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Awards & Honors: 2009 National Humanities Medalist

Robert A. Caro

“I’m not really interested in writing biographies,” says Robert A. Caro. It’s a strange thing to say for a man who has spent more than four decades writing biographies and is known for going to great lengths to immerse himself in the lives of his subjects. A New Yorker with the accent to prove it, Caro moved to Texas Hill Country for three years to better understand the place where former president Lyndon Baines Johnson was born and raised. Still, his real goal, he says, is much broader than getting the surface details right: “I want to cast light on political power in the twentieth century.”

Before studying power on the national stage in the life of LBJ, Caro examined the invisible machinations of power in New York City and New York State. As a young investigative reporter for Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, in the 1960s, he had noticed that the press releases from a dozen government agencies all bore the same official’s name. This individual, Robert A. Moses, was commissioner of the parks, chairman of the bridge and tunnel authority, chairman of the state power authority, and the key figure overseeing numerous other public bodies. There was something odd about one man having so many jobs. Understanding how that came about and to what ends Moses used this incredible assemblage of bureaucratic authority was a seven-year journey for Caro and his wife, Ina, who serves as his researcher.

Caro found that Moses’s achievements and dubious methods amounted to the great untold story of modern urban development. In a career spanning nearly half a century, Moses had thought up, arranged funding for, and overseen construction of seven bridges between the boroughs, fifteen expressways, and sixteen parkways; he’d added 20,000 acres to the city’s parks, 40,000 acres to state parks and beaches. Numerous other construction projects carried his signature. But Moses had enjoyed absolute discretion in the dispensing of public contracts and shockingly unfettered power to destroy old neighborhoods and arrogate private land. He was more formidable than any mayor or governor he’d worked with, and yet none of his power was elective.

After Caro’s “world’s smallest advance” ran out, Ina decided they should sell their Long Island house so the book could be finished. The Caros moved to a rented apartment in the Bronx, where for years they scraped by. The whole effort must have seemed even more quixotic when Caro finally delivered to Knopf a manuscript over a million words long. A third had to be cut for the biography to be sold as a single volume. But The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and sell more than a quarter million copies. It is now considered the classic account of politics and the American city in the twentieth century.

Caro’s own approach to storytelling then underwent some refinement as he discovered that he could use his narratives to examine common assumptions about politics and furnish answers with all the drama of history. The key word again was power, but this time he was looking into even more discreet aspects of power and its potentially positive effects.

People in Texas Hill Country said they had been grateful to Lyndon B. Johnson for “bringing the light.” This oft-repeated statement was meant quite literally. There had been no electricity in this part of Texas before Johnson, then a young senator, twisted arms in Washington to waive density requirements for rural electrification and lobbied his own constituents to commit scarce resource to the effort. For many months, Caro researched this seemingly tangential story, trying to “see once and for all what is the power of government to change lives.”

He learned how the women of the country washed laundry before they had electricity: pulling water from wells, building fires to boil water, washing with lye, which burned their hands raw, lifting the heavy wet laundry with a stick. The women all had rounded shoulders and bent backs. He learned how Johnson had pressed President Roosevelt for help, then how Johnson met with his constituents and how he collected their signatures, and what brought people with reservations and little money around to the idea. Then Caro examined the details of how the workers built the power lines, and he learned that the rural folks made food for the workers and served lunch on their best linen to show their gratitude. And he told of a woman who from a distance saw, for the first time, light shining in her house and thought momentarily that her home was on fire.

Explanatory and dramatic, revealing and riveting, Caro’s multivolume examination of the life of President Johnson takes readers into the gritty details of Johnson’s 1948 campaign and into Johnson’s years in the U.S. Senate, where he became a master of the legislative process, better able than anyone to shape bills to promote his own agenda. In 2002, the then Senate Democratic leader said he was reading Caro’s third volume to find out how to better do his job.

Caro is currently writing about Johnson’s years in the White House, which he happened to visit recently as one of a group of historians invited to dine with the current president. They ate in the second-floor dining room, technically a part of the first family’s private residence. The location blared with significance for Caro, who knew this was where LBJ had met with his Tuesday cabinet to plan operations in the Vietnam War. A lot has changed, of course, but still he felt an urge to examine the décor of the room and take mental notes on the wallpaper and window drapes.

By David Skinner
David Skinner is editor of HUMANITIES.