“Political power,” writes biographer Robert A. Caro, “shapes all of our lives. It shapes your life in little ways that you might not even think about.”
That’s why Caro explains in his new not-a-memoir Working (Knopf) that he chose as subjects for his massive writing projects the great forces that molded their times – “particularly the force that is political power.”
Caro, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, twice the National Book Award, and three times the National Book Critics Award, is best known for The Power Broker (the story of New York’s master builder Robert Moses) and his four-volume series (he’s working on volume five) on The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate and The Passage of Power.
In Working, Caro gives us a glimpse into his own life and work in a collection of his experiences researching and writing his acclaimed books, some new essays and some that have appeared throughout his career.
One thing that will quickly strike the reader of Working is that it is not very long. This is worth noting in that The Power Broker is 1,344 pages and each of the Johnson books surpasses 1,000. Caro notes that Working is not his memoir, but indicates one – a long one – is in the works.
Caro’s decisions to write about his subjects, while fascinating reading that hardly feels like the heft of its pages, almost seems like a public service. “If I could find out where Robert Moses got his power – this power that no one understood; this power that nobody else was really even thinking about, the power was just sort of there, it had been there for more than four decades – if I could explain it, I would be adding something to the knowledge people ought to have about political power, not the kind of things you learn in a textbook but the raw naked realities of power, about how power works in cities, how it really works.”
Moses initially did everything he could to prevent Caro from getting information and making himself unavailable for interviews – until he didn’t. Caro describes the process of how he managed to get into the guts of Moses’ operations, and also details some of his other memorable interviews over the years.
Regarding Lyndon Johnson, Caro was fascinated with the thought that for 100 years prior to LBJ, no one had been able to make the Senate truly work. But for Johnson’s six years as Senate Majority Leader, “the Senate became the center of governmental ingenuity, creativity and energy in Washington.”
Caro lets the reader into some of his tricks of the trade. “Silence is a weapon,” he writes. “Silence and people’s need to fill it.”
“When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write ‘SU’ (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of ‘SUs’ there.”
He describes his process for researching a subject: first reading books on the subject, diving into documents, and then the actual interviews.
Working is a fascinating look into one of the great chroniclers of our time. As for his role in that history, he notes, “I think the more light that can be thrown on the actual processes we’re voting about, the better…The more we understand about the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will be. And then, presumably, in some very diffuse, very inchoate way, the better our country will be.”
Working is now available.
About Robert A. Caro
For his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, Robert A. Caro has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, has three times won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and has also won virtually every other major literary honor, including the National Book Award, the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that best “exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist.”