Sunday, October 30, 2016

Birthday: “Writing is hard. Research is just fun.”

robert caro.jpg

Robert Allan Caro (1935-  )

Caro is the last of the 19th-century biographers, the kind who believe that the life of a great or powerful man deserves not just a slim volume, or even a fat one, but a whole shelf full. He dresses every day in a jacket and tie and reports to a 22nd-floor office in a nondescript building near Columbus Circle, where his neighbors are lawyers or investment firms. His office looks as if it belongs to the kind of C.P.A. who still uses ledgers and a hand-cranked adding machine. There are an old wooden desk, wooden file cabinets and a maroon leather couch that never gets sat on. Here Caro writes the old-fashioned way: in longhand, on large legal pads.

That’s how Charles McGrath described Robert Caro in a 2012 profile. Caro, who walked twelve blocks to work every day in the office he set up twenty-six years ago, takes writing seriously, like a job. He bet the farm on his first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974); expecting to knock it out in nine months, he took seven years to see it in print. So parlous were his circumstances that his wife sold their house and took a teaching job to keep them afloat.

Born overlooking Central Park (“He’s a shy, soft-spoken man with old–fashioned manners and an old-fashioned New York accent (he says ‘toime’ instead of ‘time’ and ‘foine’ instead of ‘fine’)”, McGrath wrote), Caro graduated from Princeton with a cum laude degree in English and a thesis on existentialism in the works of Hemingway so long the English Department thereafter imposed a page limit. He worked for newspapers in the New York area, including a six-year stint at Long Island’s Newsday, where he was an investigative reporter:

One of the articles he wrote was a long series about why a proposed bridge across Long Island Sound from Rye to Oyster Bay, championed by Robert Moses, would have been inadvisable, requiring piers so large it would disrupt tidal flows in the sound, among other problems. Caro believed that his work had influenced even the state's powerful governor Nelson Rockefeller to reconsider the idea, until he saw the state's Assembly vote overwhelmingly to pass a preliminary measure for the bridge.

"That was one of the transformational moments of my life," Caro said years later. It led him to think about Moses for the first time. "I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: 'Everything you've been doing is baloney. You've been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here's a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don't have the slightest idea how he got it.'"

The bridge was finally killed in 1973, after nine years of bureaucratic infighting and Moses’ demotion by the only man with more money and power than Moses: New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

That experience stuck in his mind for years. Sitting in a lecture on urban renewal, as  Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Caro listened to a professor reciting stats and data on how routes for highways were determined. “That’s not how they do it,” he thought to himself. Roads get built where Robert Moses wants them to get built.”

That led to The Power Broker, the immense biography of the most powerful unelected official Americans never heard of. He leveraged his 1920s idealism for public parks and beautiful highways to get inner city residents out to them, into a tight-fisted rule over New York public works that lasted forty years. Moses built his own power base by becoming a fan of toll roads and bridges, thus creating his own revenue sources and ability to issue bonds for more, bigger projects out of his unelected bridge and highway commissions and authorities.

By the 1960s, Moses’ vision seemed to be crumbling about him: American cities were becoming empty shells, and Moses pioneered broad-brush urban renewal: wholesale elimination of entire neighborhood to make way for bigger roads and vanity projects like New York’s Lincoln Center, which cleared 17 acres of apartment buildings and businesses in a stroke.

The Power Broker was an earthquake disguised as a 1250 page doorstop. The New Yorker serialized a hundred thousand words from its 350,000. The 1975 Pulitzer Prize was given for it. It remains so influential  book that a fortieth anniversary edition was published to acclaim in 2014.

