“Working”: A Brief History of History

May 13, 2019   •   By John Schneider


Robert A. Caro

AN ACCOMPLISHED YOUNG JOURNALIST heads home one night and, reflecting on his career and his industry, realizes, “Everything you’ve been doing is bullshit.” What passes for success in journalism doesn’t matter because the market realities of the industry favor speed over depth, and they actively discourage the kind of reporting that would properly explain how things really work. To tell the story right would require a level of nuance and detail that a contemporary journalist normally cannot accommodate.

This is Robert Caro’s origin story. After this revelation, he famously left his job as an investigative reporter at Newsday for a one-year sabbatical that turned into a half-century career writing hefty biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson. His goal had been “to work for a paper that fought for things,” but newspapers were simply too short and ephemeral for him.

This might seem quaint now, when the daily paper can feel like someone trying to save parts of Twitter for posterity, but it makes Caro, and his new sort-of memoir Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, relevant to today’s readers. It’s worth remembering that speed, access, and space restrictions have always been barriers to good reporting, even if the technology is new. And Caro’s new book is a helpful guide, as one man’s attempt to deal with those limitations.

Caro is, of course, a pillar of the Old Media: a Princeton-educated New Yorker who worked at Long Island’s Newsday (“a real crusading paper then,” Caro tells us), was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, and then left journalism to write giant tomes about Important Men that won Impressive Awards (two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, et cetera). So one might expect his memoir ought to be a staid and stuffy recollection of the media’s halcyon days.

But his book is deceptively modern. In part, this is due to Caro’s oft-repeated clarification, which he sticks right on the first page of the new book: “I never had the slightest interest in writing the life of a great man. […] I thought of writing biographies as a means of illuminating the […] force that is political power.” And political power is an evergreen subject, particularly political power as it relates to subjects like civil rights, urban development, and partisan upheaval. Since much of Working has been previously published over the last 25 years, the book gives a sense of how coverage of those subjects has evolved over time.

“The City-Shaper,” an essay about Caro’s interviews with his first subject, Robert Moses, originally appeared in 1998. So its inclusion here entails a writer looking back at a writer looking back at a subject looking back at his life and legacy. Instead of making the memories hazy, it has the effect of dusting them off. When Caro refers to Moses’s reputation as “the very antithesis of the politician, a public servant uncompromisingly above politics who never allowed political considerations to influence any aspect of his projects,” it doesn’t exactly sound familiar, as Moses’s legacy has soured in the years since Caro’s biography was published. But the flattering description reveals how Moses was able to exert power, and how his same strategies reverberate today: when New York’s recent Amazon deal fell through earlier this year, Governor Cuomo blamed “narrow political interests” for the failure, unconsciously echoing Moses in his condemnation of his opponents.

Perhaps the most important lesson from Caro’s work involves detailing the consequences of political clout. “The City-Shaper” is also about the interviews Caro conducted with the people displaced by Moses’s projects: “The general picture that emerged from their answers was a sense of profound, irremediable loss.” And Caro is careful in elaborating just what was lost, evoking a bygone neighborhood through those interviews with its former residents.

Similarly, in his work on Lyndon Johnson, Caro remembers the people impacted by the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Here, though, he encounters some problems, since he is no longer simply telling a story about the powerful versus the powerless. His task is to emphasize Johnson’s role, often, it seems, at the expense of others: “The heroism of the people who fought for civil rights in the streets during the Sixties is monumental, but in talking about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that heroism shouldn’t be all that we talk about.” But it never is all that we talk about, and the case that the legislative machinations behind the law are under-discussed is not very persuasive. If anything, much of the recent research on the Act, covered by Clay Risen in The Bill of the Century, argues that Johnson’s role is, if anything, exaggerated in the popular imagination. Nevertheless, Caro portrays the law almost as an extension of Johnson himself.

The focus on Johnson as an individual reveals a lot about Caro as a storyteller. For one, it reveals his thoroughness — he doesn’t want to miss anything, down to his subject’s interior life. Caro has some fun in the new book, joking about his reputation and the time it takes him to write his books. “I’m actually a very fast writer,” he assures us. “It’s the research that takes the time.” But it’s not just the research or time that set him apart (Working includes a brief essay in appreciation of the New York Public Library, where Caro found a community of historians). It’s his ability to use research to make his story feel personal.

He talks about pestering interview subjects with seemingly irrelevant questions: What did you see? Where were you sitting? How did it sound? These details make the reader feel inside the story, as does the intimate look at Johnson’s personality. By giving a sense of what motivated Johnson, Caro makes his stories almost novelistic, giving his readers a character to relate to. He recognizes that these details matter, that colorful, seemingly extraneous facts don’t just sentimentalize the story — they deepen it.

