October 9, 2019
By Roy Lincoln Karp
Years ago, I was walking through Central Park with my father when he pointed to a rather uninspired playground consisting of metal swings, a see-saw, and monkey bars floating in a sea of concrete. “Moses,” he uttered with derision. He was referring not to the biblical prophet, but to Robert Moses, the powerful urban planner and builder who had radically transformed New York City during the previous five decades.
My father’s dim view of Moses was no doubt shaped by Robert Caro’s masterful 1974 biography, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.” Through meticulous research, done in collaboration with his wife Ina, Caro documented the career of a man he credibly asserts was the most accomplished city builder in human history. The book also took a battering ram to Moses’s carefully constructed reputation as an incorruptible public servant unsullied by the muck of Tammany Hall politics.
After completing “The Power Broker,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, Caro moved on to his next subject: President Lyndon Baines Johnson. He is currently working on the fifth and final volume of this biography, one of which – “Master of the Senate” – has already received a Pulitzer. Whether writing about Moses or LBJ, Caro has one true subject: power and how people attain and amass it, how they use it and sometimes abuse it, and how it shapes our daily lives for better or for worse.
Students of Caro’s work now have the opportunity to learn how a writer of his talent and skill has honed his craft. At age 84, he took precious time away from the Johnson project to reflect on his life as a writer. The result is a gem of a book, a mini-memoir called “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing.” As he explains in his preface, he is planning to write a full-scale autobiography, but “I am quite aware that I may never get to write the memoir.”
For Caro, power is not something general or vague, but specific and concrete. It’s not “the system,” but individuals in that system, the choices they make, and the consequences of those choices. He understands that the devil is truly in the details and his writing is informed by a close reading of documents and patient interviews with witnesses.
An interest in small, often overlooked details also inspires Caro to give his readers “a sense of place.” To understand Lyndon Johnson, for example, one had to see and feel the dry parcel of land in the Texas hill country for which his father had overpaid in an effort to regain the family’s once vaunted position in the county. That ill-advised decision impoverished the Johnsons and taught the future president lessons he would never forget. A native New Yorker, Caro moved to the hill country with Ina to better understand the place and to build trust with the Texans he needed to interview.
I hope Caro is able to write that full-length memoir. I would love to learn more about his childhood on the Upper West Side, the impact of losing his mother when he was a boy, and what inspired him to start a school newspaper when he was in the sixth grade. Until then, we have “Working,” a timely reminder of the importance of independent journalists who are not beholden to the powerful and who can write freely about the people and political decisions that shape our lives.