On Thursday, we ran Part 1 of Robert Caro’s conversation with the Washington Post’s Anne Hull, on reporting, sacrifice, sources and finding book projects. Today, in the second and final part, Caro talks about his reporting and writing process, how to maintain energy and interest in a subject, and how he minimizes distractions. Caro and Hull are both former Nieman Fellows — read about them and other distinguished Nieman storytellers in our Featured Fellow series. Excerpts of Caro’s talk appear in the current issue of Nieman Reports, “The State of Journalism in China,” which launched last week.
Anne Hull: Tell us a little bit about your work habits. LBJ has stayed the same. You’ve gotten 40 years older. How do you sustain, and all journalists face this, how do you sustain the interest and the energy to keep doing what you’re doing?
Robert Caro: Well, it’s not hard. It’s fascinating, because if you’re interested in political power, this is a genius. You’ll learn, over and over again. I was doing these books, and this last book, how did he get the Civil Rights Act moving? How did he get his tax cut bill moving? These bills were in committee, and they were staying in committee. The Southern Democrats controlled these committees, absolutely. Kennedy had put in his big economic bill, his tax cut bill in January. This was Nov. 21, let’s say, the bill was still in the House Rules Committee. The chairman, Judge Howard W. Smith, of Virginia, people asked him when he was going to hold hearings. He said, “I have no plans to hold hearings.” It seemed like no one could make him hold hearings.
The Civil Rights Bill was the same thing. Johnson tells Mrs. Graham, on the telephone, We can’t wait until Christmas. This is how the South does it. If this bill isn’t in hearings before Christmas, this is the schedule. He’s going to talk about when to have the hearings in January. They’re going to have the hearings in February, going over to March. It will be April before it gets into the Senate, and if it’s April before it gets into the Senate, Richard Russell can always filibuster long enough to stop the bill.
Hull: Your excitement creates the narrative. Most of us would say, “Yeah, so?” but you’re still going at it. How do you maintain that sense of excitement, and what does a bad day look like for you? What is a bad reporting or writing day look like for you? You’ve got to lose interest on some days, or screw around or do something.
Caro: I have a lot of really bad writing days. I read my stuff. The first thing every morning, I read what I wrote the day before.
Hull: In longhand, and you tend to write bare minimum?
Caro: I write the first three or four drafts in longhand, and then I type.
Hull: You tend to write a minimum of 1,000 words a day?
Caro: I try to write 1,000.
Hull: You have an office. Can you tell us a little bit about how you do this thing that you do? You have an office outside of the house?
Caro: Yeah. I don’t know. I get up every morning. I put on a coat and tie. People laugh at it, but the reason is my publisher is really wonderful. He never asks me when I’m going to be done. There is no deadline. My books take seven or eight or whatever, let’s just leave it at seven or eight, years. You’re really in a vacuum, and it’s really easy to fool yourself that you’re working hard and you’re not. It’s just a trick. You write every day … I wear a coat and a tie because when I was a reporter I wore a coat and a tie. Everyone wore a coat and a tie then, I think. They’re all tricks to remind yourself you’re going to a job. You have to work. That’s just a trick.
Hull: How do you minimize distraction in your life? When you look around you and see kids at Starbucks writing their thesis papers, with Dr. Dre headphones on — they’ve got stimulation coming at them from a million places. How do you keep your concentration? When you look at others, and the way they do things, what kind of work will be produced with this overstimulation?
Caro: Well, I don’t know about that. It’s probably too early for us to know the answer to that. Everything’s happening so fast. I turn off … I don’t get any phone calls.
Hull: You don’t get any phone calls?
Caro: Yeah, I get phone calls, but I turn my machine off and put it on mute so I don’t get any during the day. I don’t know that I do anything in particular.
Hull: Your use of the Internet, email?
Caro: Well, I don’t have email.
Hull: What about future Robert Caros, or future biographers, who then have to deal also with Twitter, Facebook, email and documents? Do you think about how they might write their own scholarly historian work?
Caro: Yeah, I think every technological change is significant at the time. Like with Johnson, it’s long-distance telephone rates. When Johnson first gets to Congress, or when he was Congressional Secretary in the 1930s and the early 1940s. Long-distance telephone, you get all these telegrams, “Call me Lyndon. Something’s happened. Call me, tonight.” Before that, I started in the wrong place. It was all done by letters. Long-distance telephone calls were very expensive, so it wasn’t used that much. You get all these — like Johnson makes John Connally, his administrative aide, go around to the courthouses in the 10 counties in Johnson’s district and write Johnson a letter every week about what’s happening politically back in the district. They are masterpieces, because John Connally is really a brilliant guy. These letters are like nine and 10 single-spaced pages long. It’s like a course in rural politics. You say, “What keeps you interested?” I grew up in a city. I didn’t know what rural — it’s something we knew nothing about, or I knew nothing. Actually, I don’t think many people in cities knew what rural politicking was like. Connally’s letters, “You have to do this. This is what matters. Don’t mention Roseville Tier, because this is what happened with this dam. He mentions soil terracing here because of so and so. Do you want to help him?” That was great. Then, all of a sudden, long-distance telephones become — you have telegrams saying, “Call me.” You have to find a way of finding out what happened in that telephone call. That, of course, is interview.
