Preet Bharara: Robert Caro, thanks so much for being on the show.
Robert Caro: Pleasure to be here.
Preet Bharara: You don’t go by Robert, you go by Bob.
Robert Caro: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: It’s very odd for me to think about calling you Bob because I’m a huge fan. I have been reading your books for many, many years. For me it’s a huge privilege and honor to be in the same room with you and to be asking you about your writing process, a rookie myself in the publishing business. I’ll try to call you Bob, but if I revert to Robert please forgive me and forgive the formality. If you would allow me one more indulgence since I have you here, your book, Master of the Senate, has special meaning for me because I read it before I began working in the US Senate. I was a staffer in the Senate Judiciary Committee for four and a half years.
Preet Bharara: One thing I did, which sounds kind of corny, and I’m now revealing it to the tens and hundreds of millions of people who listen to this podcast, on my very last day, or second to last day, when I was about to be confirmed to be the US attorney I felt a sense of nostalgia because I think it was an amazing privilege to work in the Senate. Not only to work in the Senate, but to have access as a high level staffer to the Senate floor. I sat on the Senate floor many times next to my boss at the time, Senator Schumer, with a little staff chair when he would give an address that I wrote or would vote on various matters. When he voted, the staff would sit in a special section in the back corner, which I know you know very well, opposite the corner that had the desk with the candy.
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: There’s a desk with candy in it. And I took a copy of your book, the hardcover copy of your book, and spent an hour, one of my last few hours in the Senate as a staffer thinking I may never be here again, and I opened up to the first chapter of the book, which I believe is called The Desks of the Senate.
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: And you recite the history of who sat at which desk, what they’re made of, and you described it. I read The Desks of the Senate while I was sitting with the desks of the Senate, and it was a very special moment for me, so thank you for that.
Robert Caro: It was a special moment for me the first time I went down in the well and looked around at the desks.
Preet Bharara: They gave you special privilege even though you were not a staffer and not a member of the Senate?
Robert Caro: Well, the Senate historian, both Senate historians, were long time friends of mine because I’ve been asking them for so many things. One day one of them said, “Have you ever been down in the well when the Senate’s not in session?” I said, “No, I’ve never been there when the Senate’s not.” It’s quite an experience, you go down there, you turn around and there are these four glowing arcs of desks, highly burnished wood, and you say, “God, Webster, Clay, and Calhoun stood at these desks when they were making speeches.” That was actually a big … It’s a moment I said, “I don’t care. I’m going to tell.” The history of the Senate is fabulous and I wanted to tell it as well as the story of Lyndon Johnson.
Preet Bharara: Is that when you thought to write about the desks, or did you have that experience after you wrote about the desks?
Robert Caro: No, that’s what got me to write about the desks. I had never thought of that before.
Preet Bharara: You have a new book, which I am pleased to tell people who don’t have a lot of time that it’s a bit shorter than the average Robert A Caro book. It’s called Working, Researching, Interviewing, Writing. I hesitate to call it … Would you call it a memoir?
Robert Caro: It’s sort of … No, not a full memoir, it’s like recollections. It’s glimpses of how I work, yeah.
Preet Bharara: On the cover … I think I have an advanced copy, but I presume the cover will be the same. It’s you sitting at a desk with a white legal pad. You still use the white legal pad?
Robert Caro: Yeah, I write my first drafts in long hand still.
Preet Bharara: Still?
Robert Caro: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And you’re sitting in front of, on the desk is an IBM-
Robert Caro: No, it’s a Smith Corona Electra 210.
Preet Bharara: Smith Corona Electra typewrite.
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: You still use that?
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: You ever thought about moving to computer word processing?
Robert Caro: I sometimes use the computer to take notes, but see, I try to slow myself down. My problem when I was young was I felt I wrote too fast. I didn’t think things through. That was when I was a reporter. I think I was a really fast rewrite man on Newsday when I was a young journalist. I remembered something that happened to me at Princeton. I took a creative writing course with an old very courtly soft spoken Southern gentleman, a very famous critic at the time, [Dar P Blackmer 00:04:39]. I handed in a short story to him. I took his course for two years, every two weeks I handed in a short story. He always said something complimentary. I was always doing these things at the very last minute, an all nighter. I was always pulling all nighters, is what we used to call them. I thought I was fooling him, and then at our last session he said something nice to me and then he says … This is practically the last thing he said to me. He said, “But you know Mr Caro, you’re never going to achieve what you want to achieve is you don’t stop thinking with your fingers.” Did you ever have the feeling that someone has seen right through you, he’s been seeing right through you all along?
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Robert Caro: I said, “He knows I’m not really thinking about these stories because it’s too easy for me to just dash them off.” When I was a newspaper man I continued being a very fast rewrite man, but when I stopped to do The Power Broker, my first book, I said, “This is really complicated, I can’t do this the same way. I’ve got to slow myself down.” The first thing I thought of is going to do my first drafts in long hand because that’s the slowest way of committing your thoughts to paper.
Preet Bharara: But correct me if I’m wrong, it’s not that your writing has necessarily gotten slower, and that’s how you slowed yourself down. Is it that, or is it that you decided that you needed to think more before you actually wrote things down, and research more?
