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Monday 22 April 2019

10 minutes read time

The time lord

  • Robert Caro’s great political biographies are a counter-cultural monument to the fruits of ‘slow history’
  • His working methods are immersive, laborious and time-consuming – the opposite of the instant gratification of digital search engines
  • In writing of his research methods, Caro provides a map out of today’s frenzied culture towards a more thoughtful approach to truth

By Matthew d’Ancona

“Just remember. Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.” Thus was the young Robert Caro sternly advised by his veteran editor, as he embarked upon a lifetime of investigative writing.


If slow media had its own Mount Rushmore, then Caro’s benign features would surely be carved into its rock face. Which is another way of saying that (without ever seeking so lofty a status) he is a founding father of the movement in writing, culture, and social practice – of which Tortoise is a part – that seeks the important stories, governing dynamics and deeper lessons so often obscured by digital bombardment and the frenzied pace of modern life.

Caro’s new book, Working (The Bodley Head, £35), is a slim volume compared with the door-stoppers with which his legion of admirers are familiar (his four-volume life of Lyndon Johnson is already 3,000 pages long, with more to come). It amounts to a memoir-in-progress – a teaser trailer, if you like – for the longer autobiography he hopes to write one day. But it is also a manual for those inspired by Caro’s formidably patient, time-consuming and thorough methods.

Now 83, and globally acclaimed as a biographer, Caro left Princeton seeking a career in journalism and worked first for the New Brunswick Daily Home News in New Jersey and then, for six years, at the Long Island newspaper Newsday.

It was at the latter title that he discovered his gift for assiduous sleuthing – a gift that led him to quit full-time reporting and commit himself to the daunting biographical project that became the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974).

Web of influence: Robert Moses in New York, 1962

What intrigued Caro about Moses – the master-builder of 20th-century New York – was the awesome accumulation of power by a man not once elected to public office. Having, through extraordinary labour, uncovered the web of civic connection, money and influence constructed by Moses, Caro shifted his attention to the national stage. He sought to portray, in meticulously constructed paragraphs, how Lyndon Johnson had risen from Texan poverty, via total command of the Senate, to the Oval Office itself. Power, he has shown, is both beautiful and ugly. It can transform the lives of the least fortunate, and enable the darkest instincts of which humanity is capable.

“Once you get enough power, once you’re there, where you wanted to be all along,” he writes in Working, “then you can see what the protagonist wanted to do all along, because now he’s doing it. What power always does is reveal.”

In Johnson’s case, the most dramatic disclosure of hitherto private intent, once he became president, was a commitment to black civil rights that had been absolutely obscured during his long alliance with the segregationist politicians of the South.

President Lyndon Johnson shakes the hand of Martin Luther King at the signing of the Civil Rights Act

It is this preoccupation with the nature of power, as well as Caro’s scholarly authority, that has captured the imagination of so many practising politicians. Barack Obama has recalled being “mesmerised” by The Power Broker when he first encountered it at the age of 22.

Bill Clinton is a fan, as is Sir Alex Ferguson, who buried himself in The Years of Lyndon Johnson, when he stepped down as manager of Manchester United. In an early episode of House of Cards, the fourth volume (The Passage of Power) can be seen on the desk of Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey).

In Westminster, Caro is treated with a reverence unmatched by any historian or biographer. When he came to London in 2015 to mark the reissue, after 41 years, of his life of Moses, his itinerary included a visit to Number Ten, a dinner hosted by the then chancellor, George Osborne, a public debate with William Hague, and a press gallery lunch at which he was interviewed by Michael Gove. (Would Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn welcome him so generously in this Brexit-stultified era, I wonder?)

It is not hard to see why those whose lives are devoted to the pursuit of power, or to writing about it, are so often absorbed by Caro. Less obvious, perhaps, is his broader relevance to contemporary culture – his refusal to sacrifice speed to accuracy, his dogged insistence on being right, rather than fastest.

As he once put it to me over coffee at the Savoy Hotel: “What happened to contemplation? What happened to thinking things through? Everyone laughs at me because I don’t use a computer, I don’t write on a computer and over and over again people say: ‘You could do it faster’. I hear this but I’m thinking the reason I write the first first few drafts in longhand and then go to a typewriter is to slow myself down.”

