Writing

Robert Caro shares tips about his craft in ‘Working’ – San Francisco Chronicle


NEW YORK (AP) — Fifty years and five books since he left the newspaper business, Robert Caro gets a familiar feeling every time he hunts down a document, makes an extra phone call or asks just one last question.

“I still think of myself as a reporter,” says Caro, the former investigative journalist for Newsday known to millions for his Robert Moses biography, “The Power Broker,” and his four Lyndon Johnson books. “I see my life as a continuum. When I went from being a reporter to working on the ‘The Power Broker,’ it was a seamless thing.”

Caro’s most recent Johnson biography, “The Passage of Power,” came out in 2012, and the next remains ever in progress. Fans eager to hear from him — to hear anything from him — now have “Working.”

Completed within months — a night’s homework assignment by Caro’s standards — the 207-page book combines speeches, interviews and essays with new material about his life on the job. If “Master of the Senate,” his 2003 book on Johnson’s years in the Senate, became a guide for Washington legislators, “Working” reads like a primer for authors and journalists.

Caro relates how to never give up on getting a source to talk to you, and how to keep quiet when an interview is going well (he writes SU — “Shut Up”— in his notebook). He remembers best the advice given in the 1960s by Newsday managing editor Alan Hathway, who reminded the young reporter that when looking through papers, “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.”

Journalists from Ron Chernow to David Maraniss have become acclaimed biographers, but no one has applied the craft on the scale of the 83-year-old Caro, whose books usually take up to a decade to finish. At Newsday, he was lucky to get a month to work on a story. For the Johnson books, he might spend weeks to prove a single fact or track down an interview subject.

To better understand Johnson’s childhood, he and his wife, Ina, relocated for a time to Texas. In Washington, he would retrace LBJ’s early morning walks to the Capitol in his days as a young congressman.

“His research methods are always at the top of my mind as I go about my work,” says Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter whose books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Vince Lombardi.

“One of my mantras is Go There, wherever there is, to infuse myself in the culture and geography of a place. I learned this mostly from his moving to the Texas Hill Country to start his majestic Johnson biography. When I decided to do Lombardi, I knew that I had to move to Green Bay, and for the winter. When I’m at an archive, I can hear Caro saying to me ‘Turn every page.’ And the patience that requires has so often made the difference,” Maraniss says.

Anne Marie Lipinski is curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, where Caro was a fellow in the 1960s.

“So many professions want to claim him — historians and nonfiction writers and the rest, but I think of him as quintessentially a journalist,” she says. “He has this method I would call ‘extreme reporting,’ that is uncompromising, exhaustive journalism.”

Caro spoke recently to The Associated Press at his Manhattan office suite, itself a testament to tradition, and the endurance of ink and paper. Documents and transcripts fill file cabinets, a typed and annotated outline for that final Johnson book covers a wall, and Caro still uses index cards to write himself the occasional reminder. For much of his career as an author, he has had the same publisher (Alfred A. Knopf), editor (Robert Gottlieb), literary agent (Lynn Nesbit) and typewriter (Smith Corona).

Caro’s method is not just to document history but to “make it personal.” For “The Power Broker,” he wrote about the New York City neighborhoods destroyed by Moses’ highways, and the people who had the misfortune to be in his way. To capture the hold of Southern segregationists while Johnson was in politics, he used the life of the longtime Senate leader and LBJ mentor, Georgia’s Richard Russell, visiting Russell’s old hometown to get a sense of his stature.

“You tell the story through Richard Russell and make it a narrative that ties in with the main narrative and will have the additional power of being rooted in reported facts,” Caro says.

Caro’s previous books included in-depth sections — dozens of pages of more — on an isolated subject or time frame, whether rural electrification in Texas or Johnson’s first days as president, after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

For his next book, which covers Johnson’s presidency and continues through his death, in 1973, Caro has two such take-outs in mind: what life was like for the elderly before the 1965 passage of Medicare, and the impact of American bombing on a Vietnamese village. He hopes to visit Vietnam and meet with people on the other end of the attacks Johnson personally directed. “This will be a very long book,” acknowledges Caro, whose shortest Johnson biography, “Means of Ascent,” was over 500 pages.

Even reconstructing a meeting can be an investigative project. Caro mentions a White House discussion about the Vietnam War, with Johnson at the head of the table and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk among others in the room. Research meant tracking down every related memo and speaking with the attendees. He would interview McNamara for his perspective, then Rusk for his. Many historians, Caro believes, would stop there.

“But then I would I go back to McNamara: ‘You said so and so, and Rusk said so and so. How do you square that?’ And then you go back to Rusk and you say the same thing about McNamara,” he explains. “You keep going back and that way you keep getting closer to the truth.”

Caro pauses, smiling in amazement. It’s all an outgrowth of his time as a journalist, he realizes, the old rule of asking questions until you have none left to ask. He reaches for an index card and picks up a pen, repeating to himself, “I never thought of that. I never thought of that.”

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