Robert Caro: That’s exactly right, yes.
Preet Bharara: Once you’ve done that, do you think your pace of writing is still as speedy as it was?
Robert Caro: Yes. When I finish the research and I’m starting to write, I set myself a goal of a thousand words a day, and I usually meet that goal. The writing isn’t what takes long, it’s the researching that takes long.
Preet Bharara: And the thinking.
Robert Caro: The thinking, yes. My books are so long so I do something that’s really weird. I’m not sure I should be saying this to the public.
Preet Bharara: It’s exactly what you should be saying to the public. We want all the weird stuff.
Robert Caro: Okay, here’s the weird stuff.
Preet Bharara: That’s what podcasts are for.
Robert Caro: When I finish researching a book and I have all this material, I make myself not write until I can boil down what the book is about. I like to try to make it into one paragraph, but I usually fail. It’s usually two or even three paragraphs, but I don’t start writing until I boil it down that way. Then I type those out, I put it up on a corkboard next to my desk, and let’s say for the next three years while I’m writing I make everything relate to those couple of paragraphs.
Preet Bharara: I’ve seen you also say that it’s not just the two or three paragraphs, but that you want to have the last sentence of the book, even it’s an 1,100 or 1,200 page book, you want to know what the last sentence is going to be so you are inexorably leading up to that last sentence.
Robert Caro: I learned that in The Power Broker. That was my first book, I had this huge mass of material, and I couldn’t think how to write it. I couldn’t think how to outline it. It was very frustrating and actually terrible time for me. Robert Moses had long since stopped speaking to me, but I would go whenever he appeared in public. He was dedicating something out of Flushing Meadow at the World’s Fair site before a small audience. All his men, his engineers, were all sitting in the first couple of rows and I was sitting in the back row. Point of his speech is he said, “Some day we’re going to sit here and talk about the ingratitude of the public toward great men.” By which he meant himself. And I said, “Why are they grateful?” I see all the heads of Moses’ subordinates nodding, yes, why aren’t they grateful? All of a sudden I said, “Yes, that’s the last line of the book. Why weren’t they grateful? Why did he build all these highways and parks? Why aren’t people more grateful to him?” That’s the last line of the book, “Why weren’t they grateful?” I went back to my office and was able to just sit down and outline the whole Power Broker and write it very easy. I learned my lesson, I have to have the-
Preet Bharara: Yeah, you did it in like two or three months, right?
Robert Caro: No.
Preet Bharara: How many years was it?
Robert Caro: To research and write?
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Robert Caro: I worked on The Power Broker for seven years.
Preet Bharara: Seven years?
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Do you worry at all that if you have the last sentence in mind that that’s improperly shaping the root to that last sentence, or is it that you already have done the research so you know what the path is going to be?
Robert Caro: I’ve already done the research. I don’t always know how to put it into a book form, but once I see that last sentence, which that can take a long … I’m being too glib about it. It takes a long time sometimes to find that last sentence, but if I find … If I know it, writing the book gets easier.
Preet Bharara: Because it focuses you.
Robert Caro: Well, it organizes me.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Robert Caro: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Let’s talk about research because I think people have not appreciated how much time that takes, and you can have a bit of impatience. You have a phrase that you say was one of the better piece of advice you ever got from an editor of yours, because you began as an investigative journalist, this was at Newsday.
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: This editor said to you, “Turn every page.”
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: You said that has stuck with you, what does that mean?
Robert Caro: That was the first piece of advice. I wasn’t an investigative reporter, I was the low man on the totem pole doing obituaries and short articles, but through an accident I had to go down and go through a whole mass of files at a federal agency on a Saturday because we couldn’t get anybody else. Everyone else was at a picnic on Fire Island. No one had cellphones and you couldn’t reach … I was the only guy in the office because I was the lowest reporter. Finally, an editor said, in a tone of real apprehension, “I guess you’ll have to go yourself.” I spent all night working through the files. I really loved … I’d never done that before. Just like, “Gee, I love doing this.” I wrote a memo for the real reporter who would write the real story. The next day I was back home and there was this editor, a tough old guy out of the 1920s, out of the front page, and he had never had … I went to Princeton, he had never allowed them to hire anybody from the Ivy League. I was the firs Ivy League graduate in his city room in like 20 years, the 20 years he had been there.
Robert Caro: His name was Alan Hathaway. Secretary says, “Alan wants to see you right away.” I said to Ina, “Thank god we didn’t move.” We were still living in New Jersey, Newsday was on Long Island. I said, “I’m about to be fired.” I drove in there just absolutely sure I was going to be fired, and his secretary, June, says, “Go right in, Alan wants to see you.” I see he’s reading my memo, and I went in. After a while he looks up at me and he says, “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this. From now on you do investigative work.” I don’t have a lot of savoir faire in moments like that, and I remember saying to him something like, “But I don’t know anything about investigative work.” He looks up at me, and I’ve never … You know, there are moments in your life you don’t forget, and he said, “Just remember one thing. Turn every page, never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.” To tell you the truth, that stuck with me my whole life, so when I get down to the Johnson library of course you can’t turn every page. There’s like-
Preet Bharara: Too many pages.
