Robert Caro has been criticized for writing this book, not for anything in or about the book itself, but rather because critics don’t want him to divert his time and energy from finishing his series on Lyndon Johnson. His final volume is in the works and has been for many years. Caro’s books on Johnson are nothing short of superb. But he is getting older. The Grim Reaper may be unimpressed by the need for a few more years to finish his life’s work. Maybe Caro is thinking along these lines, at least metaphorically. It must be frightening to be so close to finishing something so monumental. There will be no coda.
“Working,” however, is a great book just by itself. Caro talks a lot about how and why he writes and fills in lots of interesting information about Johnson and Robert Moses, the subject of his first great book, “The Power Broker.” Caro says that he found his purpose when studying Moses. His purpose is NOT biography. Biography is the means to the end of understanding power, and in Johnson and Moses he shows how that works.
Power does not always corrupt, according to Caro, but it always reveals. Johnson & Moses were great men in what they achieved. They were also selfish, cruel and ruthless, as well as often petty, although it is sometimes hard to know whether that pettiness was just that or a technique of power.
Johnson, for example, has especially soft chairs installed for guests in his office. The guest would sink way down, and Johnson could enjoy a higher position. It was also awkward to get out of those chairs, which put the guest in embarrassing situations. In his swimming pool at the Johnson Ranch, Johnson would stand just at the deep end. He was a tall man taller than most of his guests. The shorter guests would have to gulp for air or tread water, while Johnson could stand above them in majesty.
A key to Johnson, Caro says, was his inferiority complex. Johnson grew up very poor, the kind of poverty that really does not exist anymore in the USA. As a young man, he had a job on the road crews. Since he was big and strong, he would pull a kind of plow along the dirt roads, the kind of work that could be assigned to horses or mules. He never forgot that. I will not repeat the details that are in Caro’s other books.
Enlightening for me was when Caro discussed his interview style and method of working. Caro advises in-depth work, get to know the people well. He actually moved to the Texas hill country to get to know Johnson’s people and country. He says that you a researcher cannot be afraid to ask the same questions over and over. Answers vary. And it might be useful to get them into different settings. He describes how he got Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, to open up by taking him to the Johnson house and having him sit at the family table. The memories came back, and he was more open.
Caro has no outside pressure to do his work, which is good and bad. He needs to self-discipline, so each day he dresses in a tie and blazer to go to his office for work. He has a quota of words, i.e. he does not wait for inspiration. He still writes much of his work with pencil or pen. Putting on paper, he says, is an adjunct to thought.
This book is sure worth reading, especially if you have read Caro’s other work. I just hope he gets that last volume of the years of Lyndon Johnson done before he himself goes off to glory.
I think this book will be especially interesting to my friends Dennis Neffendorf, Christopher Datta & George Clack, Dennis because of his close proximity to the Johnson Ranch and George & Chris for their interest in writing books.