Hull: Who has not spoken with you over all these years? What hold‑outs are still alive?
Caro: Only one, Joe Moyers.
Hull: Why do you think that?
Caro: I don’t really know. I can tell you what he says.
Caro: I will say, it’s not because he doesn’t like my books. He’s publically said wonderful things about the books. But he won’t talk to me. He says, for a while it was said he was writing his own book. But sometime back, that’s not the case. Now he says what he says, and what he said publically is, “I have to get my own thoughts in order on Lyndon Johnson before I can tell them to someone else.” Whatever the reason is, he won’t. Every other Johnson person, even those who hadn’t talked to me for the first 20 years, came around and talked to me.
Hull: You’ve published four volumes, and you’ve announced, last year, that you’re going to go for a fifth. What sources are still alive? Your pool of sources has probably gotten smaller.
Caro: It’s gotten very small. That’s the saddest thing for me. You become great friends with these people, like say George Reedy was Johnson’s press secretary, and Horace Busby was his speechwriter. Over the years you develop these relationships. One thing that’s interesting about doing these books, it takes so long these people become your friends. I mean, Busby went into the hospital. He had a stroke. He came out and he was sort of blind. He wrote this letter, he wrote it to Ina. He said, “Dear Ina, I’m out of the hospital now. All I could think of when I went in is now Bob won’t have anyone to tell him about the vice presidency.” These guys were really helpful. The great thing about them, in terms of writing was, you could pick up a phone. You didn’t have to spend a long time schmoozing them. You could just pick up the phone and say to them, to Reedy, “George, that interview of Johnson, when he was talking with Wallace, was Johnson in the rocking chair or on the sofa?” Reedy would answer you, because he was a former newspaper — “The rocking chair.” I’d say, “Thanks,” and you just go back to typing. Over and over now, you find your hand reaching for the telephone, and there’s nobody to call.
Hull: Let’s open up for some questions. If anyone wants to come up to the microphone, they’re here and they’re here. We have two.
Question: Did you ever suspect that Johnson had a hand in the assassination of Kennedy?
Caro: In all the years I’ve been working on Lyndon Johnson, I never found any hint that he had anything to do with the assassination.
Question: I’m Tyler Bridges. My question is going back to process. It’s an issue I always struggle with myself, is do you have any specific techniques that you use to get people to open up to you, so they will tell you what you hope is the truth? Then once you have that information, and you’ve talked about befriending these people and liking them, do you struggle within yourself knowing that you may put information out there that will make Johnson look bad, or that may hurt them?
Caro: Well, I never talk to people off the record about the books. They know what they’re telling me is for the books. I’m certain a lot of them don’t like what I print, or didn’t. I think everybody now, and before they died, (is) completely cooperative, want to be part of these books, and are very helpful. I don’t know that I have any techniques, except the things I learned as a reporter. Well, there are two things. One is so obvious: I never interview by telephone. I remember when I was a reporter — sometimes you’ll have to because you’re on a deadline, and you have the headset on. But, if you can, you want to see their faces. You learn so much from people’s faces. I always try to type the interview. I don’t tape anything. I take notes on every interview. One rule I have is no matter how late it is, I will type up that interview before I go to sleep, because I want to have it in my mind as fresh as possible, what my impressions were, how he acted when he was saying things.
I go back. I learned when I was a reporter if you just keep going back to people, interviewing them over and over again, the interviews just become completely different. The luxury I have, because I’m writing the book, is you can go back to people, and become friendly with them.
Hull: I’m curious, because you use documents so much, and you also interview people over and over, what have you learned about the reliability or unreliability of the people’s memories?
Caro: [laughs] Totally unreliable.
Hull: How do you make sense of that? How do you know it was the rocking chair?
Caro: That’s a good question. You try to interview, well, everybody who was involved. An easy example: The real decisions on Vietnam, when Lyndon Johnson was president, were made not in the Cabinet or National Security Council, but in something that Johnson called the Tuesday Cabinet. Every Tuesday at 1, he had lunch upstairs in the family dining room, with just four people usually. McNamara sat on his right, and next to him was McGeorge Bundy, Wolf Rosthal. The left was Dean Rusk, and then there was Earle Wheeler. This isn’t a good example, because these people really were dead, and I couldn’t do this. Whenever there’s something, a room with four people in it, you would say, you would interview all of them. Then you would go to Rusk and say, I’m just using names you know, this isn’t a good example of it, “McNamara says so and so. What was happening there?” Then you’d go to Rosthal and say, “What was happening there?” Then you’d go back to McNamara and say, “You say so and so. Rusk says so and so.”