Caro’s dissatisfaction with newspaper journalism is not just ironic for the antediluvian idea that daily newspapers might be too fast, but because it sheds light on today’s debate over what constitutes real news. It isn’t only that Caro couldn’t fit some details into a newspaper article, but also that some details that would never belong in a newspaper are part of the whole story. His depiction, for example, of Moses staring out his window, imagining new highways, is cinematic, not journalistic, but it’s also an image that stays with readers more than most facts or figures.

“You look at so many books, and it seems like all the writer cares about is getting the facts in. But the facts alone aren’t enough,” Caro told the Paris Review in an interview that is included in the new book. It’s an odd statement to read. Just 100 pages earlier, Caro recounts being so desperate for the facts that he describes an attempt to get New York City Parks Department records like it was a bank heist. But this is a key to Caro’s philosophy: the facts are crucial, they are necessary, they are the best way to settle competing versions of the truth — but they still aren’t enough. This helps explain why the books take so long. Even after all the effort to track down the facts, you still aren’t done.

This also explains why Caro is so good at including outsiders and overlooked voices in his books. It is easy to illustrate the impact of men like Moses and Johnson by listing facts: roads built, legislation passed, people displaced. But by applying these same standards to supporting players in his stories, Caro makes them seem as real — if not quite as well developed — as his main subjects. Working, for example, includes stories about investigating Alice Marsh and Luis Salas. Marsh was Johnson’s longtime mistress, and the wife of an important political ally; Salas was a local “enforcer” who helped Johnson rig his first Senate victory. While both of them played crucial (but very different) roles in Johnson’s early career, they could easily be passed over as mere footnotes in Johnson’s life. But by capturing Marsh’s blend of idealism and insider savvy, and Salas’s placid amorality, Caro not only humanizes them but also tells a fuller story about the state of Texas politics.

In some ways, what Caro’s writing most resembles is what we have come to call “longform journalism” — an in-depth look at a complicated subject from multiple angles, all anchored by a human narrative. Even the tenuous business model feels familiar: much of Working touches on Caro’s financial struggles while writing The Power Broker. But after that book’s success, he was left free to take as long as he needed to pursue his subjects, with the assumption that a well-told story would justify whatever investment it required.

Of course, we have come to see the limitations of this format as well. And while Caro hasn’t had to fill his books with native advertising, he is susceptible to some other drawbacks that he rarely acknowledges. For one, in all his discussions of making interviewees see and feel their memories, he never seems to suspect that his subjects might just be telling him what they think he wants to hear. This is a common problem with journalism that goes beyond fact. Even if nobody is being dishonest, one risk of trying to humanize a story is the temptation to fit it into a familiar narrative.

This is most apparent when Caro discusses the victims of government policies. Whether talking about displaced New York tenants or black voters in the South, Caro tends to sentimentalize their experience, fitting them rather neatly into narratives of the downtrodden. His description of the Civil Rights movement, for example, is a generally triumphant one, about overcoming Jim Crow. This is a common narrative, but it is less persuasive now, in light of contemporary efforts at voter suppression that mirror exactly what the movement’s victories were meant to eliminate.

It is important to Caro’s conception of history, though, to make it seem as though Johnson’s pen blotted those efforts out. His work implies that political leaders with the right personality and temperament can, through force of will, bring about change. This implication comes the closest to the Great Man theory of history that Caro otherwise abjures. After all, if political power is so meaningful, then the right person must be able to use it to solve social problems. This is why Caro can’t help but glorify the powerful: in his telling, they are the ones directing history.

Is this scope justified? Caro has spent the last 54 years making that case, but Working’s most interesting questions are slightly different: What is the best way to tell these stories? Are Moses and Johnson worthwhile lenses through which to view the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement, or are they actually drivers of those historical phenomena?

Caro’s work spends a great deal of time tracing the source and nature of Johnson’s intellectual insecurities, of his fighting spirit, and of his relentless pursuit of power. But did these things really have more to do with the passage of the Civil Rights Act than, say, the Great Migration, or the rise of labor unions, or the proliferation of television? This is not to fault Caro for not including everything. But by telling the story of the 20th century as a story of individuals, his explanations favor the psychological over the structural.

On the other hand, the belief in the power of individual wills to change history is strong. Structural explanations often lack heroes, and they can be stiflingly dull. Individual acts get lost in the stampede of history. But Working serves as a testament to little acts. The care Caro takes to turn every page in the library, talk to every witness to an event, and jot down every detail in his notes comes from his belief that every piece is part of the story. While that might exaggerate the influence of the story’s subject, it also makes the story feel human. It is why, despite covering some very sad aspects of American history, Caro’s oeuvre is actually quite hopeful.

Which brings the reader back to the reporter driving home, realizing his work is bullshit. Because Caro, despite quitting his last newspaper job in 1965, is still a journalist at heart. He is still muckraking. His concern is not just recounting or even explaining the world to his readers — he wants to make them feel angry or sad, to motivate them to act and convince them their actions have an impact. His books may be works of history, but they are also works of a journalist who wanted to fight for causes. Caro is still a reporter. He’s just operating with a very loose deadline.


John Schneider is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.