Means of Descent
We ignore the powerless at our own peril, says LBJ biographer Robert Caro.
Robert Caro doesn’t want to renew his lease. He tells me this on a cold day in mid-October, as we stand in an elevator bay on the 22nd floor of the Fisk Building on West 57th Street. He has worked in this same office, every day, for the last 26 years. He likes his routine — he dresses to write (this day he was wearing a periwinkle v-neck sweater and a pair of pressed khakis; an informal choice for a man who usually puts on a tie before he writes a single word), walks from his apartment on Central Park West down to Columbus Circle, and takes the same rickety elevator up to the cloistered rectangle of grey carpet and a drab brown desk where he has written the last two orchestral volumes of Lyndon Johnson’s biography.
The historian is now working on the fifth installment of his LBJ series, which was only supposed to be three volumes when he began his research in the 1970s. But Caro doesn’t believe in brevity or speed; his first book, The Power Broker, began as a small character study of the Machiavellian city planner Robert Moses and swelled to seven years of work and over 1,300 pages. He won the Pulitzer for it — the first of two he would win for his oeuvre, along with the National Book Award, and tonight, a National Book Award medal for lifetime achievement — but writing it nearly broke him and his wife, Ina.
Caro is now 80 years old. The regularity of his writing routine comforts and motivates him. He hesitates to break up the flow; he is now deep into the Vietnam era of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the period in which everything goes wrong and Johnson’s power starts to crumble. This requires concentration and consistency. He writes every day, first in longhand on a legal pad, then on a typewriter, placing each page in a box to edit by hand the next morning.
But looking out the window over 57th Street, he tells me that he has not been able to bring himself to sign the paperwork to stay in the office for another year. The skyscrapers are depressing him. He points to One57, the tower that will cast a permanent shadow over Central Park. “Isn’t that disgusting?” he asks me. “For a moment, I thought maybe things were changing in New York City. But now I am not so sure.”
What makes Caro melancholy about these towers is that their presence means that someone currently has too much power. When he agreed to an interview about his life’s work, Caro did so on the stipulation that he did not have to discuss either presidential candidate. He said he was far too consumed with charting the every move of a past president to focus on what comes next. But with just a few weeks until the election, the idea of someone wrangling outsized power without proper checks and balances does not seem far from his mind.
As he looks out over the new construction, which he says will make 57th Street the most congested corridor in the city, he sighs. He doesn’t want to be confronted day after day with a new abuse of urban power and the human cost of the skyscrapers. But he says he will eventually sign the lease, and he will keep coming back. He has to finish his investigation of power. It is his small gift to humanity sung in big operatic sentences. He is the scrivener of the hidden systems that people use and abuse to gather power for themselves, and also of the powerless who suffer at their hands.
In the end, he doesn’t too care much for the skyscrapers. But he cares a great deal about the people in their shadow.
S So, we are going to talk about power. If anything defines your work, it is this intricate and detailed dissection of how power works and moves between people and institutions. How did you become obsessed with analyzing power structures?
C I fell into it. I knew nothing. They needed an investigative reporter at Newsday, and it was purely by accident. But I started getting more and more interested in political power.
Everything I was looking into…the path seemed to lead to Robert Moses. I thought, who the hell was Robert Moses? He doesn’t have a position. I would type “City Planning Commissioner Robert Moses.” And I thought, what does that have to do with the fact that he is building the Long Island Expressway, which isn’t even in the city? He is the chairman of the Triborough Authority and the Henry Hudson Authority and the Bethpage State Park Authority and the Jones Beach Authority. It all seems to lead to public authorities. So I went to the card catalog, and not only was there not a book, there wasn’t even a magazine article on a public authority as the source of political power. Everything said: “It sells bonds and collects tolls to build a bridge, then goes out of business.” But obviously something very different was going on here.
Newsday had me investigate Moses wanting to build a bridge from Rye to Oyster Bay, and another one from Orient Point to Connecticut. It was the world’s worst idea. It would have required 8 or 10 more lanes on the expressway just to handle the traffic. And it was so long that the piers that would hold it up would have to be so big that they would disrupt the tidal flow in Long Island Sound and cause pollution. So I wrote these stories.
They sent me up to Albany, and I saw Governor Rockefeller and the assembly speaker, and the president of the State Senate. Everyone seemed to know it was the world’s worst idea. So I wrote these stories that the bridge was dead. And about two weeks later, a friend called and said, “Bob, you better come back up here.” And I said something like, “Oh, I don’t think that’s necessary.” But I remember walking into the assembly chamber as they were voting on the next step, and it was some vote like 144-to-3 to authorize it.
