Booknote: “Working” by Robert A. Caro

Biographer and journalist Robert A. Caro shares glimpses of his life and writing subjects in Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing.

Since the 1960s, his professional career has been devoted to biographies of two twentieth century giants: New York City infrastructure planner Robert Moses (though never elected to public office, he became one of the most powerful men in his state for forty years), and Lyndon Baines Johnson, who as president, reshaped American society. Johnson’s accomplishments were breathtaking. Working with Congress, he secured the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the 1965 Immigration Act, Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, education bills, and War on Poverty legislation. He dramatically increased the scope of the conflict in Vietnam.

Four of the projected five volumes of the Johnson study are now published. He recalls Winston Churchill’s multi-volume biography of his ancestor, Lord Marlborough. When asked how the work was proceeding, Churchill wisecracked, “I’m working on the fourth of a projected three volumes.”

Caro’s primary interest is political power – why it is coveted, how it is attained and exercised, and the effect that power has on the governed, especially the powerless. For example, he notes that as many as 250,000 people were displaced from homes and neighborhoods to accommodate Moses’s highway projects.

This small volume reveals how Caro came to be interested in writing, his work habits, and his approach to research and interviews. He shares many fascinating anecdotes about what he discovered as he probed the lives of his subjects.

Caro’s wife, Ina, was an indefatigable ally in his work. When money was running out in their early years, she – on her own initiative – sold their Long Island home to buy him more writing time. Later, they lived for three years on the border of Texas’s Hill Country to research LBJ’s early years. She quipped, “Why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?”

I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s honesty, humor, and commitment to rigorous research. He offers compelling insights into the force of political power. Although Working is a short book, it is a rich and satisfying read.

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