Monday, September 30, 2013

Robert Caro's relentless inquiry into power in public life

This past weekend I had a chance to listen to a man who has pursued the mystery of one defining American quality for nearly half a century: the essence of power and its use. His name is Robert A. Caro. Some of us have been following his journey since 1982, reading his thick books on the life of Lyndon B. Johnson – four so far – shortly after they roll off the presses.

Robert A. Caro's Johnson is a paradox of ruthlessness and compassion.   
I cannot wait for the fifth. A principal subject will be Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam. This story shaped my life. I have wondered since the 1960s whether the Vietnam War would have happened had John F. Kennedy not been assassinated, and I look forward to Caro’s take on the subject.

Caro was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1965-66. There he hit upon the idea of writing a biography of Robert Moses, the urban planner known as the “master builder” of New York City during the mid-20th century. He had been a reporter at Newsday but left daily journalism and began digging.

In the seven years it took him to write The Power Broker, he had a year-long grant at Columbia but made little progress on the book. His wife Ida sold their house for money to live on, but they burned through the profit from that, too, and still no book.

At a gathering of Nieman Fellows last weekend in Cambridge, Caro was no longer the would-be author scraping by but the center of attention – a two-time Pulitzer winner among friends in awe of his success and eager to learn its secrets. But in fact he was the same man on the same mission.

He said he never thought of himself as writing a biography of Robert Moses. Rather his subject was power. How did an unelected public official acquire and use the power to shape New York City?

It is harder to deny that the LBJ project is a biography, but power remains Caro’s real subject. For nearly 40 years he has been exploring Johnson's grasp on power and use of it in the Senate and White House. (The vice presidency, as the most recent volume shows, frustrated Johnson to the point of humiliation, as even he could not wield power from that office.)

On Saturday, Caro was interviewed before an audience of hundreds of Nieman Fellows (interview video here) by Anne Hull, the reporter who exposed the shoddy treatment of wounded U.S. soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital. His answers laid out the two tracks of his method: archival research and interviews with people who knew and worked with Johnson, a much diminished breed.

When he began the project, Caro knew he could not examine all the millions upon millions of documents in the Johnson papers, but he decided to “turn every page” of the early congressional material.

A vital question was how Johnson had transformed himself from a pol who asked other pols, “Can I have a minute of your time?” to a pol whom other pols asked this question. A Texas bigwig had told Caro the answer – “Money, kid, money” – but had added that Caro would never figure out the details because Johnson had never put anything in writing about it.

Caro: LBJ "always wanted to help the poor." 
By turning every page, Caro not only pinpointed the time of this change to the fall of 1940 but also uncovered the cryptic system by which Johnson recorded who was giving him how much. He even figured out LBJ’s way of writing off those who disappointed him by not paying up. “You never crossed LBJ,” Caro said.

Caro traveled to the Texas Hill Country, LBJ’s home, and began asking people about him. “After a while I came to realize there was something they weren’t telling me,” he said. His solution was to move there. For three years, he and Ida lived at least 10 months out of the year in the Hill Country. When it dawned on people that he was not just another journalist parachuting in to do a profile of Johnson, they began to talk. Suddenly Caro was filling his notebooks with stories of Johnson's ruthlessness as a young man.

He also learned about life in the Hill Country, digging his own fingers into the soil and realizing how little of it there was. This was evidence of how slight the margin of error was for people trying to live off the land there, or, as he put it: “You can’t make a mistake here or you lose your house.”

To some degree it explains the paradox of LBJ. In Caro’s telling, he is a man of utter ruthlessness but also genuine compassion for the poor. In theory and in practice, Caro said, these characteristics are so extreme “that you keep thinking you are exaggerating. . . . Then ‘Wow! Look what he’s doing now.’ You’re in awe of the magnitude of it.”

Did Caro really believe that a moral imperative drove LBJ? Was his compassion for the underprivileged real or did he pursue the Great Society and other programs to further his own career?

“He always wanted to help the poor,” Caro answered, and he cited an example. As a young man, LBJ had spent a year as a teacher. His pupils were Mexican or Mexican-American, and he was diligent in teaching them to read. What’s more, he stayed late. Sitting beside the school’s janitor on the stairs as the man read to him, Johnson corrected his pronunciation.

Caro said that even though Congress faced obstacles in the 1950s similar to the deadlock of today, the difference is that no one today has the skills LBJ had. Part of true genius, he said, is “You find a way that no one has done before.” That was Johnson’s accomplishment: He found a way to make the system work.

Caro turns 78 years old next month. He is still learning things about Johnson every day. He has an office in New York where he reports, researches and writes. He puts on a coat and tie each workday to remind himself that he has a job to do, and he writes 1,000 words a day. “These are all tricks,” he says.

Caro never regretted the turn he took from newspaper reporting during the late 1960s. “As a reporter,” he said, “I just hated that you always had to write when you still had questions.”

He'll get to my question in the next volume. The power to make war is, of course, the greatest power a president has, and in the case of Vietnam, who better to get to the bottom of it than Caro? Vietnam was certainly Johnson's war, and we'll never really know what Kennedy would have done about the crisis there had he lived. The Johnson tapes show both LBJ's reluctance to get into a ground war and his early recognition that the war could not be won. This is the tragedy of the Johnson presidency, and it was an even greater tragedy for many who fought there.

I'm eager to see what Caro makes of it.

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