No History, Only Biography
VTR Date: January 19, 1985
Guest: Caro, Robert
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert Caro
Title: “No History. Only Biography”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.
I saw the other day that what must have been many, many years ago I marked off in my Bartlett’s Quotations, Thomas Carlyle’s comment that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” And Ralph Waldo Emerson’s that “there is properly no history, only biography.”
I tend to agree and that’s why I’m so pleased that my guest today is Robert Caro who’s first monumental volume of the years of Lydon Johnson makes one await so eagerly more and more of this study of power and personality and the course of a nation. Mr. Caro’s earlier study, The Power Broker won both the Pulitzer Prize for biography and the coveted Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians.
I am so glad to have you here today, sir, and I wondered whether I could begin by asking you whether you agreed with Dr. Johnson who said that “nobody can write the life of a man, but those who have eat and drunk and lived in social intercourse with him.”
Caro: (Laughter). Well, I obviously don’t agree with that because that… you’re saying that there wouldn’t be any biography except contemporary biography.
Heffner: Except that you have done what is contemporary biography.
Caro: Well, but I’ve never slept and ate with Robert Moses, or with Lyndon Johnson. I did spend a lot of time with Robert Moses.
Heffner: But you know, I listened… you gave an interesting, a fascinating lecture on writing the biography of Lyndon Johnson before our fellow Centurions not so long ago and I listened to the tape of that lecture, and it seemed to me that you had made every effort to do almost that in terms of the people with whom Johnson had lived.
Caro: Yes, well I tried to do that because when I started to do this Lyndon Johnson biography, it didn’t take very long before I realized that nobody really knew the true story of his youth and his rise to power, and that I, as a New Yorker, didn’t understand what it was like to grow up in this isolated, remote, impoverished Texas hill country. So, we actually moved down to the edge of the hill country and lived there for parts of three years and spent as much time as I could with the very people that he grew up with, his childhood friends.
Heffner: But then you seem to be saying what dear old Dr. Johnson said, not quite, but the equivalent.
Caro: Well, that… in that respect I’d agree with you, you have to try to bury yourself in the life of a character until you really understand, not only him, but the world that he grew up in. You see, with Lyndon Johnson, the lucky thing about it was that President Johnson died very young, he was only 64, when he died. When I started my research he would only have been 67, so when you went back to Johnson City, his friends were still alive. He said his best friend when he was a little boy was Truman Fawcett and the Fawcett’s lived diagonally across the street, over there. Well the Fawcett’s still live in Johnson City. You say his first little girlfriend, when he was about 14, was Kitty Clyde and she lived over there. Well, she still lives approximately in the same place in Johnson City. So you could, if you tried hard enough, come to understand this very different life of these people, very different from my life, as interviewer.
Heffner: But then what does that say, quite seriously, what does it say about the usual run-of-the-mill, excellent, but run-of-the-mill in terms of chronology, biography where there is such an enormous gap between the life of the biographer and the life of his subject?
Caro: Well, if you mean if you’re doing it centuries later…
Caro: …what you hope is that somebody did it in sufficient detail at the time. You know… you mentioned a couple of awards that I won, the only… the one that meant the most to me… is the Francis Parkman Prize because why I have admired Francis Parkman since I was in college was that when he wanted to write about the French and Indian Wars. He lived, despite his poor health, he went back, he re-traced the Oregon Trail, he went to every locale, and the same thing with Tolstoy. You know when Tolstoy was writing about the Battle of Borodino, he went and spent months on the battlefield of Borodino. Now, if you were to come across, centuries later, and nobody had done this at the time, you would have a hard time doing it.
Heffner: What do you think of the quotations with which I began that basically there is no history, there is only biography?
Caro: Well, I agree with that. You know, I’ve never looked at biography, Dick, as just a means of telling the man’s life. I never had any interest in just telling the life of Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson. I picked Robert Moses because he was never elected to anything, yet for forty-four years he had more power in New York City and New York State than anyone who was elected in his field. Than any Governor or any Mayor. And therefore I felt, if I could come to understand, because I certainly didn’t understand it when I began, where did this power come from? Then I would succeed in explaining how urban power worked in all the cities of America in the twentieth century. Now people asked me, they go, “why did you go from Robert Moses to Lyndon Johnson?” Because Moses was urban power, I wanted to do the same thing, or try to do the same thing, because I don’t know that I’ve succeeded, anyway I’m trying. But I wanted to show how national power worked. The thing that first fascinated me about Lyndon Johnson was not his presidency, as exciting as that is, or his youth, but the fact that when he was Senate Majority Leader, he did what Robert Moses did, no one but him had ever controlled the Senate of the United State like Lyndon Johnson did. Therefore, if I could come to understand how he controlled it, I would be showing something about national power.
