Robert Caro spent decades living LBJ's life. His goal with the last volume is the same as it was with the first: to endure.

Historians in the News

What made Johnson run? That was the question that, for several months in the late 1970s, drove Robert Caro mad. Never mind that Caro was better equipped to answer it than perhaps any other man, living or dead. For years, he had been at work on a nonfiction chronicle of Lyndon Johnson's early life. He had spent thousands of hours wooing and winning and interviewing Johnson's family members and neighbors. He'd even spent a long night, alone, huddled in a sleeping bag in the remote Texas hill country so he could understand exactly what the loneliness of Johnson's rural boyhood felt like. The book, along with two subsequent biographies of Johnson, would do more than any other work to shape our notion of why Johnson ran—for Congress from north Texas, for the presidency of the United States and for a place in history.

But none of that was what was driving Caro crazy. As he researched Johnson's early career in Washington, he was vexed by a more basic question: what literally made Johnson run? He'd learned from two sources that, as a young congressional assistant living in Washington in the early 1930s, Johnson could be seen making his way to work each day at the crack of dawn, running up Capitol Hill. Why, Caro wondered, would he run? If the sun was rising, he wouldn't have been late to work, and, even if he were, Johnson's do-nothing, bon vivant congressman boss wouldn't have much noticed. Caro paced the route, searching for answers, finding none. "I must have gone 20 times, I'm not exaggerating," he says. Then it occurred to him: he'd never walked the walk at the break of dawn. And so, early one morning, he made the trek one last time. What he saw was a revelation. In the rising sun, the Capitol looked like its ideal Greek form, "gleaming, brilliant, almost dazzlingly white." After weeks of wondering, Caro finally understood: "There it was, everything Johnson ever wanted in life; of course he would run."

By training, Robert Caro is a journalist. By profession, he is a biographer, among the most highly acclaimed living, thanks to his four books—three volumes on Johnson and a saga about the New York public-works titan Robert Moses. But in his daily life, Caro more resembles a scientist, driven by the principle that you understand something only by observing it, watching it with great concentration and for a long time. In his New York City office, where everything has its particular place, he works long hours, seven days a week, poring through interview transcripts and primary source notes, working slowly and deliberately on books he publishes, on average, once every 10 years. His meticulous routine is sometimes painful, he says, but necessary. Only by gathering as many facts as possible, cataloging them, cross-checking them and sitting with them at great length, can he choose the right words to re-create the past inside his readers' heads. Words matter to Caro. "I have always thought," he told me this winter, "that in nonfiction, the level of the writing has to be as good as any novel if it is going to endure."...
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