Robert Caro: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Some people say that about one of your books.
Robert Caro: Well, they shouldn’t be allowed to do that.
Preet Bharara: They shouldn’t. When you referred to Ina, that’s your wife?
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Who is also an important editor for you.
Robert Caro: Well, she’s researcher. She’s really the only person I’ve ever been able to trust to do research besides myself.
Preet Bharara: Why is that?
Robert Caro: I learned it because while I was doing The Power Broker we were really broke. I got hurt playing basketball. When you’re in your 30s, you should learn not to play basketball anymore. I got hurt in a pick up game. I had to stay in a bed for a number of months, and I needed someone to do the research. I would tell Ina. When I was a reporter at Newsday I spent a lot of time in the Nassau County courthouse in Mineola, so I would say to her, “Go up to the second floor of the courthouse, there’s a telephone booth there. Call me from there.” She’d call me, I’d say, “Now turn around, there’s a double door there to the county clerk’s office. You go in. They’re going to ask you what you want to see. You want to go to the second isle on your right and look up whatever.” I learned that if there was something there to find, she was so thorough and conscientious, she would find it.
Preet Bharara: If I can ask this, what kind of personality does it take to not only be dedicated to turning every page and immersing yourself in the research, but enjoying it? You said you enjoy it. My own parallel experience as a federal prosecutor overseeing a lot of cases, there were some people who were very good at trial, which is a bit of the storytelling. The research had been done and they come in at the last minute and they tell the spellbinding story to the jury. They might not be so good at turning every page and doing the investigation. There were some other people who were not great at trial, but they would immerse themselves in the emails and the documents and the phone records and the financial records that looks like mush to a lot of people, loved it, night after night after night. And figured out who did what and why. It’s rare to find somebody who can do both, and you as a writer have been able to do both. Both immerse yourself in the investigation, and also tell the beautiful story. What kind of personalty traits do you have that enable you to do both of those things?
Robert Caro: That’s fascinating what you said. That you observed that there were two types of people. I happen to really love going through … You’re looking in the Johnson library, you have the transcripts of telephone tapes, he usually didn’t allow minutes to be taken of the Vietnam decision making meeting, but you have pretty detailed notes of them, you interview the people. You say, “I’m coming closer to what actually happened.” I love that process. Writing is very different, writing is very hard for me. There’s nothing fun for me about writing.
Preet Bharara: But you like having written.
Robert Caro: I really like having … No, I like having published.
Preet Bharara: Having published, and having sold, as I’m discovering.
Robert Caro: Having sold, yeah. As you are doing.
Preet Bharara: Selling is good. Your books are still available in every bookstore that I walk into.
Robert Caro: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: But to tell a story … I want to go back to storytelling because I think it’s a fascinating thing. You do all this research, and you immerse. I’m going to pressure you again to explain how you have this incredible ability because you can find a million facts. Let’s say you go in, and you do the research, you turn every page, and you go to the library, and Ina helps you get the material together. Now you have one million undifferentiated facts, and you want to tell a particular story, and maybe even in your case you already know where the story ends. What is the process of selection, and how do you think about the storytelling, so the characters come alive, and it’s not just a dry recitation of what happened?
Robert Caro: You ask terrific questions. One of the things I do … You were kind enough to say I make the characters come alive. One of the things I say, like in The Power Broker, I said, “The rise of the Irish in New York is an important part of the story.” So you can either give people a lecture on the rise of the Irish in New York or you can tell it through the life of Alfred E Smith who was the first Irish Catholic to become governor. Oscar Handlin, an historian, once said, “Al Smith is the consequential person in American history most forgotten by history.” Franklin Roosevelt said to Francis Perkins, his Secretary of Labor, “You know Francis, 90% of everything we’ve done in the New Deal Al Smith did first in New York.” I said, “This is a fascinating life. I can tell the rise of the Irish, the significance of them, through this life and if I can write it well enough …” That’s what you always say to yourself, “If I can manage to write it well enough then people will read it.” That sounds easier than it is.
Preet Bharara: It’s very difficult.
Robert Caro: If you looked in my office at the end of a day you’d see so many crumpled up pieces of paper that I’ve thrown out.
Preet Bharara: Do you read novels?
Robert Caro: I love novels.
Preet Bharara: Are your models for writing you books that are tremendous exercises in storytelling, are your models other history books or biographies, or are they in part novels?
Robert Caro: In part, they’re the novels of Anthony Trollope.
Preet Bharara: In part.
Robert Caro: Who was a 19th century … He wrote six political novels, they’re called the Palliser novels, because he seemed to understand something that I think you understand from your career, and I understand, or I think I understand, that politics and government turns on character, on people. And these official’s character is in a way the fate of government. You say, “Why did Lyndon Johnson, why did he have these two sides of him?” One side is this horrible side of leading this nation into this incredible war. He sent almost 600,000, think of that, 600,000 men over to fight in the jungles of Asia. What kind of a guy does that? On the other hand, he’s the guy who passes the first voting rights, the first civil rights, Headstart, Medicare. So you say, “That’s personality, that’s character that accounts for this.”