Heffner: What are you showing about Robert Caro in this search for an explanation of power?
Caro: Well, when I was a reporter… you know, people ask me “why are you so interested in power?” as you’ve really just done. The answer is I’m interested in political power. Political power is what impacts and changes, in effect, all our lives. It can be the smallest thing. If Robert Moses changed the route of the Northern State Parkway to go around the rich, robber barons estates, then everybody who drives on that parkway, back and forth, commuting every day, and has to go five miles out of his way, that, in a very small way, is an illustration of the political power of Robert Moses.
If your son had died in Vietnam, or if you were a black man, and you were unable to vote because of the programs of Lyndon Johnson, that is what the power of Lyndon Johnson meant. So, I don’t think you can be… that is what I’m fascinated by, and that’s why I’m fascinated by it.
Heffner: Do you think, let’s take the instance of Lyndon Johnson. He is the person of the two with whom everyone who is watching or listening is familiar. The Path to Power is the title of the first volume, are you suggesting that thereafter, in the next two volumes you’re writing about, or will write about, although I’m not going to press you on the details of those books, because they’re not written yet, but in those two volumes you are going to be presenting to us the picture of America in those days? That’s where power was. This is the nature of the nation?
Caro: Well, that’s a tall order, but certainly in his presidency, I believe that his person… I even say in history as versus biography, it’s like an equation, it’s a balance, the forces of history, the great forces, and the individual. I don’t think there’s ever been a time where the personality of one President had a greater impact. Roosevelt had a great impact also, others did, but no President has ever had a greater impact, for evil and for good, or bad and for good, than Lyndon Johnson did on the sixties. When we think of Vietnam, it’s inescapably tied in with the personality of Lyndon Johnson. When we think, on the other side, I believe, the Great Society, it’s tied in with the personality of Lyndon Johnson. I call his Presidency, in my introduction, a “watershed Presidency,” and I meant that in a very specific term, because “watershed” that’s where the waters are running up to a divide, on the other side, they’re running down the other way. I think that when he became President, the tides of American life, both in foreign policy and domestic policy, were running a certain way. When he left the Presidency, five years later, I think the tides of American life, in social… and in foreign policy were running in a different direction.
Heffner: Because of his personality, or because of the confluence of the economic, social, political forces?
Caro: Well, as I said, certainly not solely because of his personality, but I think in this equation of different factors, his personality has an unusually strong weight because his personality was an unusually strong personality. I mean he just dominated the Senate when he was Majority Leader, and he dominated Washington when he was President to an extent that few Presidents do.
Heffner: Does that make you, of necessity, a what… an examiner of personality, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, rather than an historian, an economist, a political scientist? If personality looms so large, mustn’t your credentials then, and your orientation, be different than when you’re saying “here is an historical event, here’s one that can be understood in terms economic or political or social pressures.”
Caro: No, I wouldn’t agree with that. I think that you have to try to understand the personality of the person that you’re writing about, first of all. But then you have to put that personality into the forces of history. Let’s take the first volume on a very small scale, when he was Congressman for the 10th Congressional District in Texas. When he became Congressman of that district, this was one of the most isolated and remote areas of the United States, and terribly poor, terribly poor. These people didn’t have electricity, and there seemed to be no way of bringing them electricity, and he promised, when he was running for Congress, that if he was elected, he was only 28 years old, he would bring electricity to the hill country. Now it really seemed impossible to bring… there was no dam, there was no source of hydro-electric power, there was no way to get the lines out there and the Rural Electrification Administration just laughed, you know, it was such a sparsely populated area, they weren’t going to lay lines out there. The story of how he brought electricity to these people, and really brought their lives into the twentieth century, is a story of you say “here is this personality, a genius in government.” He could do what no one else could do, not only a genius, but he had this driving force, that he would surmount all these obstacles, and he did. So that’s the personality side. The other side is that Franklin Roosevelt had created the Rural Electrification Administration, his personality wouldn’t have helped without that. So you have to try to bring the two things together.
Heffner: Would you… you’ve studied now two extraordinary men, Robert Moses, Lyndon Johnson. You focused on the role of personality in the development of power. I’d come back again to the question of the degree to which you either must be, or do become, something of a psychoanalyst.
