How the autobiography of a Muslim slave is challenging an American narrative
Biographer Robert Caro on why it’s taking decades to fully capture LBJ
Judy Woodruff: Now Jeffrey Brown sits down with one of the nation's preeminent biographers, Robert Caro.
The fifth and final volume of his massive series, "The Years of Lyndon Johnson," focuses on LBJ's presidency and the Vietnam War. But its publication is not expected for at least another year.
In the meantime, Caro has written a memoir about what he does. It's titled simply "Working."
Part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: "Power Reveals," two words on the wall of an office in Midtown Manhattan.
Robert Caro: You do all the research, and then you sit here and you say, well, what is this book about?
Jeffrey Brown: This is the inner sanctum of one of the nation's leading historians, Robert Caro, now sharing some of the lessons he's learned over a more-than-six-decade career.
Robert Caro: I learned it book by book as I went along. I said, well, I think I have learned some stuff. And I just want to pass it along, people who are trying to find out the truth about things.
Jeffrey Brown: Caro began his working life in the 1950s and '60s as a reporter, including for Newsday.
His first book, "The Power Broker," published in 1974, chronicled how an unelected official, master builder Robert Moses, became the most powerful figure in New York and shaped the city's destiny.
Since 1977, Caro has been writing "The Years of Lyndon Johnson." Four books have been published. And the fifth and final volume has been his labor of love for 10 years.
Along the way, he's won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards.
Robert Caro: So, I type them up every night.
Jeffrey Brown: And gained a reputation for dogged research, brilliant analysis, and, more than 40 years into the Johnson project, giving his works all the time they need. When
Robert Caro: You know, when I was a newspaper man, I remember I hated having to write an article while there was still questions I wanted to ask.
When I started to do books, I just started to say, I don't want to start writing until I have got all my questions answered, and it takes a long time.
Jeffrey Brown: But do you ever have all your questions answered?
Robert Caro: No.
Robert Caro: This says, John Connally at his Floresville ranch.
Jeffrey Brown: Now, at 83, Caro is out with something different, a book of new essays and earlier pieces that take us behind the scenes of his work. It's called "Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing."
One insight, the man considered a leading biographer doesn't think he's writing biographies at all.
Robert Caro: I never had any interest in telling the life of the great man. And I think of them as studies in political power.
Jeffrey Brown: And what does power mean to you?
Robert Caro: It's got such an influence on our lives that people don't think about, from Social Security and Medicare, to where is a bridge located or a highway located, what happened to the neighborhoods that had to be destroyed?
It's what government can do for people, both for good or for ill.
Jeffrey Brown: And so the unelected, but hugely powerful Robert Moses, shaping the nation's largest city for more than 40 years, without any public accountability, and Lyndon Johnson, rising from dirt-poor ranching country in Texas, first elected to Congress in what Caro shows was a rigged election, a master of the Senate as majority leader, and president who forged major civil rights and other legislation, before being brought down by the catastrophe of Vietnam.
Caro acknowledges his author wife, Ina, the only other person to help research his books. The couple uprooted life in New York to live in the Hill Country of Texas to better understand the place and people who shaped Johnson.
Robert Caro: I said to Ina, my wife: "You know, I'm not understanding these people. And, therefore, I'm not understanding Lyndon Johnson. We're going to have to move here."
Ina said -- she loves France. She said, "Why can't you do a biography of Napoleon?"
Robert Caro: But we moved there.
Jeffrey Brown: In the LBJ Library in Austin, Caro did as much as humanly possible what an earlier editor had told him, turn every page -- that is, look at every document, even if it seems irrelevant. Only years later does the writing begin.
Robert Caro: And then I go to the typewriter, and I write a lot of drafts on the typewriter.
Jeffrey Brown: An old Smith Corona.
Robert Caro: An old -- they stopped making that Smith Corona 25 years ago.
Jeffrey Brown: On the walls of his office, pages of the latest chapter he's working on for the fifth and final volume on Johnson.
Robert Caro: Right now, he's appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.
So, I'm right up to writing a line where I say: "Thurgood Marshall said it right. You didn't wait for the times, Mr. President. You made the times."
Jeffrey Brown: In an adjacent room, just some of the hundreds of files of interviews, clippings and notes gathered over the years, and more insight into how Caro works."
Robert Caro: I take the interviews and a stenographer's notebook.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Robert Caro: And my rule is that I type it up every night before I go to bed, no matter how tired I am, because I want to remember the expressions on the face.
So, we have...
Jeffrey Brown: The expressions on the face, I mean, so that kind of detail?
Robert Caro: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes, because...
Robert Caro: I think you learn -- I think you learn a lot.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Altogether, a kind of master class in interviewing, researching, writing, and, perhaps most relevant to today, how to think about facts and truth.
Robert Caro: There is no truth. It's just ridiculous.
But there are -- let's say you wanted to find out how Lyndon Johnson ran the Senate as a majority leader. The more facts about that, the more you find out, what did he do with the unanimous consent agreements, who did he put on committees, how did he change the seniority system, and 1,000 facts, the more of those facts you get, if you just describe the facts, the closer you're coming to whatever truth there is.
Jeffrey Brown: So are you concerned today watching what's happening with the -- with facts being contested everywhere you go?
Robert Caro: Yes.
I don't think there's anything more serious for a democracy than what's happening right now, where, for many reasons, we're losing belief in facts and truth.
Jeffrey Brown: Because? What's lost?
Robert Caro: Well, if you have no confidence that anything is true or correct, what does a democracy base its actions on?
Jeffrey Brown: Robert Caro's book "Working" is out now.
As to volume five of his epic LBJ biography, well, we saw the final pages, but only at a distance.
Caro told us, we too will have to wait.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.