If you do that enough, like in the Senate, if you’re trying to see what happened in the Senate, in the committee, when I was doing that they were all alive senators, the last of the senators. If you just make people go back and forth, even if there’s no written record, it helps. There’s often a written record. You combine them all. There are still a lot of things you’re not sure of. The only way of dealing with that is try to keep looking for more records to show stuff or interviewing the people over. If you’re talking about Carl Hayden, those of you who read Master of the Senate, Hayden was a really crucial figure. There’s nothing, and you say, “Where can I find out stuff about Hayden?” He has a collection of papers. You look through them and they’re not terribly valuable, but you say, “He was chairman of the Rules Committee.” You go to the Senate Historian and you say, “Were there hearings in the Rules Committee?” He says, “Yeah, but they’ve never been published.” Then it’s your job to try and get to see them.
You go back. These people, the senators, are in those hearings. They say nothing they say is ever going to be public. You get a lot from that. Then you say, “Hayden had administrative aides. He had this aide and that, and legislative aides.” There are a lot of people, there used to be a lot of people. They’re mostly dead. You just try and go back over and over the same stories.
Johnson, his key man in Texas was a name that no one even knew. His name was Edward V. Clark. In Texas they knew him. He was known as the secret boss of Texas. I’m answering this — this is why my books take too long — I’m sorry — he ran Texas for like 25 years. I must have asked him about the stolen election of 1948. We had become great friends. Every Sunday, when we were in Austin, Ambassador Clark — he became Johnson’s ambassador to Australia — his wife Ann, Ina, and I would have dinner together, every Sunday night. Ina’s job was to keep Ann talking.[laughter]
Caro: Because Ann used to say, “Don’t tell him that, Ed.”
Caro: We became great friends. Clark said, “Would you like to meet this guy? I’ll go with you.” He was really saying, “So the guy will talk to you.” He said, “The one thing I won’t talk to you about is that stolen election.” Then I remember we were driving up to see a guy. I said to him, “You know, Ed. I’m about to write it now. If you don’t tell me now, no one will ever know.” Without another word, he just started telling me basically what is the story and means of ascent, of how Johnson stole that election. I pulled over to the side of the road and took out my notepad. There’s no great thing that I do. It’s not particularly smart. It’s just keeping doing it over.
Question: What are your plans for your next book on Dr. Martin Luther King? I read that your next book will be on Martin Luther King.
Caro: No, it won’t. I’m not going to have time to do that, much as I would like to do that.
Question: A lot of biographers, historians, when they set out writing a book, many of them say that they have to like the character; they have to have some kind of affinity for the character. Can you tell us, did you for Johnson? More importantly, did your feelings about him change over the process of reporting the book?
Caro: He’s such a complicated guy. On the one hand, he has this real compassion for people. I believe all his life he truly wanted to help poor people and particularly poor people of color. On the other side, he’s a man of really utter ruthlessness in getting things done, in rising to power, in getting things done. Even now when you’re writing, the hardest thing probably about doing these books is you keep thinking you’re exaggerating. You say, “Boy, this is just awful, what he’s doing here.” Then you go back to your notes and you say, “Do you really have this? Did enough people…?” You know what I mean? On the other hand, you say, “Wow, look what he’s doing now. I didn’t know you could do this.” You’re filled with an awe at this guy who could really change — he wanted to change the world, and he did in a lot of ways.
Question: I’m a Canadian Nieman, so we watch pressed up against the glass. Everything that the United States does affects us, and the Vietnam years were particularly important for my generation. Johnson was a figure that fascinated us, and your portrayal of how the Hill Country of West Texas shaped him is vivid in my mind to this moment in helping to understand him.
Question: My question is, you just said you probably don’t have time to write another book, but is there another figure who is so masterful at exercising power today that you would like to write about, who interests you the way Johnson did and Moses did?
Caro: Today? No one from today.
Question: Would Johnson be able to wield power the way he did if he were here today?
Caro: Well, that’s a good question. There’s a serious answer to that question. When Moses created power, he did something no one else had done before. He couldn’t get elected, so he thought of another way of getting power, public authority. Johnson did things in the Senate. Everyone said, “No one can get anything through Congress.” In 1963 and ’57, Johnson thinks of new ways that no one had done before. I think part of the nature of a real political genius, of which there are not many, is that you find a way to do something when no one thought it could be done. So I think someone will come along and dominate the political process. That’s the nature. It always happens that way.
Question: As you were reporting, the tapes were released. What did they reveal that you had not seen in written documents and through interviews about his character?