Caro: Well, I don’t think that I become that at all. You know, I think it’s my job to try and examine, to find out, which in Lyndon Johnson’s case was very difficult, the true facts of the formative years of his life, of his college years, his youth, his early… to find out those facts and lay them out before the reader. I try not to psychoanalyze, and not to make deductions, psychoanalytical deductions. I’m not a psycho historian. I think, however, that to understand someone, we can see patterns in Lyndon Johnson’s life that go all the way back. You know the same patterns repeat themselves in Lyndon Johnson’s life from his college. I could go back before, but from his college… there’s always a dark side as well as a bright side of Lyndon Johnson, and we see it in stolen elections, people talk about the ‘87 vote election, the landslide Lyndon election of 1948, when he got to the Senate. Well, when we go back, when I interviewed his classmates and roommates at college, one of them laughed and said “you know, when I read about the ‘87 vote election, I just laugh, because I was part of the first election that he stole, which was back at college.” Then when we see he gets to Washington, and he wants to be the head of an organization called the Little Congress which was just Congressional Administrative Aides and Secretaries, we see again the same type of tactics in elections. Now, you can also say, on the bright side of Lyndon Johnson, before he was even a Congressman and brought electricity, he was a secretary to a Congressman. He succeeded, when Roosevelt passed the legislation creating the… 15:00
Caro: I think it’s the Federal Farm Home Loan Board, mortgage agencies for farms, it didn’t seem to have any application to the people of his district because they were so poor, they were so far behind in their taxes and mortgages, that it seemed that this legislation couldn’t affect them. The legislation was passed on a Friday, on the Tuesday the sheriff was going to nail up the foreclosure notices on whatever the figure is, it’s in my book, say forty-seven homes, in Newacies County. Between Friday and Tuesday, this 23-year-old secretary had to number one, figure out a way, out of his own mind because he had no one to help him, of adapting this legislation to his farm district. He had to get in touch with governors, the governors of the Federal Home Loan Board, and persuade them to accept this, he had to get appraisers out to appraise these houses, and he had to get the farmers, the banks, and the Federal Home Loan, or whatever (laughter) the title is, all to agree by Tuesday. And he did it. That is political genius. That is the bright side of Lyndon Johnson.
Heffner: But you know, when you do state there, you recount a series of facts.
Heffner: And I appreciate that. And, of course, both The Path To Power and the book on Moses are filled with facts, but I wondered, it was Charles Beard who said that “all written history is an act of faith,” and I wondered whether you agree with that or whether you would say “never mind act of faith, these are facts, and all I have done…”
Heffner: … a la Jack Webb is presented the facts and they make up the story that these hundreds of pages of Robert Caro on the years of Lyndon Johnson, the first volume, simply a compilation of the facts that you’ve dug up. What about putting them together, what act of faith is involved here?
Caro: Well, you have to put things into a context. You have to, yourself, decide what things mean. You have to, yourself, if you’re going to be a historian, determine what you think Lyndon Johnson’s place in history is. So, it certainly wouldn’t be a matter of just laying out facts. I will, however, say in the case of Lyndon Johnson, almost uniquely, it was made more difficult to write a biography of him, for me to write a biography of him, because the truth is that nobody knew the facts of Lyndon Johnson’s life. He had spent a great deal of energy and a great deal of cunning, and shrewdness to create his own legend, to create his own myth of what it was like for him to grow up… he described his own path to power. You know when I first went down there I remember thinking “well, we’ll just be able to go through the youth very quickly because it’s been done,” I think there were 21 previous biographies. While I was down there, it didn’t take long to realize that none of it was true. Over and over again you would come to people, you would go to see the people who were involved in a dramatic incident in Lyndon Johnson’s life, an incident that had been reported and written about in books and articles, and they would say “well, it never happened.” Then, whenever it was possible, you’d try to go to a written documentary record and over and over again, it turned out it wasn’t true. Then you go back to the people and you try and find out what was true so instead of taking just a few months to do the youth, it really took about three years of my life to try and find out what happened in the growing up years of Lyndon Johnson. It is a fascinating story, it’s as fascinating as the wonderful stories that he told, but it’s not, it’s not the same.
Heffner: If you were to generalize on that, about the historian and about the biographer, let’s accept the notion that it’s all one and the same thing, to what degree do you invent… no, that’s not the right word.. to what degree do you find that the biographer and the historian is creative, maybe. That’s a better word. I mean, you’re not there, I’m not there. We don’t have the advantage of witnessing the historical or the biographical events.
Caro: No, but to… by doing biography when the people are alive, and by having access to the written record, to a considerable extent, in my opinion, you can be there. For example, right now I am going through the period when he’s just coming to the Senate and he’s rising to Majority Leader, which he did (laughter) with astonishing rapidity. You have a great variety of written material. A lot of it’s in the Lyndon Johnson Library. There are memoranda, inter-office memoranda, memoranda to the other senators, there are letters, and there are transcripts often taken down, let’s say by Walter Jenkins in shorthand of telephone conversations or things that Lyndon Johnson told him about telephone conversations. And what I try to do, let’s say you have the meeting, there are four people at it, let’s say, they all write memos for their staffs, for their records, you try and get the four memos, where they never agree. Then you go to one of the people and you say “now, you say this, but X, Y and Z say that. What do you have to say to that?” He now comes out more fully, let’s say, on that. Then you go back to the other people, and you say “well, now you said this, but Mr. A says that, in fact, this has happened,” and then, quite often, when you’re done talking to the four of them, then you still have discrepancies, but now you can go back to Mr. A, with a lot more facts at your disposal, and say “now I’m trying to recreate this meeting, in your terms, as if I was there. You say this, but X, Y and Z says that.” I think as long as you’re lucky enough, and this is why I consider myself lucky, to be able to interview most of the people involved in many of these crucial incidents, while you have the papers there, you do try to recreate what happened.