I remember thinking in that moment: Everything you have been doing so far is bullshit. That was a moment for me. Everything is based on this feeling that in a democracy power comes from the voters, being elected. But here was a guy who was never elected to anything. A guy who had more power than anyone who was elected, more power than any mayor, more power than any governor, more power than any mayors or governors combined. And he had had this power for 44 years, and with it, had built everything! And I said to myself: You, who are supposed to know something about political power, have not the faintest idea about how it works, and apparently neither does anybody else.
They let me do a long series. And I thought, you could never do this in the terms of a newspaper. You are going to have to do a book. I only knew one editor, really. So I wrote him a letter and got a very small contract to do The Power Broker.
S Why did this moment have such an effect? How did you know you needed to focus on this man and how his power affected people?
C I got really angry at the injustice of something that happened to small farmers on Long Island. And I just knew that the book I had started out to write wasn’t going to satisfy me. I wasn’t really going to examine power the way I thought it should be examined, because it didn’t deal with the powerless. You have to deal with the powerless. You couldn’t just write about how power works, you had to write about its effect on people who didn’t have power, both for good and for ill.
So then I said, that book is going to take years and years to do. There are all these books on the human cost of highways, but there is not a single definition of human cost. I need to figure out a way to show the human cost. He destroyed 21 neighborhoods. And I’ll take one and show what that meant. And that’s a decision that has a lot of ramifications if you’re doing a book; it’s going to take six months to research and write, and we didn’t have any money.
S You were out on the streets, broke, trying to get the details right of this one neighborhood, captured in the Power Broker chapter “One Mile.” Was that stressful?
C Oh, we were totally broke. We had been broke for so long. But you have to talk to everyone and research the history of the neighborhood. But more than that, you have to really write it. You want to capture that this was a real neighborhood. This was a lower-class, mostly Jewish, real neighborhood. They had a home. They had a nice life. They had big rent-controlled apartments and a community. And Moses tore down 54 six- and seven-story apartment houses in this one mile. He had an alternate route where he only had to tear down six tenements, but if he used that route for the Cross Bronx Expressway, the end of it had to come back up and destroy the Third Avenue Transit Co., a business all the Bronx politicians had stakes in. So he took the other route.
S And so you realized you had to discuss power through the human cost rather than through the lens of people at the top?
Exactly. That’s a good way of putting it.
S Did you feel you had a certain amount of power when reporting on Robert Moses, because at the time you were writing about someone who was alive? Did you feel you had the power to affect his career? Did you feel like publishing this huge tome about the city infrastructure and this man who controlled it would make you a powerful force?
C No, the answer to that is no. This book took seven years. And money played a big part of this. We didn’t have any savings. I was a reporter. And I thought it was only going to take a year, so I couldn’t quit. I got a contract for $5,000, they gave me $2,500 as an advance. So I was trying for half the year to keep my job and work on the book, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. And I heard about a grant for one year, and I got it. And I remember I told Ina, we are finally going to get to go to France. I thought, they are giving me this money for a year, and this outline is only going to take me nine months! Of course at the end of the year, I’d hardly started, and we were just broke.
So Ina sold the house, but that only gave us — this was before the real estate boom — $25,000 of profit. That was enough to live for a year in an apartment in the Bronx. And then I was just totally broke, and Ina went to work. Then I got hurt and couldn’t get out of bed for a long time. So she had to stop and do the research.
All this time, all I’m hearing is nobody is going to read a book on Robert Moses, including from my first editor. He said, “It’s a good book, but nobody is going to read it. You have to prepare yourselves for a very small printing.” All I was trying to do, over years of thinking, was show that it was important that people understand how power works in cities. Because, you know, Moses was such a genius, that he got to the heart of what power was in cities. If you can explain how he did it, which no one had ever done before him, you would be explaining something nobody knows about how power works — not just in New York, but in all cities.
But I must say, for several years, I had very little hope of finishing the book. When I thought about the book, I didn’t feel powerful. I believed no one was going to read it. And I was just thinking I have to finish, but I don’t know how we are going to make it.
After five years, we were completely out of money. I still remember the rent on our apartment was $362.73 because every month we were worried about it. I learned later that Ina was so afraid to walk past the butcher and dry cleaner because we owed money; she always took the long way, but never said anything at the time.
S What I am trying to understand is how the theme of power has continued to run through your life. After The Power Broker, were you thinking of doing another broad investigation of power? I know you were going to write about Fiorello LaGuardia, but through a conversation with your editors decided to transition to Lyndon Johnson instead, and have now written four major volumes about his life with more to come. Did you think, “First I have to understand power in the city, and then I can move on to the entire country?”
