Ethics & Public Policy Center

Master of the Craft

Published in City Journal on April 26, 2019


Review: Working, by Robert Caro (Knopf, 207 pp., $25)

IWorking, Robert Caro tells us how, exactly, it is done. “Truth takes time,” Caro writes. He began his epic study of Lyndon Johnson in 1976, and now, 43 years later, having published four volumes, he is at work on the fifth, which tells of LBJ’s presidency and the disaster of Vietnam. He has interrupted that labor to offer Working. 

If I were teaching journalism or nonfiction writing, especially the writing of history and biography, I would build a course around Caro, with Working as my primary text and scenes from his Johnson books as case studies. I would tell my students: “In a given situation, ask yourself, ‘How would Caro handle this?’” The course would teach Caro’s instincts and methods. It’s possible that he is all the education that a writer in this line of work requires.

First, choose the right subject, he advises. Read all available books on the subject. Then read all magazine and journal articles. After that, all national newspaper coverage of the subject—then local coverage. Plunge now into the documents: “turn every page,” as a newspaper editor advised the young Caro long ago. You never know what you might stumble upon. Luck emerges from diligence. In the LBJ Library in Austin, pages from 32 million documents awaited turning. Caro and his wife Ina, his research partner, spent years there, turning pages—panning for gold.

Then will come the business of interviewing—a science and an instinct. Caro tells stories to suggest how it is best done. He has a gift for conducting the interview as a kind of séance: What did you see? What did you hear? The interviewer keeps repeating those questions, until the interview subject—however irritated by the prodding—may break through to the past, recalling things he did not quite know he knew. Details have a way of returning in Proustian elaboration, with all the reluctant specificities—as when Caro brought Sam Houston Johnson, Lyndon’s younger brother (by now a reformed drunkard), back to the Johnson ranch. Caro placed him at the dining room table where he had sat as a child, and, seated behind him in a chair against the wall—like a psychiatrist or a nineteenth-century spiritualist seeking to commune with the dead—coaxed him to recall the bitter fights that Lyndon had had at that table with the star-crossed father whom he eerily resembled in a physical way (tall, rangy, with those enormous Johnson ears), but feared to imitate in his hard luck and failure. Caro has a gift for getting people to summon their ghosts.

“Interviews: Silence is the weapon,” Caro tells us, under the heading of “Tricks of the Trade.” A good homicide detective knows about this. Caro cites Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John Le Carré’s George Smiley, who both understood how to use the tension of silence. Maigret fiddled with his pipe and Smiley polished his eyeglasses with the thick end of his necktie. Caro reports that “when I’m waiting for a 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, they would find a lot of ‘SUs’ there.”

All of this—the sheer reading alone—is endlessly time-consuming. Years go by. Early on, when Caro was writing his first book, The Power Broker, about New York City’s urban planner Robert Moses, Ina sold their house to keep the work going. It takes nerves and luck to build a book-writing career, especially without a regular journalistic or academic job.

Unless the writer possesses a certain inner-directed character, the techniques will take him only so far. The real secret lies in the ancient disciplines: supernatural patience, determination, perseverance. The Caros’ labor in tracking people down, in an age before computers and a national phone directory, inspires awe. In doing research on LBJ’s college years—at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos—Caro sought to run to ground certain stories that, contrary to earlier biographies and articles, Johnson, among other things, stole an election for the student council and “was so unpopular on campus that his nickname was ‘Bull’ (for ‘Bullshit’) Johnson.” The former students whom Caro located to discuss the stories were vague on details and said that the man who knew everything about it was Vernon Whiteside, who as a student had worked closely with Johnson and even schemed with him. But everyone said that Whiteside was dead.

In time, Caro discovered that Whiteside was not dead; he was living in a mobile home, with his wife, in an unidentified locale north of Miami that had “Beach” in its name. The Caros got out maps and started calling every mobile home court in every Florida town or city north of Miami with “Beach” in its name. At last, they found that a Vernon Whiteside had just pulled his mobile home into a court in Highland Beach. Caro went straight to the airport, flew to Tampa, rented a car, drove many miles to the motor court, and knocked on the Whitesides’ door. He explained what he was doing and what he wanted from them. Caro and Vernon Whiteside talked for hours, and when Caro left, he had memorable material for a chapter that shed fascinating light on LBJ’s early ambition and ruthlessness and curious amorality. It was another vivid tile in Caro’s enormous mosaic of Johnson as idealist, as supreme pragmatist, and, at times, as something like a sociopath.

No one who has read Caro’s first LBJ volume, The Path to Power, will forget his evocation of the heartbreaking loneliness—the sheer emptiness—of the Texas Hill Country in the time when LBJ grew up there, before the advent of electricity. His protracted description of a Hill Country housewife’s life—of what she had to do in the way of hauling water to wash the family’s clothes, for example, and then laboring over washtubs with heavy, sodden loads, and then ironing the clothes with a heavy iron heated on a woodstove—is eloquent and exhausting. So committed was Caro to his intuition of the indispensability of the sense of place—the meaning of landscape in the formation of character—that he and Ina moved to a rented house on the edge of the Hill Country and lived there for three years. He slept on the ground in the middle of nowhere in order to feel the emptiness and to think about how it may have formed Johnson’s instincts about the world.

We have not yet come to the actual writing. Early on, Caro discovered that he was too facile on the typewriter. So, to slow himself down and to teach himself not to write before thinking, he adopted the practice of doing his first several drafts in pencil or pen, in longhand, on long legal pads. With those drafts completed, he would switch to his Smith-Corona electric typewriter, which he still uses. He honors the writing habits of his youth, before the coming of computers, which he never uses. He puts his words on paper. He dresses in jacket and tie when he goes to his writing office, near Columbus Circle. He believes that the formality induces in him a mood to do serious work.

On the typewriter he will write many drafts, and when the galleys arrive from his publisher, he will do still more rewriting. He claims that he would go on rewriting the published book if it were possible.

Caro’s central—and teachable—secret is that, if facts matter in the writing of history and biography, then writing matters, too: that words matter, the aura and attitude of the language, the skill and power of its formulation. He gives an example in discussing the effect upon him—and on America—of one of the defining songs of the 1960s, “We Shall Overcome.” Originally, it was “We Will Overcome.” The folksinger Pete Seeger changed it to “We Shall Overcome.” The meaning changed from being a sort of prediction to becoming a stronger thing, an anthem.

If the dramas of character and ideas in Caro’s books have a radiance about them, it is, I think, because they are the product of a remarkably integrated mind doing honest work over a long, long haul.

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