The Power Writer: A Q&A with Historian Robert Caro

The Power Writer: A Q&A with Historian Robert Caro

The Power Writer: A Q&A with Historian Robert Caro
January 23, 2015

Anyone who has studied New York City or state politics seriously has read The Power Broker. When it came out in 1974, Robert Caro’s massive, illuminating, enthralling biography of Robert Moses instantly established Caro as one of America’s greatest nonfiction writers and historians—a legacy that he has continued to cement over the past five decades with the first four volumes of his epic The Years of Lyndon Johnson—the most recent of which,The Passage of Power, came out in May of this year to the delight of his readers, who had been hankering for the latest installment for a decade. City & State editor Morgan Pehme spoke with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and lifelong New Yorker about his time covering Albany as a reporter, his approach to writing, and who else he thinks would be a worthy subject of a Caro biography.

As one might expect from conducting an interview with one of the world’s most accomplished and adept interviewers, Caro often turned around the two-hour discussion that is the basis for this Q&A into an examination of the journalist posing the questions. To conserve your time and focus this article solely on he who is deserving of your attention, the following transcript has been edited down significantly, and at times the questions have been reworded and their order transposed for the purpose of clarity and your enjoyment.

City & State: Do you have any reflections on your time covering the state Legislature as a reporter for Newsday in the early 1960s?
Robert Caro:
 In 2010, I got named to the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, and I went back to [receive the award] … I hadn’t been back to Albany for … 47 years … so the LCA asked if I would come by and talk to them, and I came back to the press room, which looks like it hasn’t been painted since I was there, or changed, and this young man says to me, “Do you remember where you sat?” and without thought I said, “Over there,” where there was in fact a little desk that might have been my desk, and [it occurred to me], Where are these memories?I hadn’t thought about where I had sat in half a century. It was something, going back. Rockefeller was governor. [The reporter] said “Things are so different up here now,” but the building was the same. It’s a grand building.

CS: Having studied literature and having begun your career as a journalist, I was wondering if you think of yourself as a writer first and a historian second.
 It’s not quite that. It’s that I feel like with writing, the level of the prose is just as important in nonfiction, as fiction … 99 percent of [nonfiction books] or more, you can see that the author doesn’t really think that the writing matters… He got the facts and he’s got to put them down on the page. But my feeling is that if you want a nonfiction book to endure, the same things that we think are important in fiction—like sense of place, narrative drive, rhythms, that reinforce the words, that let the reader see the place where it’s happening—they’re just as important, and that’s not a belief that’s really held, and so I wanted to test it out. When I was first starting The Power Broker, I took the novel that’s most like a great long work of real history, which is War and Peace, and then I took [British historian Edward] Gibbon, and I would read a couple chapters of Gibbon and then a couple chapters of Tolstoy, and the level of writing—you can fool me about almost anything, but you can’t fool me about writing—the writing is just as important. So when I was doing something like Lyndon Johnson, when he gets out of the hospital… and he’s so far behind [during his first race for senator], and he’s desperate to catch up, I remember putting a note, scotch-taping it to that lamp: “Is there desperation on every page?”—not just the facts.

CS: Is there a time in New York City history that is particularly relevant to understand the New York of today?
 The 1920s, when New York was expanding into [a] large metropolis. Now you have this situation where not only is the skyline changing with all of these huge buildings going up, but what that signifies to the neighborhoods that used to be there. I think that it’s important that the city build—it’s important that the city do what’s necessary to come into the modern age—but you have to be very careful that … the values of community, the values of neighborhood, are not being lost in this expansion … If you wanted to sum it up like we were taught in school, that Rome is power and Greece is glory, what is New York? New York is home. New York is the ingatherer, it’s the place that for a century and a half the peoples of the world have come to—in the 1870s and ’80s, the Italians, then the Irish, then the Jews, now all this wonderful influx of the Asian countries—so you say, What did New York do? It took these people in and it made them part of the fabric of the city … I don’t say this is happening, but I worry … Are those values being destroyed again [like they were by some of Moses’ projects]? … I can’t pay enough attention to what’s happening in the city now, because [writing the Johnson book] is taking all my attention, but you can’t help thinking and wondering about it.

CS: Is there a current figure in New York city or state politics who would merit a Caro biography?
 No. [Robert Moses] changed the world that we live in. Somebody said to me last night at dinner … “I was coming down the West Side Highway, and I was passing Lincoln Center, [and I realized] this is still the city that he built.” And I said, “He built it in many more significant ways. The fact that you had no choice but to come by car, that’s because he stopped the building of subways.” At the time he came to power, New York had this great subway system and it was being expanded, and he stopped that, and he stopped the maintenance on it, so that the MTA could basically never catch up … He set the pattern of New York, and we can’t break out of it. The efforts that are being made to restore the parks, like on the waterfront, it’s almost like the city is trying to repair what he did by cutting the city off—but in answer to your question… Donald Trump is always thinking he’s the next Robert Moses… [or former] deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff … [But] understand, [Moses] built Lincoln Center, the United Nations … You’d have to work for a lot of years to be compared to what he did. I don’t see anybody. He wanted to change the world, and he changed it, in some ways for the better, in some ways for the worse.

