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Working Robert A. Caro. Knopf. Hardcover, 240 pages. $25

THE FINAL DRAFT OF THE POWER BROKER, Robert Caro’s portrait of the ruthlessly productive NYC parks commissioner Robert Moses, came in at over a million words. “Not a rough draft, the polished final draft,” Caro tells us in his brief new memoir, Working. Over 300,000 words were cut from that “final” version before it was published in 1974. (It won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography that year.) At this distance, that edit seems unwise. “Turn every goddamned page” was the rule Caro learned in the ’60s from editor Alan Hathway of Newsday, his boss at the time. Those pages removed from Caro’s draft, even sight unseen, must represent a loss, because Caro took Hathway’s advice very seriously. With Moses and his only other subject, Lyndon B. Johnson, Caro turned pages and rarely came up empty—he found fixers, forgotten friends, dozens of enemies, and hundreds of people indebted to these men and their largely unchecked power.

One of the best anecdotes in Working is about some documents that Moses, a control freak who tried repeatedly to stop Caro from writing his biography, kept in a parking garage near the 79th Street Boat Basin. After being tipped off by a journalist named Mary Perot Nichols, Caro and his collaborator Ina (also his wife) found a “huge empty white space” in the basement of the building. It turned out to be a Lost Ark situation: “There against the far wall was this entire row of four-drawer file cabinets containing not just carbons but thirty years of memos, orders, and directives from Robert Moses to the Parks Department.” With documents like these, The Power Broker became a definitive explanation of how elected officials can become transient figures in the shadow of an almost permanent fixture like Moses, whose unelected power derived from hundreds and hundreds of deals, some at the far margin of the law, and none of them supervised by anyone with more power than Moses.

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For all the praise Caro receives, little of it gratuitous, there are aspects of his process that go unremarked. Caro never speculates as to why Moses, a deeply secretive person, might “forget” that a record of his activities was sitting in a storage unit that only needed finding. (Security was loose, and that may have been a result of Moses’s hubris. Parks Department workers knew the commissioner wouldn’t like people snooping around the garage, but the only obstacle they threw at the Caros was removing the lightbulbs. Not exactly barbed wire.) Caro doesn’t psychoanalyze or generalize—he is the antitheoretical reporter, the full empiricist. Even though The Power Broker depicts Moses calling the residents of East Tremont “animals”—this after he ordered the destruction of fifty-four apartment buildings to make room for the Cross Bronx Expressway—Caro never bumps the parks commissioner up to Full Racist. He uses that term in Working only once, for a colleague of Lyndon Johnson’s named Richard Russell, the leader of the Southern Caucus in Congress. (Russell thought the Southern Strategy was, if anything, not harsh enough.) For all of the misery that Moses and Johnson caused, Caro never busts out the gavel, and continues to give his subjects credit where he thinks it is due. Caro writes that Moses’s Triborough Bridge project created “thousands of jobs” and is an example of “the potential of government, the power of government, to transform people’s lives for the better.”

Caro apologizes several times, coyly, in Working, for taking so long with his writing. To describe the ongoing process of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, he cribs a line from Winston Churchill, talking about his own distended biography of Lord Marlborough: “I’m working on the fifth of a projected three volumes.” We get it! You write very long brilliant books—cool it, chief. Caro’s description of the deeper roots of his process, on the other hand, is a heartbreaker:

While I am aware that there is no Truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either; no verity, eternal or otherwise; no Truth about anything, there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable. And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And finding facts—through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing—can’t be rushed; it takes time. Truth takes time.

This would be well-meaning boilerplate if Caro didn’t follow his leads to such lengths. When the Texans who grew up with LBJ wouldn’t open up to the New York reporters, Caro and Ina moved to a house in Hill Country near Austin to put some skin in the game. In the writing itself, the unflagging pursuit of information is matched by something gentler and tougher—the patient, serial nature of Caro’s conclusions. There are so few generalizations about his subjects, because Caro lets each fact lead to another fact but rarely to a stopping point or a simplified “truth.”

