‘Working’ is the quintessential biographer's instruction manual
Political biographer Robert A. Caro lays out his writing process as a memoir, revealing useful techniques and telling encounters from his career.
For the third volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography, Robert A. Caro wanted to show the future president’s unmatched skill as leader of the United States Senate. To do that, Caro zeroed in on Johnson’s successful campaign to pass a Civil Rights bill, a measure that won approval in 1957 only because of Johnson’s dogged determination and furious politicking.
Caro has approached all of his writing with an emphasis on showing how political power is accumulated and wielded while also documenting how that power affects everyday people. In the Civil Rights legislation example, he wanted readers to understand the inescapability of voter suppression in the South. First, Caro dug through testimony taken from African American men and women in Alabama as part of federal commission hearings in Montgomery in 1957.
This reporting sequence, recounted in Caro’s slim but compelling memoir of how he approaches his books – aptly titled “Working” – offers a peek inside the mind of America’s foremost political biographer.
Testimony taken at the time from a woman named Margaret Frost captured Caro's attention. Frost had twice tried to register to vote but was refused first on the basis of not answering a series of arcane questions without error and second because a fellow black citizen being questioned at the same time by the county board of registrars answered something incorrectly. Caro tracked down Frost and phoned her to gather additional detail about her experience.
After speaking with her, Caro knew he had enough information to construct a vivid rendition of the insurmountable obstacles faced by Southern blacks, an entry point for a section of his book covering the 1957 bill. The bill was notable less for its impact than for its mere existence: Until that time, Congress hadn’t passed a Civil Rights law in 82 years.
In the interviews, Margaret Frost had mentioned her husband, David, who had helped prepare her for the tests that accompanied her voter registration. Unable to resist, Caro called the Frosts back and asked to speak to David to see whether he had ever sought his voting rights. David Frost told the author that he had been approved as a registered voter, but then faced intimidation as Election Day approached.
A group of men in a car pulled up in front of the Frosts’ home and shot out the porch lights, David Frost told Caro. Then they drove away, leaving Frost to ponder calling the police to report the incident. But he didn’t - for a very good reason. As the car roared off, Frost noticed it was a police car.
In Caro’s telling of the long slog that led to that peerless anecdote of policemen vandalizing and intimidating a citizen while aiding illegal voter suppression, he is less triumphant than resigned to his personal obsessions, which force him to keep asking and digging no matter the time and effort involved.
“Of course there was more,” he writes, referring to what he discovered by calling the Frosts and asking again and again what happened and how. “If you ask the right questions, there always is.” Next comes his rueful conclusion: “That’s the problem.”
Caro is now in his 80s and at work on what he promises to be the fifth and final volume of his Johnson biography. It’s a biography he started in 1976, meaning he has spent more than half his life researching and interviewing and he still isn’t finished.
Before that, Caro dedicated nine years to “The Power Broker,” his first book. It told the story of urban planning and power through the lens of Robert Moses, who led numerous authorities and commissions in New York. Moses never won elected office but still became the arbiter of where and when parks, public housing, highways and other projects – totaling $27 billion – was built.
Caro has won two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards, received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama and his books have not been out of print since “The Power Broker” was published in 1974.
Throughout “Working,” Caro shares his research and interview techniques as well as the crucial assistance of his wife, Ina, who has spent decades with her husband poring over documents and searching out connective tissue linking the mundane with political ambition and leverage.
Examples of Ina’s resilience abound in “Working,” including Caro recounting her decision to sell their home in the early-1970s so the fledgling author could stay afloat financially while working on the Moses book.
Caro began his research on Johnson with a visit to his presidential library in Austin. While there, he wandered over to the archives, covering four floors, and asked about the scope of LBJ’s collected papers. An archivist delivered the sobering truth: 56,000 boxes totaling 45 million pages, cross-referenced and catalogued in myriad ways.
Those weren’t his only concerns. Caro noticed that his visits to former neighbors and friends of Johnson’s in the remote Texas Hill Country resulted in little more than platitudes and recycled anecdotes. At last, he reached the conclusion that he and Ina would have to move to Texas for him to have any hope of building rapport with his sources.
Ina Caro agreed, but not before asking a question that serves as a chapter title in the new book: “Why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?”