When Robert Caro, the legendary political journalist-historian, was a young investigative reporter at the crusading, liberal New York newspaper Newsday, a top editor gave him advice on how to dig through government archives for important information.
“Turn every page,” Caro recalls his boss commanding in his new book “Working” (Knopf). “Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.”
And, the 83-year-old says, that’s been his motto ever sense. Though Caro was forced to amend the method somewhat at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, where documents totaled an overwhelming 32,000,000 pages.
Caro is revered for “The Power Broker,” his 1974 Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1,246-page account of New York planner Robert Moses, and a multi-volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson, which the New York author began in the mid-1970s, won a Pulitzer Prize for the third volume, 2002’s “Master of the Senate,” and is currently working on the fifth and predicted final volume.
“Working” arrives as an aside and, at only 233 pages, a short outing. It’s an entertaining and inspiring account of his rigorous methods for digging out facts and tales that illustrate the way great political power is built and wielded to create good (beautiful New York parks, Voting Rights Act) and ill (neighborhoods decimated for highways, Vietnam war).
Caro insists that he wrote quickly when he worked for newspapers, but switched to writing longhand and typing on a typewriter (still to this day) when he began writing books to purposely slow himself down, to force more time for thinking things through. He wears a tie and sport coat to his private office. He reads through newspaper accounts, books and—especially–primary source document archives, with the great research assistance of his wife, Ina. (When they were going broke during his work on the Moses book, he says, she sold their house to keep them financially afloat.) And he extensively interviews folks who were there, sometimes talking to the same person dozens of times. He writes about how he keeps silent to draw people out.
“Working” thrills with its daring detective accounts of things like finding and digging through file cabinets of copies of Moses’ records—which Moses refused to provide—in a parking garage. Park department men kept sabotaging the lights. So Caro took to packing his briefcase full of extra light bulbs.
Caro recounts how he tracked down one of Johnson’s college chums who conspired with him on school political shenanigans and an aging political enforcer who stole, Caro says, a Texas senate race for Johnson. Caro recalls how he uncovered the story of one of Johnson’s mistresses, who became one of his key political advisors, well, until his debacle in Vietnam soured their relationship.
The tome is something of a magpie construction. The first half offers brilliant, insightful, highly polished pieces previously published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine. The second half is mainly short vignettes.
Caro’s insights from his sage analysis of the workings of government are sad ones. He offers no examples of Moses or Johnson building support or coalitions through persuasion or common cause. Rather, he says they moved bureaucratic mountains via bullying, deceit, payoffs and blackmail. Also, they came to understand when opponents were so powerful that the easiest path was avoidance or appeasement. Caro writes political masterpieces, but they’re not pretty pictures.
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