If you read anything about American history and politics, you’ve got to know the name Robert Caro. He’s written about two politicians—just two—but both of them were masters in the art of wielding power. The first book was about Robert Moses, the city planner who shaped modern New York more than any human being. Then Caro began to write about Lyndon Johnson, who signed much of the key progressive legislation of the nineteen-sixties but also presided over the disaster in Vietnam. Caro has already published four volumes on Johnson’s life, with the fifth to come. And that book will cover the crucial years of the Presidency. But to call those books mere biographies kind of misses the mark. They’re so rich in detail, so accurate, and at the same time so broad in scope and dramatic that they’re more like epics of American life. Caro himself has become a kind of legend among nonfiction writers, and he’s just published a book called “Working.” It’s a gift, a collection of interviews and essays that talk about the craft of what he does.
Caro recently sat down at the McCarter Theatre, in Princeton, New Jersey, to speak with David Remnick.
I want to start at the beginning, Bob. Your first job out of college was as a reporter at the New Brunswick Daily Home News. And I’d like to know what you thought you were getting into, what you thought your life would be like as a newspaper reporter, what you wanted out of that job, where you thought you were going.
Well, I didn’t know it. Wherever I thought I was going wasn’t where I found myself. So the New Brunswick Home News then was tied in with the Middlesex County Democratic machine. In fact, it was tied in so closely that the chief political reporter was given a leave of absence each election season so he could write speeches for the Democratic organization. So I had just gone to work there, and he got a minor heart attack. But he wanted to be able to get that job back when he recovered, so he picked as a substitute the guy he thought would be most inept. And I went to work for the New Brunswick Home News for the Middlesex County Democratic machine, and I fell in with a very tough old political boss in New Brunswick. And for some reason he took a shine to me, and he took me with him everywhere. And every time I’d write a speech for one of his candidates, mayor or city council, that he liked, he’d take out this wad of fifty- and hundred-dollar bills. My salary at the time was fifty-two dollars and fifty cents a week. And he’d peel off quite a few bills and hand them to me. And I really liked that aspect of the job.
But, then, you want me to tell you how I left the job.