonderful. He never asks me when I’m going to be done. There is no deadline. My books take seven or eight years. You’re really in a vacuum, and it’s really easy to fool yourself that you’re working hard and you’re not. I wear a coat and a tie because when I was a reporter I wore a coat and a tie. It’s a trick to remind yourself you’re going to a job. You have to work.
How do you minimize distraction in your life?
I get phone calls, but I turn my machine off so I don’t get any during the day. I don’t have e-mail.
What about future Robert Caros who will have to deal with Twitter, Facebook, e-mail?
I think every technological change is significant at the time. Like when Johnson first got elected to Congress, long-distance telephone calls were very expensive so the phone wasn’t used that much. You get all these telegrams, “Call me, Lyndon. Something’s happened. Call me tonight.”
Johnson makes John Connally his administrative aide. His job is to go around to the courthouses in the 10 counties in Johnson’s district, and write Johnson a letter every week about what’s happening politically back in the district. They are masterpieces because John Connally is really a brilliant guy. These letters are like nine and 10 single-spaced pages. It’s like a course in rural politics.
Then, all of a sudden, long-distance telephone calls become more common. You have telegrams saying, “Call me. Big trouble down in this bay. Call me tonight.” You have to find a way of finding out what happened in that telephone call. You try and interview Johnson and you try and interview Johnson’s staff and you try and interview John Connally.
I’m sure there are going to be ways to find out stuff. It will just be ways I don’t know yet.
TYLER BRIDGES, NF ’12: How do you get people to open up and tell you the truth?
I never talk to people off the record. I don’t know that I have any techniques, except the things I learned as a reporter. One is so obvious: I never interview by telephone. You learn so much from people’s faces. I don’t tape anything. I take notes on every interview.
One rule I have is, no matter how late it is, I will type up that interview before I go to sleep because I want to have it in my mind as fresh as possible, what my impressions were, how he acted when he was saying things.
I learned when I was a reporter if you just keep going back to people, interviewing them over and over again, the interviews just become completely different.
What have you learned about the reliability of people’s memories?
[Laughs.] Totally unreliable. You try to keep looking for more records to show stuff or interview people over and over again.
I became great friends with Edward A. Clark, who was known as the secret boss of Texas. He ran Texas for like 25 years. I must have asked him about the stolen election of 1948. He said, “The one thing I won’t talk to you about is that stolen election.”
Clark would say, “Would you like to meet this guy? I’ll go with you.” He was really saying, “So the guy will talk to you.”
One time we were driving up to see a guy. I said to him, “You know, Ed. I’m about to write it now. If you don’t tell me now, no one will ever know.” Without another word, he just started telling me basically what is the story in “Means of Ascent,” of how Johnson stole that election. I pulled over to the side of the road and took out my notepad.