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Anne Azzi Davenport
Anne Azzi Davenport
Robert Caro is one of the nation’s preeminent biographers, known for meticulous research and taking his time with a subject. Indeed, he began his massive series "The Years of Lyndon Johnson" in 1977, but its final volume won't be published for at least another year. Meanwhile, Caro has written a memoir about how he does what he does, titled simply, "Working." Jeffrey Brown sits down with Caro.
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.
"Power Reveals," two words on the wall of an office in Midtown Manhattan.
You do all the research, and then you sit here and you say, well, what is this book about?
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.
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.
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.
So, I type them up every night.
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
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.
But do you ever have all your questions answered?
This says, John Connally at his Floresville ranch.
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.
I never had any interest in telling the life of the great man. And I think of them as studies in political power.
And what does power mean to you?
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.
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.
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?"
But we moved there.
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.
And then I go to the typewriter, and I write a lot of drafts on the typewriter.
An old Smith Corona.
An old — they stopped making that Smith Corona 25 years ago.
On the walls of his office, pages of the latest chapter he's working on for the fifth and final volume on Johnson.
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."
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."
I take the interviews and a stenographer's notebook.
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…
The expressions on the face, I mean, so that kind of detail?
I think you learn — I think you learn a lot.
Altogether, a kind of master class in interviewing, researching, writing, and, perhaps most relevant to today, how to think about facts and truth.
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.
So are you concerned today watching what's happening with the — with facts being contested everywhere you go?
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.
Because? What's lost?
Well, if you have no confidence that anything is true or correct, what does a democracy base its actions on?
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.
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In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Anne Azzi Davenport is the Senior Coordinating Producer of CANVAS at PBS NewsHour.
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