Books Chapter & Verse

4 revelations in Robert Caro's new audio project

Historian Robert Caro shares some important lessons learned in his new audio project 'On Power.'

Since he began writing books in 1974, Caro has tackled just two subjects – President Lyndon Johnson and New York City's master planner Robert Moses.
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  • Randy Dotinga

Historian Robert Caro, who is perhaps the greatest living American biographer, is quite a prolific author. He's also quite a specific one.

Since he began writing books in 1974, Caro has tackled just two subjects – President Lyndon Johnson and New York City's master planner Robert Moses. And he's used just one researcher, his wife Ina.

His fans are eagerly awaiting the fifth and final volume in Caro's LBJ series. But for now, Caro is sharing his wisdom in a new audio project titled On Power and read by the author.

It hasn't gotten much attention, perhaps since it's brief and only available via audio, but it's still a lively listen. Here are four revelations from Caro:

1. A chance encounter ended Caro's political career

As a young man, Caro joined a New Jersey newspaper as a reporter. The paper was part of a political machine, and Caro found himself writing speeches on the side for the Democratic political boss of New Brunswick.

One Election Day, the boss brought Caro along with him in a limo on a tour of precincts. The regular driver had been replaced by a police captain who made sure things went smoothly. But at one polling place, there was a problem.

"I saw there was a group of African-American demonstrators, well-dressed men and women, mostly young, who'd obviously been protesting something going on at the polls," Caro says. "As I watched, paddy wagons pulled up, and the police were herding protesters into them."

He didn't like what he saw. "The thing that really hit me was the meekness of these people, their acceptance, as if this was the sort of thing they expected, that happened all the time. All of a sudden, I didn't want to be in that big car with the boss. I wanted to be out there with them. The next time we pulled up to a traffic light, I just opened the door and got out."

2. Caro's understanding of power evolved early

While writing his book "The Power Broker" about Robert Moses, Caro wondered why the planner's parkway through northern Long Island made an odd jog away from the coast. Caro discovered that the road was shifted to avoid annoying rich property owners, revealing how the once-idealistic Moses had given in to an even greater power. Caro figured he'd found the key to the story.

But he looked deeper and found that another price was paid, a huge one, by small farmers who lost their livelihoods when the road came through. Just moving the road by 400 feet in one case would have saved one farm, but Moses refused to make the change. As Caro learned, Moses ruined other farmers in the same uncaring way.

"When I remember the phone calls I made 40 years ago...." Caro says, "I find myself as angry now as I was then.... The injustice of it, the wrong of it."
It was lesson, he says, about "how regard for power implies a disregard for those without power."

3. He moved to Texas to study LBJ's hometown

When he began working on his LBJ series, Caro would visit the teeny-tiny Johnson City in the Hill Country of Texas, a desolate place of epic loneliness, especially for women like the future president's mother.

The wary locals would dutifully tell familiar stories about Johnson's early years, but Caro figured he was missing a grittier, more interesting story. He feared he was what the locals called a "portable journalist" – someone who'd parachuted in and then skedaddled.

So he moved there with his family, earned trust, and found deeper stories of a young LBJ: about how Johnson found a way to unleash his power and ruthlessness in a college in the sticks, for example. And the way he transformed the hard work of daily life in the backcountry by bringing power to the region with the help of FDR.

Women would show Caro what it was like before electricity, how they carried heavy water from wells in yokes on their shoulders, how their bodies became stooped by the age of 35 because of the strain. "If you elect me," a 28-year-old LBJ brilliantly told voters when he ran an unlikely bid for Congress, "you won't look like your mother looked." He won, and they didn't.

4.  Caro's last LBJ book takes another look at power

Caro says his final LBJ book "is a coming together of everything I've been trying to do. Because never has there been a clearer example of the huge effect that political power has on people's lives than during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson."

On one side, there was an avalanche of legislation that forever changed American life. On the other side, there was the Vietnam War.

Caro is still seeking an understanding of the reach, the use, and the price of power. Oh yes, and one more thing: its potential.

"We certainly see how government can injure you today," he says. "but people have forgotten what government can do for you." Like creating power in every sense of the word.

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