Historian Robert Caro discusses biography, history, and storytelling.
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GUEST: Robert A. Caro
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And I’ve long celebrated my physicians – sometimes here on this program – for working so hard to keep me going.
But it is probably my guest today who provides the greatest incentive for me to get even longer and longer in the tooth.
For, as I’ve told Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, historian, journalist Robert Caro time and time again, I’ve simply got to stick around until I can savor at decent length the last of the great volumes of his monumental “The Years of Lyndon Johnson”.
After all, it was nearly 30 years ago at this table that Bob Caro and I first began to parse Thomas Carlyle’s trenchant observation 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”.
Well, my guest amply demonstrated that with his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of New York’s outsize urban planner Robert Moses titled The Power Broker.
Since then his majestic Lyndon Johnson volumes, The Path to Power, Means of Ascent and Master of the Senate have garnered another Pulitzer in biography, and many other distinguished awards.
Recently, Newsweek Magazine did a wonderfully evocative piece on Bob Caro – appropriately enough in its section on “The Arts”.
It ended with what Newsweek’s reporter characterized as an “elegant” answer to the question: “Why is it important that your writing endures?”
And Bob Caro’s reply was: “I am trying to make clear through my writing something which I believe: that biography – history in general – can be literature in the deepest and highest sense of that term”.
And I would ask my guest today to elaborate upon that theme … which obviously looms so large to him. Why did you conclude that way, Bob?
CARO: Well, sometime … you know, all my books … I never think of them as just biographies about Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson. I think they’re all studies of how political power works in a democracy.
Because if … more since we confer political power in a democracy, it’s us who does it through our votes. The more we understand about political power, presumably the better our country will be.
And if you find out … I don’t say I did, if you learn something about how political power is exercised in the city or the Senate, you don’t want it to be known just by one generation. You want it to go on so other people can learn from it. And therefore the book has to endure.
And I concluded that for that to happen, the book had to be written as well as a great work of fiction that endures.
HEFFNER: Just as a great work of fiction … what is it that you put into your work that then enables what you begin as biography to be transformed into literature?
CARO: Well, that’s a really good question. Things that a novelist consider important … for example, a sense of place. Now too many biographies and too many works of history … the author seems to feel that the only thing that matters is to get the facts down.
Now the facts are the basis, you have to get them right. But once you have them, it’s not important just to get them down, it’s important to make the reader see the place in which they’re happening so they can see the scene, be involved in the scene. And if you see the scene then you can understand things that the writer doesn’t have to tell you, you can understand them for yourself.
HEFFNER: So that goes for Lyndon Johnson in Texas and it goes for Lyndon Johnson in the Senate, in his chambers?
CARO: Well, I can give you an example, if you’d like? And it goes for Lyndon Johnson as a 21 year old Assistant to a Congressman, they used to call it Secretary, running in front of the Capitol every morning.
When Johnson comes to Washington he’s 21, he’s a Secretary to a Texas Congressman. He’s very poor, he’s come up without an overcoat … it’s the winter, he, he’s cold. He’s living in this little hotel down near Union Station in a basement room. And he’s coming to work every morning in the House of Representatives Chamber and the way you get there is you come up Capitol Hill, you come across the whole East … long East front of the Capitol and then into the House building on the other side.
And I talked to the two Secretaries who worked with him. Two women. And they both said the thing about it … sometimes they would be coming to work about the same time, the thing about Lyndon Johnson was, he was always running to work … this gangly, awkward stride … but running to work.
And at first they thought it was the winter, he was cold … that was the reason. But then summer came and he was still running.
And I felt, “Gee, if I could in some way, if there was something in that, that I could show, that would show what he got excited about, that what thrilled Lyndon Johnson, that what made him run to work in the morning … then I would be doing something without lecturing the reader. I’d be letting them see something.
So what I did was, over and over again … I would walk that route from the little hotel … which isn’t there anymore … but I’d go to the street … up across the Capitol to the House building. And I did it many times, but I never could really find anything that to me, would, would exemplify that or symbolize that.
Then I suddenly realized something … I had never taken that walk at the same time that Lyndon Johnson did which was 5:30 in the morning. He used to come very early to work. So the next morning I went and did it at 5:30. And it was a revelation to me because at 5:30 the sun had just come up in the East and the rays, at their strongest, are just striking directly at the East front of the Capitol … that huge mass of marble with bas reliefs and reliefs and statues and columns … so its lit up dazzlingly white like a movie set. All … and symbolizes all the power and glory of a sovereign state. Johnson had come from a land of tiny little houses … this showed him everything that he could aspire to … everything that he wanted.