C That was my calculus, yeah. Things evolved. In the course of doing it, I realized I was fascinated by political power because it affects all our lives. Was the subway service bad today? It is because Moses starved the subways for 40 years, and they can’t ever catch up with the maintenance he didn’t do. If you go up the FDR Drive, look across the river, you’ll see that the bridge comes down in Astoria, across 96th Street. So why do you have to drive up to 125th Street? You are adding four and a half miles. And of course, it is because of William Randolph Hearst. And that’s a tiny little way it works. But it all has ripple effects.
It was a revelation for me. Something happened. I knew that this was really about justice and injustice. I was so angry and what happened to people here. And I was angriest because no one had ever told their story. I really wanted to do a book about national power. And I knew I wanted to do it through Lyndon Johnson. The thing that attracted me to him was that he did something that no one ever did before. He was the Senate majority leader — I got interested in him not as a president but as a senator. Because before he became majority leader in January 1955, before then for 100 years the Senate was the same dysfunctional mess it is today. He comes in, he is majority leader for six years. The Senate is suddenly the center of governmental creativity and ingenuity in Washington. It’s not Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Act, it’s Johnson’s.
S How has writing about power all these years affected you? Has it made you more cynical? How has it changed the way you live day to day?
C You mean, because I am writing about Lyndon Johnson do I yell at Ina more? (laughs) It hasn’t made me cynical. I think I was more cynical before I started. I have grown more fascinated. I wish I had two lifetimes. I was just at the Johnson Library and they have 45 million documents and I’ve gotten to look at just a handful of them, and look how fascinating this all is, you know? What we don’t know about power. The things we don’t know about. How did this happen? I always am interested in how things happen. And there’s always more to learn.
S Are you optimistic, in terms of the way power is going to be used both nationally and in the city moving ahead?
C Not exactly. You see these skyscrapers, these immense buildings going up, casting shadows over Central Park. They are going to turn this into the most congested area in the world. People are starting to realize this, and they ask me at dinner parties, “How did this happen?” And I have to say, “I don’t know.” The public wasn’t informed about this. And no one realizes that if there is one lesson that I wanted The Power Broker to show, it’s how important it is to have a sense of community, of neighborhood. I say if Rome was power and Greece was glory, what New York was was a home to the world. We took in the Italians, we took in the Jews, we took in the Irish; now there are 167 languages being spoken in Queens. That’s because they could create their communities here. But the very idea, and concept behind Hudson Yards and these towers, is that nobody is zoning it so you have small stores on the ground floor. Did you see Fiddler on the Roof? I wanted to put a line in The Power Broker from the song “Anatevka” that says “where I know everyone I meet.” And that’s so precious and rare in the city now.
S You have been known to fight over sentences with your editors down to the semicolon. Why are you so dedicated to retaining the power of what goes on the page? Do you feel that if you relinquish that, you’re giving away some essential power?
C Well, it goes back to something that I don’t think people understand, which is the importance of writing in nonfiction. If there is one thing I’d like people to get, it’s that if a nonfiction book is going to endure, the level of the prose in that book has to be at the same level as the level of prose in a novel that endures. I mean, you have to have a mood. I was writing the Means of Ascent, and there is a chapter, I think it’s called Flying, and this was Johnson’s last chance, it’s 1948. It’s all or nothing. He’s 40,000 votes behind in the first primary, and he gets out of the hospital and he has to make it up, and he’s desperate to do it. I remember I had on this lamp on my desk an index card with scotch tape that said, “is there desperation on this page?” I had to show the desperation in the rhythm, in the choice of words, because just putting down the facts wasn’t enough. This chapter was about a desperate man and his last chance.
S Do you think a book
has the power to change
C Well, I don’t want to answer that too fast. It sometimes seems to me that books are fighting — I don’t want to talk about other books, just my own. Sometimes I feel that my books have increased people’s understanding of how power works. I remember I spoke at Queens College, and a young man came up to me and said, “I really read The Power Broker, so I am in student government and I asked to be the chairman of the bylaws committee.” And I said, “Oh, he got it!”
S Do you feel like young people today have a better or more intricate understanding of power than when you were first writing about it? There are so many more resources now to learn about how the machine works.
C There is no question in my mind that young people now are much more sophisticated about power. Sometimes you hope that your books played a role in that. Maybe they didn’t. But sometimes you really feel that. One way or another, they know more about political power. And they should, because as I said at the beginning, political power affects their lives. It affects your life every day, in the quality of your subway ride, in the cleanliness of your streets, in the access you have to parks. That’s political power. People may not think of it as political power, they may think of it only when a snowstorm comes. But it is there in every aspect of their life. So if there is one thing I feel: It’s worth doing these books, because in a democracy, a lot of power comes from people and the votes they cast. So the more understanding you can give people about the realities of what they are voting for, and how the process works, then you have contributed something to making our life better. I believe that.