Working by Robert Caro


*Working* is the book I was hoping it to be. Robert Caro has essentially spent his entire career immersed in the lives of two men–Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson–in an effort to explain the inner workings of political power. He wanted to know, in the case of Moses, how someone who was never an elected official seemed to have more influence than the governor. For LBJ, Caro was interested in how a poor boy from Texas walked into Washington as a junior politician and emerged later as an influential figure and Senate majority leader. Working is a culmination of the interviews, stories, and adventures Caro embarked on to understand and de-mystify political power. The book is full of tales about the wild things Caro had to do to better understand his subjects and the lives they lead, advice on writing, and how to properly research (hint: turn every page).


Slow down and don’t think with your fingers

Caro had to turn in a short story every two weeks and he always waited to do it until the last minute. Though he got a good grade, his professor wrote him, “You’re never going to achieve what you want to, Mr. Caro, if you don’t stop thinking with your fingers.” While writing for the daily paper, writing with his fingers was something Caro could get away with, but when he started his book, he could no longer do so. “That was why I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand, slowest of the various means of committing thoughts to paper. And yet, even thus slowed down, I will, when writing, set myself the goal of a minimum of a thousand words a day, and, as the chart I keep on my closet door attests, most days I meet it.”

No one else will tell the story that you’ve been entrusted to tell

The generation that lived before electricity had a lot of interesting stories to tell. They would tell their daughters and they would tell their granddaughters, but sooner or later, they’d all be dead and there would be no one to tell what it was like to live before electricity. “So the story might easily have been lost,” Caro writes. “If in even a small measure I told it for them, these women of the American frontier, and in order to accomplish that, *The Path to Power* took a couple of years longer to write, well–so what?”

You’ve been entrusted to tell the story you want to tell. It’s your job and no one else’s. How will you steward that responsibility? With rushed research, shoddy sources, and average paragraphs? Or will you give the story the time, research, and attention it deserves? If the story you want to tell is truly important, it will be as relevant in three years as it is today. Take your time and write it well.

Why Robert Caro doesn’t talk about his books before they’re done

“I can’t discuss that book in any detail here–my writing seems never to come out well if I’ve talked about it beforehand. That was another thing I learned about myself as a reporter. My first job at *Newsday* was working nights; to get a story “up front” (in the first seven pages of the tabloid), you had to sell it first to the Night City Editor, and then you might also have to discuss it with the Night Editor. By the time I had done all that, I was so bored with the story that I no longer was interested in writing it.”

Figuring things out

The fundamental principle behind all of Caro’s words:

“I always liked finding out how things work and trying to explain them to people…I think figuring things out and trying to explain them was always a part of it.”

Turn every page

After being promoted to an investigative reporter, Caro told his boss, “but I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.” His boss looked at him and said, “Just remember, turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.”

This was a rule that Caro would follow religiously. In effect, it paid handsomely with stories, connections, and evidence that Caro, and only Caro, was able to make because he *turned every page*.

Why Caro picked his editor

After Caro found an agent for The Power Broker, the agent wanted to set him up with an editor. “You can stop worrying about money,” she said. “What you care about is writing. My job is to find you an editor you can work with for the rest of your life. I’m going to set up lunches for you and you can pick the one you want to work with.”

Caro writes, “Three [of the four] editors took me to the Four Seasons or some other fancy restaurant, and basically said they could make me a star. Bob Gottlieb at Knopf said, ‘Well, I don’t go out for lunch, but we can have a sandwich at my desk and talk about your book.’ So of course I picked him.”

Isolation is maddening

For the first five years of writing The Power Broker, Caro was pretty much on his own. “As a reporter,” he writes, “my days had been filled not only with bylines, a weekly paycheck and other trappings that made the journalistic world feel real, but also with interaction with my editors, with other reporters, with the subjects of my articles. When I had a problem connected with my work, there were many people with whom to discuss it…I don’t think that during the first five years I was working on The Power Broker I had any contact with a single other writer of serious books. There was no writer with whom I could discuss a writing problem.”

That feeling of isolation combined with the seeming eternity of time he had already spent working on the book left Caro doubtful about his future as a writer. But then things changed when he was admitted to the Frederick Lewis Allen Room at the New York Public Library. Surrounded by books and a new setting, Caro began to feel more at home. “But it was not books,” Caro says, “that were the most wonderful things I found in the Allen Room.” Instead, it was the company. After his first day was over, and once every one but him had left, he went around the room to see who else occupied the space: Nancy Milford, James Thomas Flexner, and more were now his companions. “The day I read the names of the writers to whose work space I had been admitted,” he writes, “was the day that I felt I might be a writer, after all.”