Caro: A lot. First place, a lot of the stuff isn’t in writing anywhere. And you learn so much about how it’s one thing to say that Johnson could threaten and browbeat, but a lot of people can threaten and browbeat and control. What you learn, you learn so much from the tape. One of them is we all think Lyndon Johnson is always talking. He’s not always talking. If he wants something, he does these long things where the other guy is talking. A senator or congressman, and all Johnson is saying is, “Uh‑huh, uh‑huh.” He’s waiting to hear what he wants to hear, and when he hears it, you see how he uses it. Like in this last book, the civil rights bill is stuck in the House Rules Committee. He needs Republican votes. The Republican leader is Charles Halleck, and Halleck has said he has never voted for a discharge petition and he never will, because it’s violating the sacred powers of the committee chairman. But we know what Johnson does with Halleck because there’s a tape. While he’s talking, Johnson is listening to Halleck and listening to Halleck. And he realizes that what Halleck really wants is, the largest employer in his district is Purdue University, and Purdue University has built new laboratories. They expected to get NASA grants and they haven’t gotten the grants.
Johnson, while Halleck is in the office, calls James Webb, who’s the NASA administrator. He basically says, “I’m sending Charles Halleck over to you, and I want you to see what you can do for him.” Halleck leaves the office, and Webb calls Johnson back and basically says, “I sure hope that when he leaves here, he’ll be happy.” And you have to hear Lyndon Johnson’ — he says, “I’m not talking about hoping.”[laughter]
There’s a key vote on something else. He gets a call from George Smathers saying, “God, we’re going to lose in the Finance Committee. We’ve got to change three votes.” Harry Byrd, the chairman of the Finance Committee, has called a recess, a luncheon recess. They’re coming back at 2 o’clock. And Johnson says, “Who are the three votes?” He says, “Ribicoff and Frank Lausche and whoever.” Johnson calls these three guys. Part of it is people feared Lyndon Johnson; people were afraid of Lyndon Johnson. They had learned you don’t cross Lyndon Johnson. With Ribicoff, the call takes a matter of seconds. Ribicoff says, “I can’t change, I promised my constituents this. I’d lose face.” Johnson says, “You save my face today, I’ll save your face tomorrow.” With Lausche, he knows the one thing that Lausche wants, and he says that he’ll take care of it. He changes these three votes, in whatever I say in the book, 12 minutes or something like that. The tapes are just great. Yes, sir.
Question: When you think about LBJ, you think about ruthlessness, you also think about pragmatism. You think about 1957 in terms of his formulation, the formulation of civil rights legislation at that time, and then of course ’64, the passage of civil rights legislation. What I’m wondering is with this reputation for ruthlessness and pragmatism, how much did moral imperative figure into his decision to push this legislation along, and finally to sign it into law?
Caro: That’s a great question. As I’ve said before, I believe he always wanted to help poor people, and particularly poor people of color. How do I feel that I know that? When Johnson is, I forget if it’s 20 or 21 years old, he’s very poor. He’s going to what he called the poor boys’ school, the poor boy’s college, but he has to take a year off to earn money. During this year he teaches at what was called the Mexican school at a little town called Cotulla, in south Texas. I wrote that no teacher had ever cared if these kids learned or not. This teacher cared. It was very important to him, he thought it was very important that they learn to speak English. He would just get enraged. He would spank boys and tongue-lash girls if he heard them speaking Spanish. He would go, all the children of migrant workers, so he would spend days walking up and down the rows of these corrugated tin shacks that the migrant workers live in to persuade the fathers to take days off work to drive their kids so they can have a debating team and baseball teams.
But you could say that that is not a moral imperative, that’s just an example of Lyndon Johnson trying to do the best, most efficient job, in whatever job he had, which was a characteristic of Lyndon Johnson. The reason I feel that I know he cared, that he had what you call a moral imperative, is that he didn’t just teach the kids. He taught the janitor. The janitor’s name was Tomas Coronado, and he wanted Coronado to learn English, so he bought him a textbook. Every day after school, or before school, there were steps outside the school, he and Coronado would sit on the steps with the textbook, and Coronado said, “Johnson would pronounce, I would repeat. Johnson would spell, I would repeat.” I feel Johnson always truly wanted to do that, wanted to help.
Question: I had the opportunity to do extensive interviews with Nick Katzenbach who repeatedly told me that Johnson would say to him, “Get me out of this damn war.” Does that sound like something Johnson would have said to Katzenbach repeatedly? And at what point do you think that Johnson realized that this damn war was going to destroy him?
Caro: I think it’s something that he definitely would have said to Katzenbach because he was saying that kind of thing to everybody: Show me a way out of this war. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Johnson and Vietnam — I have to say it’s going to take me a lot of pages to try to talk about that, but I think that Johnson knew the war — he has the expression, “That bitch of a war is killing the woman I love, the Great Society.” Then you say, why didn’t he stop escalating the war? That takes a long time to answer.