Caro then turned his attention to the recently-deceased American president, Lyndon B Johnson. He signed a contract with Random House for a biography. By then he’d grown fascinated with the theme of power:

Caro’s obsession with power explains a great deal about the nature of his work. For one thing, it accounts in large part for the size and scope of all his books, which Caro thinks of not as conventional biographies but as studies in the working of political power and how it affects both those who have it and those who don’t. Power, or Caro’s understanding of it, also underlies his conception of character and structure. In “The Power Broker,” it’s a drug that an insatiable Moses comes to require in larger and larger doses until it transforms him from an idealist into a monster devoid of human feeling, tearing down neighborhoods, flinging out roadways and plopping down bridges just for their own sake. Running through the Johnson books are what Caro calls “two threads, bright and dark”: the first is his naked, ruthless hunger for power — “power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will” — and the other is the often compassionate use he made of that power. If Caro’s Moses is an operatic character — a city-transforming Faust — his Johnson is a Shakespearean one: Richard III, Lear, Iago and Cassio all rolled into one. You practically feel Caro’s gorge rise when he describes how awful Johnson was in college, wheeling and dealing, blackmailing fellow students and sucking up to the faculty, or when he describes the vicious negative campaign Johnson waged against Coke Stevenson. But then a volume later, describing Johnson’s championing of civil rights legislation, he seems to warm to his subject all over again.

The hallmark of Caro’s work is research. He takes as long as it takes to do it, and, as a result, finds things. In The Power Broker, he discovered, and interviewed, a poor brother Robert Moses had utterly airbrushed from his life. He has spent years at the LBJ Presidential Library, from which he has sifted so much of the historical record that McGrath says,

In his years of working on Johnson, Robert Caro has come to know him better — or to understand him better — than Johnson knew or understood himself. He knows Johnson’s good side and his bad: how he became the youngest Senate majority leader in history and how, by whispering one thing in the ears of the Southern senators and another in Northern ears, he got the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through a Congress that had squelched every civil rights bill since 1875; how he fudged his war record and earned himself a medal by doing nothing more than taking a single plane ride; how, while vice president during the Cuban missile crisis, his hawkishness scared the daylights out of President Kennedy and his brother Robert. Caro has learned about Johnson’s rages, his ruthlessness, his lies, his bribes, his insecurities, his wheedling, his groveling, his bluster, his sycophancy, his charm, his kindness, his streak of compassion, his friends, his enemies, his girlfriends, his gofers and bagmen, his table manners, his drinking habits, even his nickname for his penis: not Johnson, but Jumbo.

That indefatigability has had its downsides. Former LBJ press secretary has refused Caro interviews for decades. Johnson’s widow gave him a few before freezing him out of her circle. Though Johnson Library staff think him family, the Johnson family never invite him to Library conferences on the LBJ legacy.

2016 marks forty years Caro has spent on The Years of Lyndon Johnson- longer than Johnson’s actual public life- and he is still researching what is supposed to the the fifth and final volume. Each one emerges at seemingly random intervals, like the seasons of the cable series Mad Men: the first came out in 1982; volume 2 took eight more years. The third book took twelve; the fourth, ten. Caro is eighty-one today; his editor since The Power Broker, is 85-year-old Robert Gottlieb. McGrath concludes,

Caro has taken so long with Johnson that his agent, Lynn Nesbit, no longer remembers how many times she has renegotiated his contract; his publishing house has had two editors in chief, and no one there worries much about his deadlines any longer. The books come along when they come along. “I’m not a charity case,” Caro pointed out to me last month when I remarked on how Knopf had stuck by him all these years. It’s true that the Johnson volumes have been glowingly reviewed (“The Path to Power” and “Means of Ascent” both won the National Book Critics Circle Award and “Master of the Senate” won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award) and that each of them has been a best seller, but it’s also true that they turn up so infrequently that Caro can hardly be thought of as a brand name. “Are the books profitable?” Sonny Mehta, Knopf’s current head, who took over the Johnson project — enthusiastically — after Gottlieb’s departure in 1987, said last month. He paused for a moment. “They will be,” he answered finally, “because there is nothing like them.”

Gottlieb is more philosophical. “So what if at the end of 45 years it turns out we lost money by one kind of accounting?” he said. “Think of what he has given us, what he has added. How do you weigh that?”

With two Pulitzers, three National Book Critic Awards, the Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Francis Parkman, Carl Sandburg and John Steinbeck Prizes, the National Medal of the Humanities, and scores of lesser gongs, Caro just shows up for work every day, quietly racing the clock, and says he has his next subject picked out.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We enjoy hearing from visitors! Please leave your questions, thoughts, wish lists, or whatever else is on your mind.