Robert A. Caro is racing against the clock. The acclaimed author of five books of biography-— four on President Lyndon Johnson alone — knows time is waning to write the final volume on LBJ.
At 83 years old, Caro has spent more than 50 years compiling the life stories of LBJ and New York City planner Robert Moses. The ticking clock did not, however, keep him from taking time off to write a short memoir.
The title of the 240-page memoir is as straightforward as the author himself. “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing,” provides insight into Caro’s remarkable career.
He published his first book in 1974, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” which earned him a Pulitzer Prize. He would win a second one in 2003 for his book “Master of the Senate,” on Johnson.
In a recent whirlwind of interviews, Caro promised a much more in-depth memoir to follow his next and last book on President Johnson. “Working” is a hedge on the bet he won’t live long enough to write a full-throated memoir.
His fifth Johnson biography will cover controversies taking place from 1960 to 1973, such as assassinations and the Vietnam War, which overshadowed Johnson’s Great Society and Civil Rights legislation.
Caro writes how an editor at Newsday, an old newspaper on Long Island where he worked, gave him a piece of advice that he never wavered from: “Turn every page. Turn every goddamned page.”
That advice became daunting when Caro saw the archives representing Johnson’s life. After asking a receptionist where the Johnson papers were, Caro was directed to the base of a marble staircase where he saw four-stories of red boxes stacked in rows.
“All I could see from the bottom of the stairs were those boxes, but as I climbed the stairs there came into view behind them more boxes, long lines of them,” wrote Caro. “The rows of boxes stretched back into the gloom and then darkness as far as I could see.”
Writing the memoir must have felt like a vacation for Caro. He leaned previous write-ups and interviews by the Paris Review and The New Yorker magazine, wrapped with his personal reminiscences of interviews, deep dive research and daily life with his fellow researcher and spouse, Ina.
Contrary to what most readers would believe, Caro is a fast writer. It’s the research that takes so much time. As he recounts, the reporter prefers a more ethnographic approach as opposed to using Wikipedia or Google. For “The Power Broker,” he did more than 500 interviews. To get a better feel for Johnson’s Texas home, he and Ina moved to the Texas Hill Country to immerse themselves in the president’s early life.
As a historian, his life work isn’t about a president and a New York bureaucrat, it’s about the enormous power they wielded. Moses is especially interesting since he never held an elective office —he ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York in 1934 — but his vision and understanding of power enabled him to change the face of New York by constructing a vast array of expressways and parks.
Caro is especially effective when writing about the terrible social costs associated with building expressways, while a lesser writer would have only written about the “great man” behind them.
In “Working,” Caro explains why he felt compelled to write about the human price of Moses’ unrelenting expressway building. He spent months researching the impact of the Cross-Bronx Highway and interviewed some of the 1,400 individuals who were displaced by its construction.
He wrote, “I felt I just had to try to show — to make readers not only see but understand and feel — what ‘human cost’ meant.”
“Working” also answers the puzzling question many readers of “Power Broker” had: What happened to Jane Jacobs? Jacobs was the whirlwind community organizer who fought Moses’ plan to cut New York City in half and won. Caro explains the biography exceeded a practical page length, and the 300 pages he had written about the confrontation between Moses and Jacobs were cut.
The author’s descriptions of his face-to-face interviews with Moses are revealing and show not only the extent of Moses’ power but also the power of the written word.
As demonstrated through Caro’s retelling of Johnson's driving home the county’s most far-reaching Civil Rights legislation, his writing isn’t just about how power can corrupt, but also how power can be a means to an end. The memoir doesn’t reveal much about the upcoming LBJ biography, other than Caro often thinks of two songs while writing, “We Shall Overcome” and “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”