CS: Before you embarked upon The Years of Lyndon Johnson you had considered writing a biography of Fiorello La Guardia, whose relationship with Robert Moses you had already chronicled in The Power Broker. Are there any other figures from your books who you think would be particularly fascinating to explore more deeply in their own right?
RC: Al Smith… because there’s no good biography. For years every time I gave a talk I would try to get in something about Al Smith in the hope that somebody would do it. [But] after all of these years—some 38 years—there have only been two really boring academic biographies, and you know they kill it, [because] some publishers if a real writer comes in with a proposal, they say there [already] is one. If you had enough time in life, I’d love to do a biography of him. He’s the most fascinating guy I ever came across.

CS: I feel like he’s the hero of The Power Broker.
RC: He is the hero of The Power Broker! … On the one hand, it’s sort of wonderful for me that [The Power Broker] is still the book that if you want to know how urban political power works, that’s the book you have to read. The other side of it is, that’s not good. Why aren’t there more books? How can you have a governor like Al Smith—Roosevelt said 90% or 95% of everything he did in The New Deal Al Smith did first in New York—how can you have a guy like that who is so major, number one, and number two, his life, coming up with no education, no money, and then turning from a tough politician—there are parallels with Johnson…

CS: The Lower East Side is our Hill Country!
RS: Oh, that’s good. I have to write that down… [Smith] is the major American political figure most forgotten through history. If he’s remembered at all, he’s remembered for his last bitter years when he turned into a conservative because of his hatred of Franklin Roosevelt. But what he did was noble. His being this Tammany henchman, ruthless politician, and when he gets the power—it may or may not be true about what Lord Acton says about power corrupting, but I’ll tell you what is always true is that power always reveals—when a man gets enough power to do what they want to do, then you find out what they really wanted to do, and Johnson in [The Passage of Power], when his speechwriters are preparing for that first speech that he’s going to give four days after the Kennedy assassination, and they’re all sitting around this table and they say don’t bring up civil rights, it’s a worthy cause, but you know, don’t spend your political capital on it, and Johnson says, “Then what the hell is the presidency for” Then I thought you knew about Lyndon Johnson. So [with] Smith it’s the same thing. He spent 45 years doing whatever the organization told him to do… then he gets the power and he says that now it’s time for Tammany Hall to be on the side [of the people], and he passes all of this stuff… How is it possible, here in this state where everybody write,s why aren’t there more books on New York State government?

CS: My father always described it as a secret history—that the people who really know the inner workings of New York politics are unwilling to speak about it, and that’s perhaps the reason it hasn’t been written more.
RC: That’s a real truth. In The Power Broker, I went to see Reuben Lazarus, [a legislative representative in the Smith, Roosevelt and La Guardia eras], because he was involved with Moses [in] the 1920s, 30s, [and] 40s, and he gave me these interviews which were not much help… sort of the conventional stuff. And then I started to learn more… like [Lazarus’] name [appearing] on La Guardia’s behalf on one of the early [pieces of] legislation to stop giving Moses power that La Guardia didn’t know he was giving him. So I went back to Lazarus, who was ancient, but sharp—totally different interviews. [He said things like], ‘We put this in so nobody would understand that.’ It was like getting a whole different history… I don’t think I’d call it a secret history. It’s a conventional history. But there’s a real history about how power really works—not what you’re taught in textbooks, but how it really works—and when you get into [it] it’s fascinating. I had been a reporter, and I knew nothing of this stuff.

CS: Now New York has two of the most power executives that we’ve had in some time in Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg. How do you think they match up to the great mayors and governors that you’ve written about?
RC: I’m going to have to take a pass on that and I’ll tell you why. I’ve been so buried… The book came out in May, but [over] this last year I really [have not been] as current as I should be on what’s been happening. I’ve become interested in Cuomo, but I don’t have the time to really search out information. I went up to Albany and I had a long conversation with him, but that’s about it. I’m going to say I don’t know what I’m talking about… so I just don’t feel I ought to say anything.

CS: After you finish the final volume of your Johnson biography, what’s next?
RC: I have one other subject that I intend to do after I finish this book, but I’m superstitious. I feel if I told it, I won’t get to do it.

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Morgan Pehme