I said “If I just do that, I don’t have to tell the reader why he was so ambitious, they’ll see it for themselves”. I don’t say I succeeded, but that’s what I’m trying to do.
HEFFNER: Would you be more grateful for a Pulitzer in literature?
CARO: Well … (laughter) …
HEFFNER: Fair question?
CARO: You know I won’t relate it to myself, but I’ll say something that’s … on that line … that’s fascinating. There has not been a Nobel Prize in non-fiction given since the 1920s when it was given to a German named Momson(CHECK SPELLING) for a history of Rome.
One was given in fact … that has to be amended to Winston Churchill ostensibly for his history of the Second World War, but it was really because he was Winston Churchill. So I leave that out.
You really would like a Nobel Prize to be given to somebody for biography or history so the world would know that was a field that … in which art was as import … and craft was as important in the making … as in the making of fiction.
HEFFNER: Bob, where did it all begin with you as a reporter? With you as a student?
CARO: I always wanted to be a writer. (Laugh) I remember back when I was in the sixth grade, I grew up in Manhattan, I went to PS93 …
HEFFNER: So did I.
CARO: You did? Oh …
HEFFNER: I think it was until the third grade when we had to be moved because little boys couldn’t stay in PS93.
CARO: Well, I … at any rate, by the time I came along … we were back. (Laughter) And I remember they didn’t have a school newspaper, so when I was in the sixth grade … I started a school newspaper, most of which I wrote myself. So I don’t know where it started.
HEFFNER: So, you’re the writer … not as I say first, the historian or I say, “the biographer”. You’re the literary man, the writer.
CARO: Well, the idea in my mind is that there shouldn’t be a separation. That if you want, as I think you said at the beginning of the program … if you want a work of non-fiction to endure, it must be written … the prose, the rhythms, the narrative style … that finding the right word … lemode just(????) … must be at the same level as a work of fiction.
I’ll tell you how I found out for myself. I mean I said that to myself and I said, “Well, I don’t know if it’s true”, so I’ll tell you what I did.
One summer I said I’m going to find out for myself if it’s true. So I took the novel, the long historical novel that’s to me the most like a work of history … which is Tolstoy’s War and Peace …
CARO: … and Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which is the non-fiction work … a great piece of writing, I mean read Gibbon’s sentence you say, “what writing this is”, you know. So what I would do is I would read a few chapters of War and Peace, then I’d read a few chapters of Gibbon … then a few chapters of War and Peace, then a few chapters of Gibbon … and I was really concentrating. And to my mind … that was it … the writing in both those works that have endured … one fiction and one non-fiction … is at the same level.
HEFFNER: Do you think this is appreciated by others? Are there others who have …
CARO: Well, I …
HEFFNER: … indicated their appreciation of this same sensitivity.
CARO: Well, you’re … well, I can’t speak for everyone. The historians I admire were characterized by their re-writing. I mean, to me, a great American historian is Francis Parkman, you know.
CARO: You, if you look at this as someone who’s doing … trying to do the same thing. What is it about Parkman? I mean I talked about walking Lyndon Johnson’s route. Now one thing that I do is I always try to go to the place that my scenes occur and stay there until I get the sense of the place.
What did Parkman do? Now Parkman, you know, had this illness … we don’t even know what it was … it was some sort of neurology where he was almost blind part of the time … had terrible headaches … he was not a well man. But he was writing about the French and Indian Wars and if he was writing about a battle, he got on a horse and went to the scene of the battle and stayed until he had the scene.
So I feel that with the, with the historians that I admire, particularly, you do find this understanding.
HEFFNER: What are the historians? Who are the historians you most … you don’t mind sharing that with me, do you?
CARO: No. (Laugh) Well, as I say I really admire …
CARO: … I mentioned two of them … you know Parkman and Gibbon, to me are two really great historians. The guy that I just talked about Momson( CHECK SPELLING), the German, was a great historian. And … they’re …
CARO: Well, you know, you know, you don’t want to talk too much … ah, because the people that you don’t mention, you know … I’m not sure … I mean there are Doris Kearns, you know …
CARO: … I think in, in her last couple of books is really trying to do that. And David McCullough gives a sense of, of a scene. You, you really … but sometimes … I’ll answer it another way … sometimes … I, I’ve stopped doing this, but sometimes when I would be a judge for a prize, you know, you’d get like a hundred and eighty books, you know, in the, in the mail that you had to look through. And in 90% of them you could really … in three or four pages … see that the writer thinks that the only thing that matters is to get the, the facts down.