Preet Bharara: You also talk about, I assume this is related to storytelling, the power of place.
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: What do you mean by that?
Robert Caro: Quality of writing is just as important in a biography or any work of history as it is in a novel. That’s something that I just don’t think is understood as much as it should be, and one of the things that matters in novels is the sense of place. That you can see, if the novel is good, the writer has done enough so the reader can see in his mind the place that this is taking place. I think that’s very important, and I try to do it. I am not saying I succeed in doing it all the-
Preet Bharara: I think you do. Are you a good observer, or are you usually writing about historical things so you can go back and find photographs and people’s memories?
Robert Caro: No. I’d say the opposite of that. In order to do the books, to show the human cost. You know, what I believe is that if you want to write books about power, you can’t just write about the powerful people who wield power. You have to write about the powerless, the people without power on whom government has an effect either for good or for ill. To do that you have to spend a lot of time. Like with Lyndon Johnson and the hill country, I had to get to know the women who lived in the hill country before … When Lyndon Johnson runs for Congress, he’s 28 when he’s running. They don’t have any electricity there so the people, the women had to haul up every bucket from the wells. They had to do the wash by hand on broomsticks. They had to iron with these heavy slabs of iron, which they kept heated on a stove even in the hottest weather there. The women were stooped and bent from this labor. Bent was the word. Women, we are bent. When he runs for Congress at 28, you know he says, “If you elect me you won’t look like your mother looks.” That’s the political genius-
Preet Bharara: Because he was going to electrify.
Robert Caro: He was going to electrify. In order to understand what their laws are like, I said to Ina, “I don’t understand this country. It’s so lonely, it’s so isolated.” I said, “We’re going to have to move there.” I didn’t realize it was going to take three years. But you have to get to know the people, the people who were thrown out for Robert Moses [crosstalk 00:21:44].
Preet Bharara: And the place, and you go there. You spent three years there.
Robert Caro: In Texas, yes, three years we lived there. When I said that to her, “We’re going to have to live there.” She said, “Why can’t you be doing a biography of Napoleon?”
Preet Bharara: It’s been said about that chapter you’re describing, electrification, that this is something that on its face seems utterly boring.
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: The impact of electrification of a rural area of Texas. Again, you bring it to life in part by taking the time, turning every page, going to the place, meeting the people, letting it all sink in. Can I ask you, do you take some pride, and do you seek out opportunities to write about things that may seem on their surface mundane and boring, like bridges and roads, then bring them to life, or it just happens to be what you write about?
Robert Caro: No. I didn’t know this was a story. I remember this woman, they all lived on isolated really lonely ranches there. The hill country was an empty impoverished place when we moved there. Now Austin has expanded out, but I remember this one woman saying to me, “You’re a city boy. You don’t know how heavy a bucket of water is, do you?” I said, “No.” So she takes me out to this well, which was covered with wooden boards, and she pushes the boards aside, and she gets out of her garage a water bucket, still had the rope attached. She says, “Now drop it down.” I dropped it down. The average depth of a well in the hill country is like 75 feet deep. Drop it down, she says, “Now pull it up.” Let me tell you, it’s heavy. Then you think her husband … These people were so poor they couldn’t have hired help. The husband was not home to help her. He was out working in the fields or rounding up the cattle. Her kids, the minute they get old enough to work, they had to help the father. You say she had to pull up the water all by herself all day.
Robert Caro: There was a Department of Agriculture study that I found from 1940 that said the average farm family uses 200 gallons of water a day. That’s all pulled up by one woman. Then another woman said to me … There are moments because you’re there, she said, “Do you want to see how we carry the water?” She meant so she could carry two buckets at a time. To this moment I can see, she pulled up the door of her garage and there was her yoke. It was a yoke like cattle wore. It’s a heavy bar of wood. You look at this woman, and you say, “That’s why they’re so stooped. That’s why they’re so bent.”
Preet Bharara: Right.
Robert Caro: It’s not something that you intend, if you immerse yourself in a place you sometimes find out, “This is a waste of time.” You’re just wasting your time. But sometimes you say, “Lyndon Johnson had this genius for turning compassion into law.” He turns his compassion for these people without electricity, he says, “I’m going to bring you electricity if you elect me.” He does that, and their lives are changed.
Preet Bharara: Is that your principle advice to writers today, to make sure that you spend the time both in connection with turning every page, the primary research, but also going to the places? Another story that you have told about Lyndon Johnson when he was very young, and he was a staffer in the Congress, and he would run to work in the morning. Most people would have that story and might write that story and include it in the book. You didn’t just restate that he used to run to work in the morning, you wanted to know why. So what did you do?
Robert Caro: The reason I wanted to know why was that a particular thing happened, I found the woman who worked in the office with Lyndon Johnson back in 1937 and ’38 when he came to Congress, who said the following thing, she would be coming to work from another direction. Lyndon Johnson lived in a little hotel at the foot of Capitol Hill down by Union Station. He would be walking, and he’d walk up the hill, and he’d start to be walking in front of the Capitol, then all of a sudden every morning he’d break into a run. She said, “Something excited him there.” What she actually said was, it started in winter, “I thought he was too poor to afford a topcoat, but then the weather turned warm, and he was still running.” I said, “Is there something there that thrilled him or excited him?” Finally, I went there many times, I took the same walk, I said, “There’s nothing here.”
