Turn every goddamned page

Review: Archie Henderson

Working, by Robert  A Caro (Vintage)

Robert Caro is 88 and readers are worried he won’t be around long enough to complete his monumental LBJ biographies. He has already written four, the last having been published in 2012. A fifth and final volume of the 36th US president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, is still in the works. He takes about 10 years to write a book, so the final one may be imminent.

Five volumes of a US president who is now largely forgotten by many of us may seem like over-egging, but if you have the time and energy to read them all, I suspect the proof is in the pudding. I have read only volume four, The Passage of Power, which deals with his LBJ’s vice-presidency and ends with John F Kennedy’s assassination. It’s detailed, revealing – and gripping. I hope I’ll be around to read the rest.

But enough about LBJ, Working is about Caro.

Born in New York and a graduate of Princeton, he began his working life as reporter on a local paper in New Jersey before moving to Newsday, a respectable tabloid renowned for investigative journalism.

Pitched unexpectedly into a big local story, he discovered a love for digging into voluminous government files to prise out their secrets – before press releases could hide them. He worked non-stop for 24 hours before submitting a memo to the newsdesk, outlining his proposed story.

The next day, the newspaper’s tough managing editor, who loathed university graduates, summoned him. “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this,” he told Caro. “From now on, you do investigative work.”

Before letting him go, the editor had a piece of advice: “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.”

Caro, who has kept faith, began to develop a catalyst for his biographies: the acquisition and use of power.

Those themes took him first to Robert Moses, the unelected urban commissioner in New York who rebuilt the city without caring for the people who got in his way. Poor neighbourhoods were swept aside, while highways took unplanned detours to avoid crossing the estates of the wealthy.

Caro took his million-word manuscript of The Power Broker to Knopf where the editor Robert Gottlieb cut 400,000. It would lead to their love-hate relationship. After the success of the Moses biography, Knopf and Gottlieb decided to indulge Caro: three planned volumes of LBJ became five.

Just how he goes about his writing is shared in Working. There is good advice on how to write non-fiction (or research fiction), how to find documents (turn every page), and how to conduct an interview. During an interview, he often writes “SU” in capital letters in the margin of his notes. It stands for “shut up”; it’s a mistake many interviewers make (just watch South African TV).

When he finally interviewed LBJ’s widow about the president’s mistress, Lady Bird talked and talked, and Caro took notes – and shut up. It was a biographical scoop.

Caro says he is a fast writer, an early talent he honed while working on the rewrite desk at Newsday, but he also learnt the danger of fast writing while at Princeton. Every fortnight, in a creative writing course, students had to submit a short story. Caro left his to the night before submission, but always made the deadline. The professor was mildly impressed by his stories’ structures and content, but had a word of warning: “Don’t think with your fingers.”

He still writes fast, but also takes time to get the language perfect, and to bring in the facts that will hold a reader’s attention. “Caro’s works are masterpieces of research and artistry – truly great literature,” wrote one reviewer. “The prose is a mesmerising combination of fine-grained, meticulous detail recounted in lush, incantatory sentences.”

His research methods are also the stuff of legend. He and his wife, Ina, his research assistant, pore over documents, turning every page. To write the Moses book, he counted 522 interviews; for LBJ it ran into thousands. The couple go to great lengths to explore the subject. While researching LBJ, they moved to the remote Hill Country in Texas where a young LBJ grew up and where he introduced electricity when he was a congressman. People there got to know the Caros and confide in them. It helped that Ina took jars of fig preserve to their appointments.

That was where Caro finally got a close confidant of LBJ’s to confess to a Senate election that was stolen in 1948 when Johnson was the winner.

Reading Caro might be a case of back-to-front. If the final LBJ volume appears, it will be a good place to start, just because of the events it will include: his feud with Bobby Kennedy (already revealed in Passage of Power), the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which ensured the vote for black Americans 100 years after it was promised at the end of the Civil War, his decision not to run in 1968 (because of the escalation of the war in Vietnam, a subject about which the LBJ library is opening up new files all the time), and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.

Then a reader can go back to where it all started.



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