Whereas I believe that the facts alone are not the whole truth of anything. Even if you … there is no truth … even if you get enough facts, you get as close as you can to a truth. But still if you want to make it a true scene, the scene is important, you have to show … you can’t just write about Lyndon Johnson running the Senate … you have to make the reader feel what the Senate is. The physical place, the Senate Chamber.
I mean nobody … I mean when I started this last, the book … Master of the Senate … you know I got all the descriptions of the Senate Chamber, you know. And, there really were … no one had really tried to see what the Senate Chamber was. I thought there was therefore nothing special about it. But I found out when I started to do … that there was something very special about it.
HEFFNER: Bob, you say there is no truth when you talk about history. Tell me about that. What do you mean “there is no truth?”
CARO: Well, let’s say you’re trying to find out what happened. You know the real decisions on Vietnam were not made in the big Cabinet meetings of the National Security Council … they were made at the Tuesday lunches.
Every Tuesday Johnson would have a lunch up in the family dining room at the White House. And many of these occasions … this is … I can’t generalize because there was different casts of characters. But on many occasions there were four people there … on his right was Dean Rusk, next to Rusk was George Bundy or after Johnson fired Bundy, Walt Rostow, on Johnson’s left was Robert McNamara and on McNamara’s left was Earl Wheeler, General Earl Wheeler, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff … who looked like a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff … big solid face, his hair slicked down.
So let’s say that you obtain, and it’s not easy … wasn’t easy to do it … let’s say you finally obtain the notes on these meetings. You read them. Now I’m, I’m not saying that I … I’m going to use phony … you know this is not something that actually happened … but I’m trying to give you an example through this of what I mean by trying to get as close as you can to the truth and knowing you’re never, you’re never going to have it.
Then you go to one of these people, you know, I’m using phony names here … and to McNamara and you say, “You said this in the, in the notes. What did you mean by it?”
Then you go to Rusk you say, “You said this … what did you mean by it?” But then you go back to the first person, say a Rusk and you say “You say you meant this, but General Wheeler says he took from it … he thought you were arguing for this.” And then you make Rusk answer. Then you go to McNamara. You keep going back and forth between people trying to find out what was really happening in there. Which is not something you can just find just from the printed page.
All the time you’re doing this, you’re saying “Well, it’s like a Rashomon thing, you know you’re not really getting it … but you … the more facts you get, the closer you come to … what more objective facts you get … the closer you come whatever truth there is.
HEFFNER: But you say that you know that you’re not really getting “it”, “it” presumably being what happened at the those moments. What are you getting though?
CARO: Well, I think you’re getting closer to what happened. You’re getting as close as you … I mean you can’t stop … you asked me about journalism when I was a reporter.
The thing … I mean I loved being a reporter. I mean I still miss being a reporter. I loved being out and doing daily stories. But the thing I couldn’t stand was you had deadlines, even if they gave you a week to do an investigative piece, and then I started doing … really they didn’t have … long … as much long investigative pieces … but I used to persuade my paper to give me a month sometimes.
But no matter how much time they gave you … you still had all these questions at the end that you didn’t know the answers to. And you had more questions that you wanted to ask, but you had to stop because there was a deadline. You had to write the, the story. I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand writing when I still had more questions to ask. I still, I still remember that.
So, (laugh) one of the things and I suppose one of the reasons my books take so long to do, is I keep thinking of more questions and going back and asking the same people.
HEFFNER: How do you feel about the books that you have written as you go back to them … whether we’re talking about the Moses book or the Johnson books.
CARO: Oh, you always see things you’d like to re-write, you know. “Oh I could have said that better. Oh, that word … how did I let that word get in there?” (Laughter)
HEFFNER: As words, as literature. Any other way? Do you regret interpretations, or maybe the word “regret” is too strong … would you have done something else in terms of interpretations? Your picture of the truth.
CARO: No, I don’t think … well, you know … with the Power Broker I had to go back because there is, you know, this wave of revisionism a couple of years ago … and I, I hadn’t really opened the Power Broker to look at it in 30 … whatever that was … 32 years, you know. Is that right? 1974 to 2007 … 33 years … I really couldn’t … I don’t like to go back and read my stuff just to read it … but I … I was finally decided I … to answer this in one lecture, so I had to go back and, you know, read the book. No, I wouldn’t have changed anything. The interpretation … this was fine.
HEFFNER: Let’s talk for a moment about that revisionism that took place a few years ago in which this great work The Power Broker, which had been lauded by everyone suddenly began to be criticized or was the focus of a different point of view. When we spoke then my assumption was that that was a political revisionism. How do you feel about it?