Heffner: But doesn’t it all come back, essentially, to it’s being an act of faith, your faith because someone else will write a biography of Lyndon Johnson, others have already, that will present different versions of the material that you will summarize.
Caro: Sure. And as long as we’re all dealing with the same set of basic facts, there can be as many interpretations as you want. The problem with Lyndon Johnson was, first you had to find out the facts. That is what had… in my opinion… had not been done before.
Heffner: Do you think… I guess the question that I’m asking… much more basically is whether it’s ever possible? I know that there are so many people who think of history as the record of the past. That’s correct, It is the record of the past; which means someone has recorded it, someone has been involved in an act of faith, this was it. It’s not the past. Neither is The Path To Power, neither is The Power Broker, they can’t recreate these people, and are you made uneasy at all by the assumptions that people do make, and I guess they do, that what you have presented here and what you will present in the next two volumes, are the facts, are the record, are the re-creation, are indeed in total the past.
Caro: Well, as I say, I think that divides itself into two areas. Number one is fact. You know when you’re dealing with something there are a set of objective facts. Number two, there is an interpretation of those facts. I have an interpretation of those facts, and I think that eventually there will be many biographies of Lyndon Johnson, and there will be as many interpretations, as there are biographies. But I think, as the result of my biography that the basic set of facts that we’re all working from will, from now on, be the same because in the back of my book, if anyone wants to know where I got a piece of information, if it’s a written piece of information, they can go to the very place that I went to, and pull out the piece of paper and see if it’s there.
Heffner: I wish I could be as certain as you are that a fact is a fact. Or that our access to the fact, and our sense of a fact is quite so reliable. We just have a few minutes left, I want to ask you a question that may be a curve, as a former newspaper man, and I’ve asked this question of people who are essentially, right now, newspaper people, press people. Is there any difference in the obligation, the responsibility of the historian and that of the newspaper person, does the newspaper person have a different kind of responsibility? I’ve always thought of them as the same, essentially?
Caro: Well, there’s a big difference. I was a, what they call an investigative reporter.
Caro: … for about six years of my life. And the thing that frustrated me as an investigative reporter, or as any kind of reporter, was that eventually you ran out of time, you might not know the whole story, you went with what you had, it was your job to tell the reader whatever you knew. The job of the historian is to spend … people say “why do your books…” I’ve written two books, they each took seven years. People say “why do they take so long?” Well the real reason they take so long is that I feel that if there’s someone else to be seen on a certain subject, which you call fact, then it’s my job to see them, no matter where they… with Lyndon Johnson, it requires constantly flying back and forth across the United States, not only driving (laughter) allover Texas, but flying back across the United States, so the time element is a very big difference.
Heffner: And the newspaper person? What is his responsibility?
Caro: Well, he has to write a story for the paper, and you write it to the best of your knowledge, but I, myself, I won’t speak for reporters in general, was constantly being frustrated by the boy, if I only had a few more months, you know, I would like to go into this more, I think there’s a deeper truth. When I was writing about Robert Moses, you’d sit there as a reporter and I’d type “City Park Commissioner, Robert Moses” or “Triborough Bridge Authority Chairman, Robert Moses.” Well, what was a public authority? At the time that I wrote The Power Broker there really wasn’t a book, that in sufficient depth, said that public authorities had political power. Vaguely I knew this, but it would take an amount of time, which no newspaper would really give, and an amount of space, which was not… to explain this, which was not compatible with journalism.
Heffner: You know I wonder, and our time is almost up now, and I just wonder whether it is possible to get the obligations of the historian somewhat more closely into the minds of those who scribble for us on a daily or a weekly or a monthly basis? They seem to want to say “don’t bother us, that’s the other guy’s job, that’s Caro’s job, he’s an historian now, no longer the journalist”.
Heffner: At any rate, thank you so much for joining me today.
Caro: A very great pleasure.
Heffner: … and I say, as everyone who has read the first volume, The Path To Power, Lyndon Johnson, I’m sure that we’re all eagerly awaiting, they as well as I, the next two volumes.
Caro: Thank you.
Heffner: Thank you for joining me. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.