August 2, 2016

THE BIOGRAPHER OF POWER (profanity alert):

Interviews : Robert Caro, The Art of Biography No. 5 (James Santel, Paris Review)

INTERVIEWER

When did you start to gravitate to the kinds of large nonfiction projects that would define your career?

CARO

I loved being a reporter. I loved finding out about how things really worked and trying to explain them in my stories, and I became more and more ­interested in politics because I was starting to feel that it was important to ­explain political power. The paper assigned me to cover this bridge that Robert Moses wanted to build. The bridge was supposed to run from Oyster Bay to Rye. I can't remember the details, but it would have required something like six more lanes on the Long Island Expressway just to handle the traffic. And the bridge itself would be so big that the piers on which it crossed Long Island Sound would have disrupted the tidal flow and caused pollution. 

The bridge was still years away, but there was some minor measure, a bill or appropriation or feasibility study, perhaps, pertaining to it that Moses needed to keep the project moving forward. I went up to Albany, I saw Governor Rockefeller, I had a long session with his counsel. I saw the ­assembly speaker, a guy named Tony Travia, and I saw the president of the state Senate, Joseph Zaretzki. They all understood that this bridge was just a terrible idea.

So I went back and told my editor, The bill is dead. And then a couple of months later, a friend in Albany called me and said, Robert Moses was up here yesterday. You better come back up. And I drove back up there and walked into the assembly chamber just as they were approving the bill by a huge majority. 

See, before that, I had written articles on politicians, investigative pieces, and I had won a couple of journalism awards. They were really minor awards, but when you're young and you win any award, you think you know everything. So I thought I was accomplishing my purpose, which was to explain political power to my readers. But driving home from Albany to Roslyn that night, all the way I kept thinking, Everything you've been writing is bull[****], because everything you've been writing is based on the belief that political power comes from the ballot box, from being elected. Here was Robert Moses, a guy who was never elected to anything, and he came up to Albany for one day and changed the entire state government around, from the governor to the assembly. How did he have the power to do that? You have no idea and neither does anybody else. I said to myself, If you really want to explain political power, you're going to have to understand that. So I decided to apply for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard to study urban planning, and I got it. I was taking a course taught by two professors who had written a textbook on urban land-use planning, and they were explaining why highways get built, where they get built, and they were explaining it as if it were a mathematical equation, and with every class, they added a couple of factors--population density, grade elevations, things like that. Totally rational. I would sit there diligently taking notes, and then one day I suddenly said to myself, This is all wrong. They don't know why highways get built where they're built, and I do. They get built where they're built because Robert Moses wants them built there. 

All the Niemans had offices then. I walked back to my office, and I ­really sat and thought, How am I going to explain to the readers of Newsday about Robert Moses? And the more I thought, the more I realized, My God, I'm never going to be able to do this in the context of daily journalism. It's ­going to take a book. To me it seemed that the story of Moses was the story of modern New York. I didn't have an agent, but I wrote a book proposal and got a $5,000 contract, $2,500 then and the other $2,500 when I finished. 

We didn't really have any savings, and that wasn't enough for me to quit my job. For a while, I tried to work on the book while I stayed on as a ­reporter, but I wasn't making much headway. I got a grant for a year, and that was when I decided I could quit. I told Ina the book would be done in nine months. But after a year, it was still only in the early stages. Ina sold our house--we moved to an apartment in the Bronx--and the money from that gave us another year. But I knew the book still had a lot more years to go. So those were years when we were just plain broke. All I could think was that I was going to have to be really lucky to be able to finish this book without having to go back to work as a reporter. I knew that if I went back to work, I would never finish. 

After some years, I got an agent, Lynn Nesbit, and changed publishing houses, and she and my new editor, Bob Gottlieb, made sure I finally had enough money. But the only way she could get enough money for me to finish The Power Broker was for me to sign a two-book contract. The second one was for a biography of Fiorello La Guardia, but after I finished The Power Broker, I didn't want to do it, because so much of it was covered in The Power Broker. And I've never been able to stand ­doing something that I've already done.

I knew what I really wanted to do for my second book, because I had come to realize something. I wasn't interested in writing a biography but in writing about political power. I could do urban political power through Robert Moses because he had done something that no one else had done. He had shaped the city with a kind of power we didn't learn about in textbooks, which tell us that, in a democracy, power comes from being elected. He had shaped it with a different kind of power. So if I could find out and explain where he got his power and how he kept it and how he used it, I would be explaining something about the realities of urban power--how raw, naked power really works in cities. And I could do it through his life because I got the right man, the man who did something that no one else had done. I felt it would be great if I could do that kind of book--a book about political power--about national power. And I had had a similar flash about Lyndon Johnson. It was the Senate, it wasn't the presidency. He made the Senate work. For a century before him, the Senate was the same dysfunctional mess it is today. He's majority leader for six years, the Senate works, it creates its own bills. He leaves, and the day he leaves it goes back to the way it was. And it's stayed that way until this day. Only he, in the modern era, could make the Senate work. So he, like Moses, had found some new form of political power, and it was ­national, not urban power. I wanted to do a book about that. That's what first drew me to Lyndon Johnson. 

Also, I wanted to do Johnson's life in more than one volume because there were things that had been cut out of The Power Broker that I regretted having to cut. I cut 350,000 words out of that book. I still miss some of those chapters. I expected to have a fight over this, but before I said anything, Bob said, I've been thinking about you and what you ought to do. I know you want to do the La Guardia biography, but I think what you should do is a biography of Lyndon Johnson. And then he said, And I think you should do it in several volumes. 

Posted by at August 2, 2016 2:53 PM

  

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