One day, when James Flexner asked Caro how long he had been working on The Power Broker, Flexner didn’t give the usual “Yeah that’s not going anywhere” look that people so often gave to Caro after he said, “Five years.” Instead, Flexner said, “Oh, that’s not so long. I’ve been working on my Washington for nine years.” After Joe Lash said Eleanor and Franklin took him seven years to write, Caro was once again relieved. “In a couple of sentences, these two men–idols of mine–had wiped away five years of doubt…Suddenly, just by being given a desk in the Allen Room, I had been made to feel a part of the community of writers.”

Lesson: That’s the power of being with “your people.” Working from home is great, but it limits the interactions you have. No one can be there for you when you’re stuck, discouraged, and disheartened. It’s important to have a community.

I’m sure being around this group also gave Caro more motivation to write. By being surrounded by writers, he didn’t have much of a choice but to write. That’s another lesson. If you want to do something more, surround yourself with people who do that thing.

Give people what they really want

One of the hardest parts about writing for Caro was getting stubborn people to talk to him, but he was very good at making them do so. One reason why was because he understood what they wanted and helped them get it. One example of this is clear with the story of George Brown.

Root & Brown, a firm that gave large amounts of money to Lyndon B. Johnson, was a source of mystery for Caro. He wanted to know why they gave such a large amount of money to LBJ during his time in the senate. Herman Brown had passed away, so George Brown was the only person to talk to. This was a problem because George didn’t want to talk, but he did want one thing: for the world to remember his brother, Herman Brown.

One day, while driving around Lyndon Johnson’s home town, Caro noticed a new building: the “Herman Brown Free Library.” “All at once, something occurred to me,” Caro writes. “George had loved and idolized his older brother, who had really been more like a father than a brother. Since Herman’s death, George had been building public monuments all over Texas, not only Herman Brown public libraries, but a Herman Brown Hall for Mathematical Sciences at Rice University.”

Once he realized this, he called an intermediary who helped him get in touch with George originally, asking to call just one more time. “Posh [the intermediary] said quite firmly that he wasn’t going to do that,” Caro writes. “I’m only asking you to call one more time, I said, and I want you to say just one sentence to him: tell him that no matter how many buildings he puts Herman Brown’s name on, in a few years no one is going to know who Herman Brown was if he’s not in the book…The next morning, very early, before I was awake, the phone rang, and it was Mr. Brown’s secretary asking what time would be convenient for me to meet with him.”

Lesson: By understanding the deeper psychological aspect of George Brown, and what he truly wanted for his brother, Caro was able to use that to help get them what they both want. This was straight out of the Robert Moses playbook if you ask me, but maybe with just a touch more class.

Sometimes, you have to recreate the scene

While writing about LBJ’s childhood, Caro gleaned some insight from his brother, Sam Houston. Though he was cooperative, Caro wanted more detail and more unfiltered thoughts. So, he persuaded the National Park Service to allow him and Houston to enter Johnson’s childhood home (it was now a museum) after hours. “I asked Sam Houston to sit in the same place he had sat in as a boy…I didn’t sit down at the table. I sat down instead behind Sam Houston, in a chair against the wall, and it was sitting there that I opened my notebook. I didn’t want anyone at that table who was not one of the Johnsons of Johnson City…’Now, Sam Houston,’ I said. ‘I’d like you to tell me again about those terrible arguments that your father and Lyndon used to have at dinnertime–just take me through them again, like you did before, only with more detail.”

Finding the facts takes time

“While I am aware that there is no Truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either; no verity, eternal or otherwise; no Truth about anything, there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable. And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And finding facts–through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing–can’t be rushed; it takes time.”

Go one level deeper

“Since the centerpiece of my third volume, a book about Lyndon Johnson as Senate Majority Leader, was going to be his monumental achievement in ramming through that body, in 1957, a bill to make it easier for black Americans to vote, the first civil rights bill to be passed in eighty-two years, I wanted to briefly show in the opening pages of the book–to make the reader understand and feel right at the beginning–how hard it had been for a black person to register to vote, let alone actually cast a ballot, in the South before 1957.”