Slow myself down. How often, today, does one hear a writer – or, indeed, anyone – declare this as a primary professional objective? Long before books such as Daniel Kahneman’s hugely-influential Thinking, Fast and Slow, mapped out the cognitive distinction between different categories of thought, Caro was simply getting on with it. His commitment to slowness is born of practical experience rather than psychological or behavioural theory.

He is not, of course, the first historian to take his time. The first volume of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776, after ten years of work. The final three did not appear until 1788. Sir Martin Gilbert began work on Churchill’s biography in 1968 and did not publish his final companion volume until 2014.

My own favourite example is the late Rohan Butler’s 1,133-page work on the French 18th-century soldier and statesman Choiseul which ends: “The diplomatic and political career of the future Duke de Choiseul had begun.” Alas, no second volume appeared.

The difference is that Caro’s working method is consciously counter-cultural. His archival research – in which he depends greatly upon his wife and fellow scholar, Ina – is legendary. At the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, the couple trawled through 40,000 boxes of documents, containing 32 million pages, searching for clues to LBJ’s life and times.

Caro with his wife and fellow scholar Ina

Theirs is a feat of selective intelligence as well as academic stamina. In the age of algorithmic search and Wikipedia, their method is much more laborious, depending absolutely upon a rigorously forensic foundation of primary sources.

But that is only the start of the process. Caro’s immersive techniques are almost anthropological in their attention to imaginative detail. As he writes: “You have to ask yourself: are you making the reader see the scene? And that means: can you see the scene? You look at so many books, and it seems like all the writer cares about is getting the facts in. But the facts alone aren’t enough.”

This is easier said than done. In his pursuit of Johnson, the breakthrough was the Caro family’s move for three years to the Texas Hill Country where the future president had grown up: 24,000 square miles of isolation, indigence and traditional living, a universe away from the bustling streets of New York that were the biographer’s natural habitat.

Slowly gaining the trust of the farmers he and Ina met, Caro came to realise the scale of Johnson’s achievement, as a young congressman between 1937 and 1948, in bringing electricity to the region. The older women showed him how carrying many gallons of water a day – before the advent of electric pumps – had left them stooped and exhausted. “No matter what Lyndon was like, they said, “we loved him because he brought the lights.”

Johnson on his Texas ranch in 1964, with his daughter Luci and wife Lady Bird

This was an insight that had eluded the day-trip writers pithily dismissed by Hill Country folk as “portable journalists”. It enabled him to understand the ground from which Johnson had sprung – but also to rescue those among whom he had grown up from historical obscurity, from what EP Thompson calls the “enormous condescension of posterity”.

To an extent that often drives his sources mad, Caro also presses them hard on sensory recollection. But the rewards of this approach are compelling. As a young congressional assistant, it transpires, Johnson would walk in the early morning from his humble digs to his office – and break into a run as soon as he saw the glory of the Capitol building.

This Caro knew because he had spoken to Estelle Harbin, Johnson’s fellow assistant, who had witnessed LBJ’s dawn ritual: more eloquent an expression of his passionate pursuit of power than could be sifted from a hundred documents.

Study of power: Caro in Washington

The pace of Caro’s work is sometimes, falsely, attributed to self-indulgence or even writer’s block. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of his mission and its lessons for our hectic times.

He still puts on a jacket and tie every morning to go to his office, works a full day, turns in an average of 1,000 words a day (which he rewrites again and again – even when his books are in page proof).

In an age of 280-character “hot takes” and breathless Instagram posts, he is easily dismissed as a curmudgeonly Luddite and counter-revolutionary. But this is to read him wrong.

Robert Caro is an authentic progressive, a believer in the role of history as a prop of “better informed” voting, and his own part in patrolling the border between intelligent democracy and cultural amnesia. His travels to the past are a gift to the future. In a world seething with impatience, he knows that “truth takes time”.

Further reading

  • First, the essentials: Caro’s own books. Start with The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974). Then move on to The Years of Lyndon Johnson, four volumes of which have already appeared: The Path to Power (1982); Means of Ascent (1990); Master of the Senate (2002); The Passage of Power (2012). A fifth is to follow – eventually.
  • For a different analysis of LBJ, try Jeff Shesol, Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade (1997).
  • On ‘slow journalism’ and its philosophical underpinnings: Jennifer Rauch, Slow Media: Why ‘Slow’ is Satisfying, Sustainable, and Smart (2018).
  • For a bracing warning of the perils of historical amnesia: David Andress, Cultural Dementia: How the West has Lost its History and Risks Losing Everything Else (2018)

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