Robert Caro: Chasing the Facts

By Ana Daniel
Robert A. Caro in the 1970s Arnold Newman Collection/Getty Images

Robert A. Caro
Knopf, $25

Awesome — to borrow a word from millennials — is the oeuvre of Robert Caro, which includes “The Power Broker,” about Robert Moses, and the biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, in four volumes so far with another on its way.

In “Working,” Mr. Caro opens modestly with a statement of his objectives in this volume: “to share or pass along for whatever they’re worth . . . a few things I’ve learned or discovered, or think I’ve learned or discovered, about the writing of biography and indeed nonfiction in general. . . .”

The tone of these phrases tells us as much about the character of the writer himself — whether intentionally or not — as about how he writes and why he writes. It is this duality of insight that makes this slim book so special.

One theme dominates all of Mr. Caro’s work: “I wasn’t interested in writing a biography but in writing about political power.” Biography, politics, and history are connected for him: “From the 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.”

“If (and this was a big ‘if’ with me) I could just write it well enough,” he says and then continues, “I felt that I had learned that if you chose the right man, you could show quite a bit about power through the life of a man. . . . That’s what drew me to Lyndon Johnson.”

Throughout, we feel Mr. Caro’s driving passion to uncover, in his words, “reality — the hard unblinking facts,” to inform the reader, to analyze and explain power. His pursuit of facts is unrelenting, and he never takes no for an answer to his questions. He is imaginative in finding ways to get at information and he shares with us the many thrills of discovery. He quotes more than once the advice of Alan Hathway, who was the managing editor of Newsday and his first mentor in journalism: “Turn every page.”

For all that “Working” proposes to be a how-to book, it is deeply personal. Examining his own doggedness in seeking out the facts, he says: “Part of the reason was neither straightforward nor professional, nor, to be honest (or as honest as possible), was it something that had much to do with reason. It had to do with that something in me . . . just part of me, like it or not . . . the part of me that kept leading me to think of new avenues of research. . . . While I am aware that there is no Truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either; no verity, eternal or otherwise; no Truth about anything, there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable. And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And finding facts — through reading or through interviewing and re-interviewing — can’t be rushed; it takes time. Truth takes time.”

Writing also takes time. Mr. Caro first drafts and re-drafts in longhand, then types it out on his Smith Corona Electra, the triple-space on so he can edit again. Not just the content but also “the quality of the prose matters in nonfiction . . . rhythm matters. Mood matters. Sense of place matters. 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.”

For me, the most affecting aspect of this book is Mr. Caro’s compassion, enabling his readers “to empathize with the consequences of power — the consequences of government, really — on the lives of its citizens, for good or for ill. 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.” At the base of Mr. Caro’s passion to share the facts — to get as close to the truth as possible — is a deep sense of justice toward society.

Compassion comes through also in Mr. Caro’s approach to his subjects. “Hundreds of writers — journalists and the authors of books — all agree that Johnson was ruthless. I try to explain why he was ruthless — and a large part of the explanation is the place he came from.” 

In pursuit of the explanation, Mr. Caro and Ina, his wife and research collaborator, moved to East Texas for three years. “It took me a long time to understand this — but during that time, there were moments of what to me were revelations, of insights that suddenly helped me understand.” He describes the poverty, emptiness, loneliness, and isolation of the East Texas Hill Country where L.B.J. grew up: “If you want to understand what was behind him. . . . Think of the place. Think of the sheer ruthlessness, the unforgivingness, of the place.” 

A subject that obviously intrigues Mr. Caro is the paradox of character. Referring to “The Power Broker,” he writes: “Robert Moses gazing down on Riverside Drive lodged in my imagination . . . became entangled in a mystery: I had previously been aware only of the Robert Moses of the 1950s and ’60s: the ruthless highway builder who ran his roads straight through hapless neighborhoods. . . .” But then “I saw something very different: the young Robert Moses, the dreamer and idealist. How had the one man become the other?”

What comes next? Volume five of the Johnson biography. “Everyone wants to say that if it weren’t for Vietnam, he would’ve been one of the greatest presidents. But ‘if it weren’t for Vietnam’ is not an adequate phrase. . . . Medicare. The Voting Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act. Head Start. So many different education bills. You’re filled with admiration for his genius, over and over again. Watching some legislative maneuver, you’re saying, Wow, how did he do that? I didn’t know you could do that” when the Senate was almost completely controlled by the South. “And then in the same book, you have Vietnam. This last volume is a very complex book to write.”

We can look forward to its completion. Meanwhile, don’t miss “Working.”

Ana Daniel is the special projects editor for The Southampton Review. She lives in Bridgehampton.

Robert A. Caro lives in New York and East Hampton.