Even though the book was about Johnson’s time as Senate Majority Leader, Caro spent a considerable amount of time digging up testimony and stories about the obstacles and struggles African-Americans faced while trying to vote. Instead of just writing a few paragraphs and saying, “It was really hard,” he used stories and evidence to show how hard it really was.

Waste your time

Caro didn’t intend to discuss the many love affairs Johnson had had. This was mainly because he didn’t think any of them really impacted his political career or influence, until he stumbled upon Alice Marsh. “Then, however, while turning pages in a folder whose label, ‘Public Activities–Biographic Information–Naval Career,’ hinted very strongly that turning pages in this folder would be a total waste of time, and whose contents seemed to consist largely of mimeographed copies of a press release about Johnson’s activities in the Pacific in 1942, there was, suddenly, and age-browned Western Union form: CHARLES BELIEVES YOU SHOULD FILE FOR SENATE, it said. POLLS SHOW YOU LEADING. NO ONE ELSE SHARES HIS OPINION ENTHUSIASTICALLY. IF POSSIBLE, TELEPHONE. LOVE, ALICE MARSH.”

This character in Johnson’s life was peculiar and it opened up a lot of rabbit holes for Caro. He may have not stumbled upon it otherwise if he hadn’t wasted his time with a boring folder.


“Interviews: silence is the weapon. Silence and people’s need to fill it–as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer. Two of fiction’s greatest interviewers–George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John le Carré’s George Smiley–have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking, and let silence do its work.” Maigret, he says, cleans his pipe and Smiley cleans his eyeglasses with his shirt. “As for myself,” Caro writes, “I have less class. When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for SHUT UP!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SUs” there.

Nonfiction needs a sense of place

“By a ‘sense of place,’ I mean helping the reader to visualize the physical setting in which a book’s action is occurring: to see it clearly enough, in sufficient detail, so that he feels as if he himself were present while the action is occurring. The action thereby becomes more vivid, more real, to him, and the point the author is trying to make about the action, the significance he wants the reader to grasp, is therefore deepened as well. Because a biography should not just be a collection of facts. Its base, the base of all history, of course is the facts, it’s always the facts, and you have to do your best to get them, and get them right. But once you have gotten as many of them as possible, it’s also of real importance to enable the reader to see in his mind the places in which the book’s facts are located. If a reader can visualize them for himself, then he may be able to understand things without the writer having to explain them; seeing something for yourself always make you understand it better.”

“Since places evoke emotions in people, places inevitably evoked emotions in the biographer’s subject, his protagonist. Therefore, if a biographer describes accurately enough the setting in which an action took place, and if he has accurately enough presented the protagonist’s character, the reader will be helped to understand the emotions that the setting evoked in the protagonist, and will better understand the significance that the action held for him. If the place is important enough in the subject’s life–if he was raised in it, for example, or presided over it, or maneuvered within it–if the place played a significant role in shaping his feelings, drives and motivations, his self-confidence and his insecurities, then, by making the place real to the reader, the author will have deepened the subject, will have made the reader not just understand but emphasize with him, feel with him.”

Here is Caro putting that advice into action:

“When Rebekah walked out the front door of that little house, there was nothing–a roadrunner streaking behind some rocks with something long and wet dangling from his beak, perhaps, or a rabbit disappearing around a bush so fast that all she really saw was the flash of a white tail–but otherwise nothing. There was no movement except for the ripple of the leaves in the scattered trees, no sound except for the constant whisper of the wind…if Rebekah climbed, almost in desperation, the hill in back of the house, what she was from its crest was more hills, an endless vista of hills on which nothing moved, empty hills with, above them, empty sky; a hawk circling silently overhead was an event. But most of all, there was nothing human, no one to talk to.”

Go the extra mile

Rebekah, Johnson’s mother, was deeply unhappy due to her loneliness on the country ranch, and this unhappiness affected Johnson. “So what I decided to do to get a taste, a tiny taste but still a taste, of such loneliness, was to spend the whole day alone in the hills, spend the night there and wake up the next day and spend another with no one there but me.”

False optimism is dangerous

“Lyndon has seen firsthand, when his father failed, the cost of optimism, of wishful thinking. Of hearing what one wants to hear. Of failing to look squarely at the unpleasant facts. Because his father purchased the Johnson Ranch for a price higher than was justified by the hard financial facts, Lyndon Johnson had felt firsthand the consequences of romance and sentiment.”

