February 20, 2016

HOW POWER WORKS (profanity alert):

Robert Caro Wonders What New York Is Going To Become (CHRISTOPHER ROBBINS, FEB 17, 2016, The Gothamist)

You've said that you were able to uncover some of your best material in The Power Broker and in your LBJ series by being incredibly thorough--"time equals truth," and "turn the page." For someone who writes on the Internet, how do you uncover truth on a weekly basis? Or an hourly basis? 

That's what I hated about being a reporter. I liked a lot of--in fact, I was just talking to my wife and I said I'd give anything to take a year off and go back to being a general assignment reporter.

Why don't you? 

Yeah but I'm worried I'm not gonna finish the books now. I don't wanna waste time doing articles. I love being a reporter. But the thing I didn't like was you were always having to write when you still had more questions in your mind. I remember that feeling.

And even when I started being an investigative reporter--one of the first stories I did, I went out to Arizona to look into something and I thought, this is a big fraud. I said I need two weeks out here. I remember they couldn't believe that someone was asking them for two whole weeks, it was such a different world then.

As in two weeks was a long time? 

Yeah! It was a daily newspaper, and you wrote for the next day. When you started you did two or three articles. Then you'd do bigger stories, then you'd do one a day, but you wrote every day.

I got to be an investigative reporter totally by accident. Let's say I was 23 and I didn't know what I was doing. We had this managing editor who was really out of The Front Page, and he didn't like guys from the Ivy League. They hired me when he was on vacation [Laughs]. For awhile I was the only guy in the newsroom who'd gone to the Ivy League and he didn't talk to me for awhile. Then I did something almost by accident on an investigation that they were interested in, and he said "I didn't know someone from Princeton could go through files like this, from now on you do investigative work." So with my usual savoir faire, I say, "But I don't know anything about investigative work." He said, "We'll put you next to Bob Greene."

We had these little tin desks, and Bob Greene weighed about 300 pounds. So when he'd sit down, Bob Greene was half in my desk. The fact is that I learned a lot from him.

I started to realize, I was doing political reporting, and I came to realize almost by accident that this guy Robert Moses had so much power. He wanted to build this bridge across Long Island Sound, and Newsday had me look into it.

Around then, I was a Nieman fellow. Ina's mother was dying that year, so she couldn't come up to Cambridge with me, so I don't like to go to social things myself, and there were a lot of social things. But everybody had an office of their own, and I spent a lot of time thinking, if you're really interested in political power, everything you do is b[******].

You're not saying in every story, power comes from being elected, but your whole work as a political reporter is based on the premise that power in a democracy comes from being elected. And here's a guy who has never been elected to anything and he has more power than anyone who was elected, and he has more power than the mayor and any governor or any mayor or governor put together--look, he's built the whole landscape of your life.

So I thought I was going to do that in a newspaper series. I was gonna need months to do this, how am I gonna get them to do months? It was just too big, I was gonna have to do a book, but I thought I'd be done with the book in nine months.

In the NYPL exhibit on The Power Broker, you're quoted as saying, "I had been living for seven years with people saying no one would pay attention to a book on Robert Moses." Is this because no one knew who he was? Or is it because his legacy had already been cemented? 

No, there was this vague knowledge. I went to Horace Mann, and the other night a bunch of us who were in the same class together had dinner. I thought I was exaggerating this, but no: when we were juniors, everybody had to write a paper on the same topic, and the topic was, "Robert Moses was the perfect example of the white knight in literature." He was the hero, you know?

But when I started bumping into him as a reporter, you'd say, who is this guy? Nobody knows who he is. And nobody knows how he got his power. I remember there was not only not a book, but not a single magazine article that had explored the public authority as a source of political power. They just saw public authorities as things that sold bonds to build a bridge, collected tolls until the bonds were paid off, then went out of business.

No one knew he was interesting. I only knew one editor, and they gave me the world's smallest advance. For years I was working up in the Bronx, it was before I came to the library. You work on a book for years, and if you don't have writers around to tell you that books take years--it was sort of a terrible time, because we were broke, really broke for years. It was terrible because Moses had stopped everyone from talking to me for a long time. But it was also terrible because you felt, what am I doing? No one's interested in this! You're keeping your family impoverished, you know? All of a sudden you're in a room with 10 other people who are all sort of doing the same things.

I was very moved by this [NYPL] kiosk. It reminded me of how much that library meant to me. For the first time you were in a room full of writers. This guy, James Flexner, who was an idol of mine, he came over one day and said, "How long have you been working on this?" Which was the question that I just dreaded, you know? And whatever my answer was at the time, "five years," or whatever. He said, "Oh that's not so long, my Washington book took 14 years!"

There was another guy in the room named Ferdinand Lundberg, nobody knows this guy's name. Ferdinand Lundberg wrote a book in the '30s that was one of the greatest examples of political reporting. It's called America's 60 Families. This would be our one-tenth of 1 percent--it's about how 60 families controlled 95 percent of the wealth in the United States. I came across that book as I was researching the robber barons and I thought it was the greatest book.

One day I was doodling titles, and I decided I was going to call it The Power Broker, and my first editor didn't like that title. But I knew this was going to be the title. And I wrote it, and all of a sudden Lundberg was standing behind me. He said, "Is that the title?" And I said yes. "Don't let them change that," he said. So there were things that happened in that room, right at the beginning, that made everything change all of a sudden.

There were other famous writers, like Barbara Tuchman had been there, she had just left when I got there. And then there were a bunch of writers like me, who no one knew. Like, Susan Brownmiller, she wrote a book called Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, and it was groundbreaking. Susan had the next desk from me, and no one had ever heard of her either, and her editor wasn't returning her calls. 

We used to make a bet, whose editor would return our call first! [Laughs]

Sometimes the bet would go on for a long time, but I still remember Susan's feet. She wore these socks with bright horizontal stripes, and she'd stick them under this partial carrel, so they'd be sticking under my desk, and when I was writing I'd see them. So when you were writing you weren't lonely.

Why write about individual people and not systems of power? 

I would be lying to you if I said I know now why. As I was writing this book, I realized--realized is probably an exaggerated word--I realized that if I did his life right, I would be explaining not just him, but how urban political power worked. Not just in New York but in all the cities of America.

Moses had done something no one else had ever done. Everyone thought power comes from being elected. He wasn't elected, he realizes he's never going to get elected to anything, so he's got to figure out a way to get all this power without getting elected, and he does it. I didn't understand it, no one else understood it, even La Guardia says to him, "Don't tell me what to do," or whatever the quote is, "I'm the boss, you just work for me."

And Moses writes, and I saw this letter in La Guardia's papers, he sends back the letter and he writes across it, "You'd better read the contracts, mayor."

I gradually came to understand that because he had done this thing, that no one else had ever done, gotten all this power without being elected, if I could find out how he did it and explain how he did it, I would be explaining something that no one else understood and I thought they really should understand, which is, how does power really work in cities? Not what we're taught in textbooks, but what's the raw, bottom, naked essence of real power?

I'm writing this book, and I suddenly say, God, this isn't really a biography, this is a book about political power. I said I'd love to do the same thing with national power. Who's the one guy who did something that no one else did? The thing that got me about Lyndon Johnson wasn't him being president. It was about him being Senate Majority Leader.

Posted by at February 20, 2016 5:04 PM