CARO: I, I think whatever the motivations were, when I looked at The Power Broker again I said, “Oh, it’s not going to last (the revisionism) … this book will last”. So I did feel happy.
HEFFNER: But the revisionism seemed to be based upon the notion that anything and everything that Moses did was to the greater glory of New York City and now we were into another … to the greater glory of New York City …
HEFFNER: … time in our history.
HEFFNER: Is that … you say you don’t want to go into motivations … interpretations then if you don’t want to discuss motivations … was it another imperial New York?
CARO: Oh, yes, I think that was a large part of it. But whatever the reasons were, you know, that people started attacking The Power Broker … what I was thinking, you know … “Oh, you know, maybe they’re right, I better read the book again, you know.” Which I did. And at the end of it I said, “No, they were wrong. And, ah, this won’t last”. You know, I mean, it’s part of the same thing, Dick.
You know if you do what you’re aiming for … strike that … everybody’s aiming for something else. What I’m aiming for is that my books will endure. I’ve always felt that if you could write something well enough, if you had the facts correct and if you wrote it well enough, that a work of non-fiction, of biography … would endure … as I, as I said, I don’t want to repeat myself again … as long as a great novel. And that’s what I’m aiming at.
HEFFNER: And you seemed to have achieved.
CARO: Yeah … well …
HEFFNER: I mean we’re talking about years and years and years already.
CARO: Well, I must say … to see not just The … you know the first volume of the Johnson came out in 1982, which was 27 years ago … a quarter of a century ago … you know.
To see … yes … kids … I mean what I love to see is kids … because you know all these colleges use my books. And I mean … you know, people say, “What makes you happy?”, you know. It may sound disingenuous, but it is true … that I’m never able to get really happy over winning, you know, prizes or something like that. I’m very appreciative of it … I’m glad … but it’s not what makes me really happy.
What makes me really happy is to go into a book store and see that the books are still on the shelves … 34 or 35 years or a quarter of a century later. To have my publisher, you know, say, “none of your books has ever been out of print in hardcover or paperback for a single day.”
And then on subways you, you walk and you see kids, you know, in New York you see it much more with The Power Broker, but you see the Johnson books also. But then you go, you know, I spend a lot of time in Texas … and you see that … people still reading the books. That, that makes you happy. That makes it all worthwhile.
CARO: Well, you use all these words that I wouldn’t use (laugh) about myself.
HEFFNER: That’s fair enough, I’m using them about you. You know a few minutes ago we were … I was reminded of Charles Beard’s notion that all recorded history, really, written history, spoken history is an act of faith. And I’ve wondered how you have responded to that over the years.
CARO: Well … how …
HEFFNER: It’s a “this I believe”. This I believe.
CARO: Right. Well, I don’t quite go along with that because what that leaves out, in my view, is the effort you have to make to come … not to stop … not to stop going through the papers. I mean, that was the great thing this editor as Newsday told me… he said “never assume a single thing”, whenever he taught me this … when I was 22 or whatever age I was. “Turn every page, it’s your job to turn every page.”
Of course it’s a “this I believe”. Of course, we’re all seeing it through our own subjective vision. But you have a job to get as many facts as you can. Then your, your vision is going to be … the element of belief is going to be tempered by something that’s not subjective.
HEFFNER: Like what?
CARO: Ah, as many … as many facts as you can get. I mean I could show it by another, by another, by another example … I had learned … all my life I had the belief that political power is swayed by economic power. That the drive wheel of democracy can be bent off its shaft by money, if you want to call it that way.
And when I started working on Lyndon Johnson for a moment I thought …
HEFFNER: In the one minute we have remaining …
CARO: I can’t …
HEFFNER: … then we’ll pick …
CARO: I can’t do it … (laugh) I can’t do it in one minute …
HEFFNER: All right we’ll pick it up in our next program.
HEFFNER: … which if you sit still we’ll do immediately after this program.
HEFFNER: Ah, and I supposed that’s a point at which I ought to end and thank you for joining me today.
But wanting to say that your journalistic origins do shine through and your love for fine writing do shine through so wonderfully well in, in what you’ve done, that the only thing I’m going to say again is hurry up with that last volume …
HEFFNER: … of the Lyndon Johnson books.
HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me again, Bob Caro.
CARO: My pleasure … can we … do you want to do another last question … do you have a substitute for that?
HEFFNER: No, right now I’m going to say “good-bye” and good luck …
CARO: Sure, sure.
HEFFNER: … but sit where you are and we’ll do another program …
HEFFNER: And this is the point to say thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, as well.
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
And do visit The Open Mind website at www.theopenmind.tv
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.