Robert Caro, the 83-year-old author, is renowned for how hard he works, how deeply he researches, how carefully he layers sentences, paragraphs and epic-length histories – yet he had completed just one book: “The Powerbroker,” published in 1974.
Now Caro has completed two, if you count his slim, recently published collection about his work, “Working.”
The plainness of the title tells you something about the modesty of the man, who seems to have a normal amount of ego commensurate with having won the Pulitzer Prize for biography twice but has remained through much of his life awed by his two subjects.
“The Powerbroker” is about Robert Moses, the planner and builder who reshaped New York. Caro covered Moses when he worked on Newsday, the Long Island paper; he comes to realize, the further he delves into records and the more interviews he conducts, which he details in “Working,” that reporters seldom even glimpse beneath the surface of what a Moses does before moving on to the next story.
That is the deadline news business. It is not the history business.
The final draft of “The Powerbroker” was 1.05 million words, cut to 700,000 for publication, Caro says – and even then it was 1,300 pages.
Caro misses those 300,000 words. We would like to have them too. Still, “The Powerbroker” is startling for many who think they understand how a city works. Not since the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens published “The Shame of the Cities” 70 years before had a metropolis been laid so bare.
Ever since, Caro has been writing about Lyndon Johnson. Starting in 1982, he has published four big volumes about America in the Johnson years. Now he is preparing the fifth and last. It will see Johnson through his presidency; his decision not to run for a second term, in 1968; and then, tantalizingly, the four years of his retirement on his Texas ranch, when he grew his hair long and sat by the Pedernales, chain-smoking, no longer giving a damn what anyone thought of the poor boy from Stonewall.
Still, why devote so much of a precious working life to LBJ?
Caro gives us one reason in “Working”: Johnson “made the Senate work. For a century before him, [it] was the same dysfunctional mess it is today. He’s majority leader for six years, the Senate works, it creates its own bills. He leaves, and the day he leaves it goes back to the way it was. And it’s stayed that way until this day.”
When a masterly historian devotes his life to just two subjects, they are bound to come out with similarities. Moses was discreet and almost reclusive. Johnson was outsized in everything and especially in his appetites. One was elegant, refined; the other, crude and bumptious. But each was able to amass and concentrate unprecedented powers.
What interests Caro is how that is done, and then how the powers end up being used for both sweeping good, such as bridges and parks and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, and almost simultaneously for ill: the poor whose lives were unraveled by being removed for the bridges and the parks, and not just the dishonesty in Johnson, and the cheating, but the waging of an unwinnable war in Vietnam with all of the murdered civilians.
That too is political power.
What drives Caro are the consequences of power as much as the thing itself. We can all benefit from that. As Eric Alterman recently observed in The New Yorker, “A nation whose citizens have no knowledge of history is asking to be led by quacks, charlatans and jingos.”
At one point in “Working,” Caro mentions that after “The Powerbroker,” he considered writing a biography of three-term New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the great leader and 5’2” publicity machine. It may not be fair to such a meticulous craftsman, yet it is hard not to wish he had written the La Guardia in addition to the Johnson.
We simply need more Caro.