Johnson’s father bought a big ranch in Texas that he would use to farm. The only problem was the land wasn’t good for soil, it was all rock. He was blinded by the expanse of the open country to see the brute facts: nothing would *ever* grow there. This mistake cost the family a lot of money, and for Johnson, he felt he had to work his entire childhood to fix his dads’s stupid mistake.

This danger to optimism made Johnson a master at vote-counting, and ensuring every Senator who would say they would vote one way actually did. Too many people, Caro explains, are blinded by how good their bill is and think more people will vote than actually will. Johnson didn’t have this problem.

After a staffer would report, “I think he’s going to vote this way.” Johnson would roar back, “What good is thinking to me? I need to *know!”*

See also: Churchill yelling at Colville about opinions in Splendid and the Vile

Some people thought this was just Johnson’s natural ability, but thanks to Caro’s trip to Texas, and a deep understanding of Johnson’s childhood and the things that shaped him as a man, he knew it was the result of having an overly-optimistic father. Johnson wouldn’t go on to continue that family trait.

Another example of Caro’s dedication

While Johnson was working as an assistant to a Senator, his co-worker would see him running past the Capitol building at 5:30 in the summer and 6:30 in the winters (since he got up with the sun). Caro was stuck trying to figure out why he had done this. He ended up walking the route from his apartment to his office every morning, trying to see if something caught his eye, but then he realized he never did it at the time Johnson would be, so he went earlier in the day. He noticed the sun’s rays striking the façade of the Capitol in full force–”it’s lit up like a movie set,” Caro writes.

But Caro had to find a way, he says, to not lecture the reader about this magnificent moment, he has to try and make them feel it, because his running was a symbol of what he had been working for his whole life–running away from the small apartment he lived in (and the small Hill Country of Texas) to the grand buildings full of power and influence in Washington. “Well, of course he was running–from the land of dog-run cabins to this. Everything he had ever wanted, everything he had ever hoped for, was there. And that gigantic stage lit up by the brilliant sun, that façade of the Capitol–that *place-*showed him that. Showed him that, and if I could write it right, would show the reader as well.

It’s okay to rewrite

“I rewrite a lot,” says Caro. “Sometimes I look at a page I typed but have reworked in pencil, and there’s hardly a word in type left on it. Or no words in type left at all–every one had been crossed out. And often there’s been so much writing and rewriting and erasing that the page has to be tossed out completely. At the end of the day there will be a great many crumpled–up sheets of paper in the wastepaper basket or on the floor around it.”

Rhythm matters

“I remember rewriting the introduction endless times,” Caro says in a Paris Review interview. “For instance, Moses built 627 miles of roads. I said, Come on, that’s just a bare statement of fact–how do you make people grasp the immensity of this? So…I tried listing all the expressways and all the parkways. I hoped that the weight of all the names would give Moses’ accomplishment more reality. But then I felt, That’s not good enough. Can you put the names into an order that has rhythm to it that will give them more force and power and, in that way, add to the understanding of the magnitude accomplished?

I thought I could have a rhythm that builds, and then change it abruptly in the last sentence. Rhythm matters. Mood matters. Sense of place matters. All these things we talk about with novels, yet I feel that for history and biography to accomplish what they should accomplish, they have to pay as much attention to these devices as novels do.

How Caro Outlines his books

“I can’t start writing a book until I’ve thought it though and can see it whole in my mind,” he said in a Paris Review Interview. So what he does is boil the book down to three paragraphs that are the summation of what he has in his mind. Then, he uses those paragraphs to outline the book. After that, he goes chapter by chapter, outlining each one. That is basically writing a short version of the chapter, without all of the supporting evidence. Then, he gets a notebook, one for each chapter, and fills it with all of his material–interviews, quotes, documents–and then he organizes that all together into a coherent narrative and begins writing.

Caro’s routine

Because Caro doesn’t have any real deadlines, he says it’s easy to fool himself into thinking he’s working and making progress on the book when he’s really not. “So what I do is–people laugh at me,” he says, “I put on a jacket and a tie to come to work, because when I was young everybody wore jackets and ties to work, and I want to remind myself that I’m going to a job. I have to produce…I try to do at least three pages a day. Some days you don’t but without some kind of quota, I think you’re fooling yourself.”


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