Preet Bharara: You didn’t run at first, you were walking.
Robert Caro: No, I didn’t run at all, but I couldn’t … I said, “There’s nothing here.” Then suddenly I thought of something. “Yeah, but Bob you never took this walk at the same time that Lyndon Johnson did.” Which was early in the morning, because he was a … He got up with the sun. I did it at 5:30 or 6:00 I don’t remember what hour. Then you realized, “Oh, there is something.” Because the sun is just coming up in the East. He’s walking in front of the whole East front of the Capitol and it’s lit up. All that marble with the heroic figures and the freezes in lit up like this blazing white thing. It’s like saying, “Sure, he’s running because he comes from this land of little log dwellings.” All of a sudden he’s seeing lit up for him everything that he can get if he succeeds in the Capitol. Oc course he’s excited. I said, “You, Bob, you don’t have to give the reader a lecture on what he’s seeing. If you describe him well enough and the place well enough, the reader will feel what he’s feeling.” That’s what I try to do. As I say, I don’t say, “No, I succeeded in that.” But that’s what I try.
Preet Bharara: Well, I think you did. I want to talk about how difficult the life of a writer is, and the kind of writing that you do, sustained research. You go to the place. Because I’m not sure everyone appreciates that, and you talk about that in this new book working. Mostly people know about the folks that you’ve written about, they don’t know as much about you. That’s why this is such a blessing to people. You’ve given so much to the public in terms of understanding and richness of understanding, of not just Robert Moses and not just Lyndon Johnson, but power and all sorts of other democratic concepts and principles. But you’ve got to make a living. You were not endowed. I presume now you do okay, but at first you’re not endowed by some creator with a fund from which you can write future Pulitzer Prize winning books that take you multiple years to write. Explain a little bit, as you do in the book, what it was like for you just as a person, and a young family man on a low salary trying to sell the idea for the book and making ends meet.
Robert Caro: Well, that was more not making ends meet. I was a reporter for Newsday. We basically didn’t have any savings, and we had a young son. My advance, I was always kidding around that I got the world’s smallest advance, which was $5,000. Of which they gave me $2,500.
Preet Bharara: The schedule for writing … This was on The Power Broker.
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: And the schedule that they had set for writing The Power Broker, that you set, your prediction was it was going to take you how long?
Robert Caro: Nine months.
Preet Bharara: Nine months.
Robert Caro: And the thing was I got a grant that enabled me to quit my job. I said to Ina, “Oh, they’re giving me a grant for a year, and it’s only going to take nine months. We’ll finally get to go to France.” But after a year, of course, I had barely started. We were really out of money, so we sold our house on Long Island. It was, unfortunately, before the real estate boom, so we cleared $25,000. We moved to an apartment in the Bronx, and that got us through a year. Then Ina was teaching, but I got hurt. I had to stay in bed for quite a lot of months. The next two or three years we remember a period of just a time of being broke, really broke. After about four or five years I went to my editor who is not returning my telephone calls in an expeditious way at all. I had given him half the manuscript that was half a million words, and I didn’t hear from him for a long time. He takes me to dinner at a very inexpensive Chinese restaurant. I should have realized the significance of that. He says that …
Robert Caro: This is not my present publishing house, but the one I was at before. He says, “Oh, we really like the book. Keep going.” I said, “Can I have the other half of my advance?” The other $2,500. He said … I’ve never forgotten his words. He said, “Oh, no, Bob, I guess you didn’t understand me. We like the book, but very few people are going to read a book on Robert Moses, and you have to be prepared for a very small printing.” That was really the worst … When I look back on my life, that was the worst professional, or nonprofessional, that was the word. I didn’t know what to tell Ina because we were completely out of money.
Preet Bharara: Did you believe him? You had spent time as an author, one might say an artist, and you believed in the work, and I’m guessing you believed that it was a story worth telling. Writers’ lack of self-confidence from time to time not withstanding, you must have thought, “If I do this right people will read the book.” When your editor tells you that they won’t, how did you process that?
Robert Caro: I sort of believed it because no one really knew who Robert … The extent of his power. I knew it. I knew there was a real significance in his story for democracy. Never having been elected to anything, that he had so much power, where did he get it? But I didn’t believe … No, I never thought the book was going to sell a lot, but what happened was very dramatic. Not long after that my editor left this publishing house so I could leave. There was clause in my contract that I could leave, so I asked a friend of mine for the names of some agents. He gave me the name of four agents, and I interviewed. The last one I interview was a woman names Lynn Nesbit, this was in 1971. Lynn called me and said … She was a new agent too, sort of new, and she said, “I’d like to represent you so come in and talk to me.” I went in, she said, “I’d like to represent you, but you have to tell me what you’re so worried about.” This editor had made me feel no one was interested in this book, remember?