Caro repeats that his main interest is “political power,” a rhythmic tic that may come from the fact that these chapters were originally conceived as freestanding magazine pieces. With both Moses and Johnson, Caro uproots many carefully buried deals, the secrets kept so that other things happen. All the farmers on Long Island who Moses pushed out in 1927 to make space for the Northern State Parkway thought there was higher, scientific reasoning behind their loss. Caro notes: “One consideration alone made the tragedy more bearable to them—their belief that it was necessary, that the route of the parkway had been determined by those ineluctable engineering considerations. But I knew, from the telegrams and letters, that it hadn’t been necessary at all.” Caro tends to grant Moses legitimacy at the level of his original intention, listening to the “broad-shouldered old man with very young gray eyes, the wind whipping his sparse white hair around his olive face,” recount his original vision of Jones Beach. Caro is relentless, though, in documenting the pain of the people Moses dispossessed, with apparently no regret, when executing his plans.

Both Moses and Johnson are presented as idealists, each with his own kind of professional dementia. Their quests for power, in the end, can verge on depraved indifference, but Caro feels for his subjects, particularly when detailing the experiences that shaped Johnson. Caro carefully outlines the humiliation the politician felt when his father lost the family farm: Johnson’s “insecurity was so deep that sometimes it’s hard even to write about it without feeling like crying yourself.”

The dominant urge in contemporary nonfiction, of almost any political bent, is to move to the general and axiomatic. How to Sleep More Quickly While Eating. Where the Anthropocene Blew It. Is the Self Jacked? Why Capital Is So Rude. Caro has a faith in reporting that is mirrored by cinema verité filmmakers like the Maysles brothers and Michael Blackwood, for whom the recording of events, free of interference, can create meaning without claiming truth. It’s narrative without voice-over, in spirit. Caro is, of course, the narrator, but without an impulse to explain. The most thrilling sections here are like policiers, Caro pulling on threads till the perps show their hand. With no small difficulty, Caro found the election judge who helped LBJ steal his 1948 Senate seat, winning despite a 20,000-vote deficit.

The other catchphrase that Caro brings to the table comes from a political fixer named Tommy the Cork. When Caro asks why Johnson’s tone of voice changed in his correspondence in October 1940, Tommy offers a punch line the reader might see coming: “Money, kid, money.” Then he challenges Caro, as if we’re about to segue into a training sequence: “‘But you’re never going to be able to write about that.’ I asked why not. ‘Because you’re never going to find anything in writing,’ he said.” But he does. Caro combs through telegrams and eventually finds messages to and from Brown & Root, the construction firm that financed Johnson’s congressional run. Johnson was funneling contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which Caro describes as “a moribund subsidiary of the Democratic National Committee.” Brown & Root had arranged a direct line to Washington through LBJ, and every $5,000 contribution was another brick in the Texas politician’s growing power base. LBJ became a power broker of his own, and his benefactors retained their grip on the hometown influence. This is the beginning of Caro uncovering how Johnson made the Senate work. “During the six years of his leadership, in fact, the Senate became the center of governmental ingenuity, creativity and energy in Washington,” Caro writes. This comes through the slow and steady application of money, pressure, and more pressure. As he records Senator Scoop Jackson saying, “He would threaten you, would cajole you, bribe you or charm you, he would do whatever he had to. But he would get the vote.”

And this matters to Caro because of what Johnson did with those votes, and how counterintuitive it was. Despite rising in Washington with the support of many major Southern strategists, Johnson ended up passing legislation that ran counter to every backward belief they held—the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and every other pillar of the Great Society that Johnson both named and created. Caro isolates the quote that seems to have animated Johnson as much as a raw desire to win: “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.” Which anybody with a TV set could have written down. Not so this:

So I asked the dying Herman Talmadge, How did you feel when you heard that line—“It is time to write it in the books of law”? And again my notes say, “long pause.” And then Talmadge said, “Disappointed. Angry. Sick.”

The Caro fan wishes there were five hundred pages of these stories, not two hundred. Others might wish, despite the legendary and unimpeachable nature of Caro’s books, that he had ventured beyond his two subjects. Caro has been working on the LBJ series for most of my adult life, and I’m torn between total admiration and a slightly irrational frustration. Aren’t there other figures of power who need their pages turned? Did Caro have to take his talents to Texas?


Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in the East Village.