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Robert Caro's 'Working' Details His Life On The Job


What can you do in a decade? Well, for one author and historian, a decade means writing a single book. And Steve Inskeep spoke with him about his book, his process and time.


Is it fair to think of you as an obsessive researcher?

ROBERT CARO: (Laughter) I don't know how I'd deny that, actually.

INSKEEP: Robert Caro has been writing books since the 1960s. He investigated a man who built roads, bridges and parks in his native New York. The thousand-page biography of Robert Moses launched Caro's lifelong examination of powerful figures.

He's so thorough that his life has had time for only one more. He's completing a five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, which fans hope Caro finishes before he dies. This week, Caro publishes an uncharacteristically short memoir called "Working." He says he was a fast-writing newspaperman until he recalled the advice of a writing professor at Princeton.

CARO: He says, you are never going to achieve what you want to achieve unless you stop thinking with your fingers. So I determined that I was going to make myself think things all the way through.

INSKEEP: What's that mean in practice? Caro writes longhand to slow down. He doesn't even write until he has researched for years. At 83, Caro has lived through an almost incomprehensible acceleration of information, but his style remains the same. He interviews people for hours. He reads thousands of documents at places like the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Texas.

Caro explored the way that Johnson, a relatively powerless Texas congressman, became powerful starting in 1940. He became a conduit from Texas businessmen to other politicians who needed campaign money.

CARO: There was an old fundraiser in Washington - what we now call a political fixer - Tommy Corcoran. I asked him what happened in October, 1940. He said to me - money, kid, money. He says - but you're never going to be able to write about it, kid, because Lyndon Johnson never put anything in writing.

But I'm going through these boxes of pages that have no interest to me. And all of a sudden, there is a list - an amazing list. It was typed by one of his assistants. There are two typed columns. In the left column is the name of the congressman and the district he's in. And the second column is how much money he wants - incredibly low amounts then.

Lyndon, I need $500 for last-minute ads. Lyndon, they're trying to steal the election at the polls. I need $1,500 for poll watchers - that sort of thing. But in the left-hand margin, in Lyndon Johnson's own handwriting, is what he decides to do with each of these requests. If he's going to give the guy everything he asked for, he writes OK. If he's going to give him part of what he asks for, he says OK, 500 or OK, 300 or whatever amount he's decided on. But on some of them, he writes none.

So you see right there how economic power of the money of Texas oilmen created political power - Lyndon Johnson's first political power.

INSKEEP: Interviews are an important part of your work, which I note because you write history. Not every historian would go try to find living people or even be able to, depending on their subject.

CARO: I guess that's right (laughter). But I found - if you looked at my notebooks that I take notes for my interviews, you'd find, written there, big letters - SU - over and over again. SU means shut up.


INSKEEP: What do you mean by that?

CARO: Well, it means I talk too much (laughter). So silence is a great weapon. You know, you ask somebody a question, he doesn't want to answer it. If I just remember to shut up - more often than you'd think - after a while, there's a human need to fill silences. So they'll fill it by telling you what you want to know.

INSKEEP: There's a lot that's valuable in this book, so don't take this the wrong way. But did you have a moment of asking yourself, am I maybe just procrastinating instead of writing the big thing?

CARO: No. No. I have to say no, I didn't. I just felt...

INSKEEP: Are you procrastinating instead of writing the big thing?

CARO: Well, I'm back writing the big thing right now (laughter). I'm doing publicity or interviews like this because this book is published. But I'm already back working on the fifth volume of the Lyndon Johnson book.

INSKEEP: Have you finished your research in the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library?

CARO: Well, let me answer you honestly. I think I've finished my research, but I've thought that a lot of times before.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to imagine what it's like to be a researcher sitting in a presidential library. What are the sounds? What does it feel like to be there going through documents?

CARO: Oh, fascinating. On the 10th floor of the library is a reading room. And you pick out the boxes that you want to see. There's only room for 15 boxes on your cart at a time. So you're always - I'm always asking for more than 15.

So the archivist brings up 15, and they put them all in your cart. You ask what a sound is. I'm going to tell you, the sound - and it's a really depressing sound. Each box, with the 800 pages, is heavy. So each box, there's a little thud as it lands on this cart next to your desk.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

CARO: You're sitting there with all this work and there's a thud, thud, thud. And each thud is going to be a couple of days at least.

INSKEEP: We're in the middle of this momentous political time, as you know very well...

CARO: Yes. Yes.

INSKEEP: ...Where people are obsessively paying attention to the news day, after day, after day. Does your instinct tell you that we won't really understand what is happening now until 20 years from now - or 50 years from now - when some historian obsessively goes through whatever records remain then?

CARO: Yes, Steve. That is what I feel. As I look at Lyndon Johnson's life, you know, the first thing you do is you read all the newspapers about 1965 or something. Then you read the magazine articles. Then you turn to people who were involved, then you interview them. Then you turn to the actual papers, the things that were going back and forth in the White House.

And over and over again you say, oh, so that's what really happened. It's like the shadow to the substance. The substance doesn't become clear - and I don't think being in the age of the computer and the email changes this very much at all. I don't think it becomes clear until some years after the event, you suddenly see the different layers that were involved.


INSKEEP: Robert Caro, thanks for the time.

CARO: It was very nice talking to you again.


MARTIN: Author Robert Caro talking with Steve about his memoir "Working." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.