Robert Caro: I didn’t know I looked worried, but of course I was worried. I said, “I’m worried that I won’t have enough money to finish the book.” She said, “How much are we talking about?” I don’t remember the figure, but it wasn’t all that large, but it was enough for me to do another couple of years of work. She looked at me and she said, “Is that what you’re worried …” See, these are other sentences I’ve never forgotten because they were so important in my life. She says, “Is that what you’re worried about? Well, you can stop worrying right now. I can get you that by picking up this phone. Everyone in New York knows about this book. I can see the only thing you care about is writing. I have to find you an editor you can work with for the rest of your life.” So my life changed then. That was 1971. Lynn has been my agent for 48 years, that editor, Bob Gottlieb, Robert Gottlieb, has been my editor for 48 years.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, I’m going to ask about him too. Tell the story … One of my favorite stories in the book, this story about how you auditioned, I guess, four editors, and like lots of things in life important moments revolve around food choice and a meal. How did you get Gottlieb?
Robert Caro: Lynn said, “I’m going to set up lunches for you with four editors. Pick the one …” They were all famous editors, “And see if there’s one you’d like to work with.” The first three took me to … I don’t remember if there was a Four Seasons, but whatever the equivalent in 1971, very fancy restaurant, and basically all said, “I can make you a star.” Which wasn’t actually what I was interested in. Gottlieb said, “Well, I don’t go out for lunch, but we can have a sandwich at my desk and talk about your book.” So I picked him.
Preet Bharara: And the rest is history.
Robert Caro: The rest is 48 years.
Preet Bharara: 48 years. While we’re on the topic of your editor, how did it work? I had a very excellent experience with my editor at Knopf, Peter Gethers, nice name check for him here. If there was a dispute about something, who deferred to whom, and why?
Robert Caro: We’ve had … It’s 48 years of some very bitter fights.
Preet Bharara: But you always made up.
Robert Caro: I wouldn’t use the word made up.
Preet Bharara: But you stayed together.
Robert Caro: We stayed together. Well, we have a lot of running disputes. One is he thinks I use too many semicolons. I think I don’t. I can’t tell you all, but we both sort of believe in what we believe in, so there are real fights. But the thing about why I’ve stayed with him is he’s a great editor. The reason he’s great for me is he’s very smart and he thinks things through. If he makes a suggestion and you don’t accept it, he’s not just going to let that go by and turn the page. He’s going to argue for why he thinks there should be a change. You have to defend it, and therefore you have to think about why you’re doing things as you’re writing. You have to think, “What is the reason I’m doing this?” And that’s helpful to me.
Preet Bharara: Do you know when your writing is good?
Robert Caro: No.
Preet Bharara: Still, to this day?
Robert Caro: I never think the writing’s-
Preet Bharara: You’ll write a chapter and maybe as you’ve written it you don’t know, and you put it away, and you come back to it, are there times when you say, “No, that’s not bad.”?
Robert Caro: Not very often.
Preet Bharara: Not very often.
Robert Caro: Usually I rewrite in galleys, which I even rewrite in page proofs. Which you’re not allowed to do.
Preet Bharara: That was made very clear to me. You cannot do that.
Robert Caro: I would rewrite-
Preet Bharara: But I’m not Bob Caro.
Robert Caro: No, I would rewrite in the finished book. Sometimes when I’m looking back at something, at a chapter I’ve written for something in the next book, I say, “Oh, this should be so much better.” And you see a way to improve it, but it’s too late.
Preet Bharara: People refer to your books as biographies, and I guess in the library and in the bookstore, if you go to the biography section, that’s where you’ll find The Power Broker, where you’ll find the LBJ books, but you say, “I don’t really regard my books as biographies.” How come?
Robert Caro: I don’t. I never had the faintest interest in writing a book just to tell the life of a great man. From the minute I started thinking about writing book, I thought of using the lives of certain men as a way to examine political power because it’s political power that I was interested in. How it affects people’s lives, how it is created. I said, “If you pick the right man, you can use the life of a man to show what you want to show about political power.” You have to pick the right man.
Preet Bharara: But how do you know when, as you’ve said, once you made the selection then you begin an immersive process of learning all sorts of things about them. And your opinion of that man, and it happened I believe with Robert Moses, and to some extent with Lyndon Johnson also, it changes. How do you select?
Robert Caro: One thing didn’t change. In order for this to work for me, this is just for me, I’m not giving other people advice, it has to be someone who’s done something that no one else has ever done before because, therefore, if you can figure out how and why he did it, then you will be getting to the essence of power. Now Moses did something that no one else has done before. We believe power comes from being elected, from the ballot box. Here’s a guy who was never elected, he had more power than anyone who was elected, more than any governor, more than any mayor and governor combined, and he held that power, think of this, for 44 years. And with it he shaped the whole metropolitan area. When I wanted to do another book the thing that attracted me to Lyndon Johnson first wasn’t his Presidency, it was that when he was Senate Majority Leader he made the Senate work. They never worked before him.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Robert Caro: Really hasn’t worked since him. For six years, when he was Majority Leader, the Senate was the center of governmental creativity and energy in Washington. It’s not Eisenhower’s civil rights bill, it’s Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights bill.
Preet Bharara: If you had to … Based on all of your experience, and there’s no finer authority on power than you in many ways, what are the personality traits that allowed someone like Robert Moses to do that which had never been done before, and Lyndon Johnson also? Among the possibilities, and pick other, perseverance, self-confidence, intelligence, shamelessness, courage, maybe some negative qualities. What are the list of things that allowed folks like that to do unprecedented things?
Robert Caro: I would have to say it varies from Moses to Johnson.
Preet Bharara: So for Moses?
Robert Caro: Both Moses and Johnson were political geniuses. Moses at one time thought he’d be elected mayor of New York, he ran for governor of New York. He didn’t win.
Preet Bharara: So not a perfect genius.
Robert Caro: Let me tell you, people got a glimpse of what Robert Moses was like. That could be really frightening. I remember talking to him, he was already 78 years old. And when he got angry he was frightening.
Preet Bharara: So he ended up choosing a path through which he became more powerful?
Robert Caro: Correct. He went into a room with a yellow legal pad, and he thought of a way that public authorities could be a source of great political power. So much political power that he couldn’t be touched by anyone who was elected. No one knew what he was doing when he suggested this legislation to deal with the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, and the other … No one in Albany realized what they were passing, only he knew it. Lyndon Johnson was a way of finding power in places that no one had ever seen it before in the Senate. The quality that they both had is a genius in creating political power.
Preet Bharara: How about understanding what animates other people? From my reading of some of the Johnson books, maybe it’s not the top quality, but Johnson knew every strength and weakness of every person he ever had to reckon with.
Robert Caro: You’re absolutely … Johnson, that was a key thing. He was a genius in reading people, of knowing what they were afraid of, what they really wanted. Moses, the opposite because he couldn’t deal with human beings. He thinks of a way of getting power without human beings being involved.
Preet Bharara: You spoke before, you talked about the need to, when assessing power and analyzing power, to also talk about the other side of that, the powerless. When was the first time you realized that?
Robert Caro: The first time I realized that, boy, what a good question. The first time. I guess the first time I realized that had to do less with Robert Moses than with Al Smith, who was the governor and his great patron. We’re all taught that all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts. I don’t happen to believe that power always corrupts. I think that sometimes power can cleanse, and one example is in Al Smith. He is the most ruthless of Tammany henchmen on his way up to the governorship. He gets the governorship and he goes to the Tammany bosses, and he says to them, “Now you have to free me. I have to do things for our people.” By which he meant the Irish. He passes all this social welfare legislation, disability benefits, workman’s compensation, unemployment insurance, widow’s pensions. Think of what the life of the Irish was when there was no government help for them, when if your husband died the first thing the state did if you applied for aid was to take your children away and put them in an institution. That’s the kind of thing that you said, “Oh, that’s what government can do here. That’s how government can help people.” So you start to think about government.
Robert Caro: The real thing … You ask very good questions. The real awakening for me was about Robert Moses, when he was building highways. He would run these highways right through the middle of neighborhoods in New York. I’m reading all these textbooks on highways, and they all mention the human cost, that’s in quote, human cost, of highways, but no one, not one book talked about what the human cost was. I said to Ina, “I’m never going to write this book about the great highway builder without being able to examine and tell people what the human cost is.” I finally figured out, it wasn’t fast, a way to do that was to take one mile. He built 627 miles of expressways and parkways. I’ll take one mile and examine that one mile, and see what the human cost is. I picked a neighborhood in the Bronx, one mile of the Cross Bronx Expressway, it’s called East Tremont, and I found people, like 15,000 of them, that he had evicted. He evicted, for his highways, 250,000 people. For his urban renewal projects he evicted 250,000 more. That’s half a million people.
Robert Caro: What did it mean for these people? I tried to find, and it was hard then. Now we have a national telephone directory on our computers. Those days if someone moved away, trying to find that … That took a lot of time. But I would interview these couples from East Tremont. They had a real community there, it was a real neighborhood. It was lower middle-class. They mostly worked in the garment district. They were not well off financially, but as long as they had their community with their friends and their relatives, they had a lot. All of a sudden you get this notice from Robert Moses, you have 90 days to move, and they’re scattered to the wind. I went to find them. In my notes, when I interview them, the word that appears, that they said over and over is lonely. I suddenly said, “Loneliness, that’s the part of the human cost of highways.” I said, “Oh, I have to show this just like I showed how he wielded power. I have to show the effect of power on the powerless. I have to really write about this neighborhood.” That takes so much time. You have to read the weekly newspapers from that, you have to find the community leaders. It takes months and month. That took six months to research that.
Preet Bharara: And some of that was unnecessary because decisions about where the highway would curve and where it would go, and who would be evicted were made sometimes based on financial reasons or political reasons-
Robert Caro: Political reasons.
Preet Bharara: And as you write, vastly fewer numbers of folks needed to have been displaced.
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: But Robert Moses, powerful man behind the scenes, made particular decisions to get it done.
Robert Caro: Yes. There was an alternate route just two blocks away that paralleled this route, he tore down 54 six and seven story apartment houses for this one mile. If he took the other route two blocks away, parallel, exactly the same, it would require, as I recall, him to tear down just six little tenements. But doing it that way, the easy way would have required the destruction of a business that was very profitable to Bronx Democratic politicians, so he took the other route.
Preet Bharara: There came to be a time, I think, that you asked Robert Moses about the human cost.
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: And did he feel bad about it?
Robert Caro: No. You really read my books very carefully. This is … It’s a real treat to be interviewed by you. I remember I asked him, “Did you ever expect to lose this fight up there with the route of the highway?” He said … The exact quote’s in this book, but he said something like, “Oh, no, no. They just stirred up the animals there, so I just held fast. That was all I had to do.” I’m thinking, “I’m interviewing all these people whose lives were ruined, needlessly ruined by Robert Moses, and he cared about it, I would say, zero.”
Preet Bharara: How did that make you feel?
Robert Caro: Got me really angry, to be perfectly honest. I remember that particular interview because I was so awed by him and by the brilliance of his mind, and all of a sudden I was very angry about things. You know, what we’re talking, which relates to you, your work and your books. When we talk about things like this we’re talking about basically justice and injustice. And Moses, because of his absolute power in the fields in which he was exercising it, which was every field of public works, he could perpetrate these terrible injustices on masses of people.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. When you write a book versus doing a piece of journalism, that you used to do, do you have a different mindset in your relationship with and feelings about the protagonist? When you got angry at Robert Moses, and these revelations came to you, and he didn’t seem to care at all about the people who he had caused suffering and displacement and you want to … I think you said once that you felt like punching him in the teeth, did you think about how that might affect the writing of the book?
Robert Caro: Yeah. I always felt, “You better not let it affect your writing of the book.” If you can write just the facts, and write it well enough, the reader will draw the conclusion. I always try very hard not to let my own feelings influence the writing. I just try to make the writing show what happened.
Preet Bharara: We go back to the end of the book, why aren’t they grateful to Robert Moses? Should people be grateful to Robert Moses?
Robert Caro: I think they should be grateful for some things. The things he did when he was young. The creation of Jones Beach, the entire Long Island park system. Wonderful, magnificent things. Jones Beach was about to be swallowed up by developers. We wouldn’t have a Jones Beach. Those things were wonderful. Do I think that his starving of mass transit, which now every time I hear today about the subways being crowded and breaking down, I said, “That’s because starting …” In The Power Broker there’s a chapter called Point Of No Return where after the second world war everyone saw that money had to be put into rapid transit, maintenance had been deferred for 10 years on the subways, and he took that money through his genius, he threw in a number of maneuvers. He diverted all that money to bridges and highways, and the city is suffering from it today.
Preet Bharara: Should we be grateful for Lyndon Johnson?
Robert Caro: In some ways, incredibly grateful. I don’t know that we would have Medicare today if Lyndon Johnson hadn’t been President. I feel we would not have the voting rights act today if Lyndon Johnson hadn’t been President at that moment and had the ability to ram it through Congress. However, you have to say the human cost of Vietnam was immense.
Preet Bharara: On the things that he did well, like the voting rights act that you mentioned, and other things for which we should be grateful, and that he accomplished, sometimes through ruthlessness, and sometimes, including elections, through maybe some mendacity, should we forgive all that because it was in the service of things for which we should be grateful?
Robert Caro: I don’t think you can … As I said, you ask terrific questions. That’s really a terrific question. It’s one that I don’t really know. I don’t know that you can separate meanness from ends. You’d like to say he used these means, but they were for great ends. I don’t know that that’s possible.
Preet Bharara: In politics, at least.
Robert Caro: Because part of the end was Vietnam.
Preet Bharara: Is there someone’s story, and I know that you don’t want to write biographies, and you’re writing about power, but is there some other person through whom thinking back, you might have delighted in telling the story of power?
Robert Caro: Yeah, as a matter of fact, Belle Moskowitz. No one knows that name. She was a plump, motherly Jewish woman who had the most brilliant political mind, and she was Al Smith’s chief political advisor. He would never do anything in this groundbreaking legislation that he passed, whenever they’d have a meeting, he’d sit in the corner very quietly, but at the end of every meeting before he took a decision he’d say, “What do you think, Mrs. M.” Now, Robert Moses told me she was the one who taught him how to get things done. She was one of the most powerful women in the United States in the 1920s. No one even knows her name. I used to put her name into every lecture I gave in the hope that someone would get inspired to do a biography of her, but there’s one book, but it’s a rather boring book. She is a fascinating figure to me.
Preet Bharara: You were writing a more traditional full length memoir, correct?
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: And, as you said earlier today, you really can’t get going on a book, start the writing of a book until you know the last line of the book. Firs, let me ask you, do you know the last line of your memoir?
Robert Caro: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Will you share it with us?
Robert Caro: No.
Preet Bharara: I thought that was worth a shot. I thought it was. Bob Caro, Robert Caro, it’s been such a pleasure and an honor and a delight to talk to you.
Robert Caro: It’s been very-
Preet Bharara: I could go on for far longer, but I know you have other things to do, and you have books to finish. Again, thank you so much for making the time.
Robert Caro: Thanks for having me here.