Hearing Robert Caro talk about his work is like getting a master class in longform journalism. A Nieman Fellow, Class of 1966, Caro is the bestselling biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson, and has won every major literary prize — some of them, such as the Pulitzer, twice. He appeared in conversation with the Washington Post’s Anne Hull at the Nieman Foundation’s 75th anniversary festivities in the fall. Our sister publication Nieman Reports excerpted the chat in its new winter issue, and we’re pleased to run the full conversation here: Part 1 today, Part 2 on Friday. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Caro and Hull were introduced by CNBC’s John Harwood, a 1990 Nieman Fellow.
John Harwood: I just want to say how pleased I am to be with this amazing group of people who all share the special bond of having been a Nieman Fellow. I just want to say that I feel an extra special bond with each of these two people. With Anne Hull because I’ve known her for 30 years, since we were both young people together on the St. Petersburg Times. I was a young reporter, and Anne was a young copy aide. It has been incredible to watch her become such a force in journalism, first at the St. Pete Times, then at the Washington Post. (She) had a brief detour into cosmetic sales when she was very young; fortunately came back to journalism. Ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize with our friend, Dana Priest, another St. Pete Times alum. We all worked, by the way, for the great Gene Patterson, who many of you in this room know, who we lost earlier this year.
Now Robert Caro, I feel a special bond with him even though I’ve known him for fewer than 30 minutes.[laughter]
That is only partly because of the bond I feel as a consumer of his work, which is the deep dive of all deep dives. If any of you have read his books, and I suspect many of you have, you cannot stop reading them once you start. It’s the greatest political biography set that I know about.[applause]
Anne Hull: Here we are. Bob is asked often about LBJ, politics, and money. We’ll get into some of that. But because he’s speaking to journalists, he wants, and I think it’s a great idea, to talk a lot about his process and how he gets what he gets. How did your training as a journalist at Newsday, and prior to that, prepare you for a life as a biographer, historian?
Robert Caro: There’s really not that much difference between it. I’ll take one example. I was thrown into investigative reporting when I really knew nothing about it. I was 23 years old, and I told my editor that I didn’t know anything about it, and he said, “Just never assume a damn thing.” He said, “Turn every page.” That’s really what I’ve tried to do. I told Anne before, when you get down to the Johnson Library, you go in and the bottom floor is a museum, and you go around a corner, and there’s this huge marble staircase, very broad and high, and at the top of it is a glass wall, four stories high. You see all these boxes there, they’re all bound in red, and they all have the presidential seal in 24‑karat gold, and they are the papers of Lyndon Johnson. And they go back, I don’t know how long. It seems to be as long as a football field, but it’s not. The last time they released the figures, they said they had 44 million documents there. You can’t actually think of turning every page, it would take many lifetimes.
When I was doing the first volume, which was about Lyndon Johnson as a congressman, I realized that … I can’t remember if I’d known you were going to ask this, I can’t remember the number of boxes that dealt with his congressional career. It was manageable. I said, “I’m going to do what I was taught and turn every page in there.” It’s because I did that, people always ask me, “How did you find out?” Am I going on too long?
Caro: People are always asking me, “How did you find out about how Lyndon Johnson used money in his political career? There’s a point, those of you who have read the books, and if you haven’t, the test is Tuesday. [laughter] There’s a point where Johnson suddenly gets national political power. He’s a junior congressman; he’s in his third year in Congress. It’s October 1940. Before that month, when Johnson writes a committee chairman or another senior member of Congress, he’s writing in the tone of a junior to a senior, very deferential. Can I have a few minutes of your time? All of a sudden, in November 1940, it’s the other way around. The senior congressmen are writing him, can I have a few minutes of your time?
I was asking all the people who remembered Johnson at that time, what happened in October 1940? One of them, a guy named Thomas G. Corcoran, who was a political fundraiser and fixer who’s spending a lot of time with me, I asked him what happened in October 1940, and he said, “Money, kid.” He used to call me kid. Money, kid, money. But you’re never going to be able to write about it. I said why, and he said, “Because Lyndon Johnson never put anything in writing.” And of course, he was right. I knew what he had explained to me. Johnson was a political genius, and he had thought of something. Although he was a junior congressman, there was one thing he had that no other congressman had.
He was the only congressman that knew the big Texas oilmen and contractors who wanted all these favors and contracts from the government, and they were reactionaries. They were the Texas Regulars, they hated Roosevelt, but they wanted things from government and were willing to give campaign contributions to get it. And he also knew all the liberal Northern congressmen who needed campaign contributions. He persuaded the Texas oilmen to give money only through him, and it became known in Congress that you had to go to him to get money, and that’s what happened. But I thought I was not going to be able to write about that in any detail, and then I was going through all these boxes, and there were all these file folders that seemed to have nothing to do with anything you’re interested in.
I was going through one, which seemed to have nothing on the label to do with it, but all of a sudden, there was a telegram from George Brown of Brown & Root, which was the firm that was really financing most of this. And the telegram began, “Lyndon, hope you received the checks.” Down in the bottom, somebody — I think it was John Connally — had written who the checks were from. You were able to find that was how the money got there. I was going through other boxes. All of a sudden, I came across a list. It was a list that was compiled by John Connally. John Connally was Lyndon Johnson’s administrative assistant.
The list contained three typed columns. In the left‑hand column was the name of the congressman who had asked Johnson for money. In the center column was what he had asked Johnson for money for. “Lyndon, if I just have one more round of ads, I can win this.” “Lyndon, we need poll watchers. They’re trying to steal the election.” Whatever. In the third column was how much the congressman had asked for. The amounts were so small then, $1,000 or $1,500. In the left‑hand margin, Lyndon Johnson had written something in his own handwriting next to each name.
Again, some of the names, it said, “OK.” I asked Connally what “OK” meant. He said that meant that Johnson was giving the amount the congressman had asked for. Again, some of them had said “OK” with an amount. That meant he was giving them part of the money, 500 instead of 1,000 or whatever. Sometimes, in that left‑hand column, Johnson had written “No,” which meant he was giving no money. But sometimes, he had written, “No. Out.” I asked John Connally, “What did ‘No. Out.’ mean?” He said, “That guy was never going to get money.”[laughter]
Caro: You never crossed Lyndon Johnson. What did I learn as a reporter? How does that translate into the books? If I hadn’t been doing that simple thing and trying to turn every page, I never would have found that out.
Hull: Back it up. It takes a lot of work to get to that box with that one document. Back up the process a bit. You were fascinated with Robert Moses, The Power Broker. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to seize on him as your first big subject of a biography? You were a Nieman then, in ’65, ’66. How did you spend your year here?
Caro: I spent my year here. … The wives were invited to more social [laughs] events then. Ina’s mother was very sick that year, so I was often up here by myself. I don’t like to go to social things by myself. We all had offices then. What I was thinking about … I had been covering politics in New York. It had gradually sunk in on me that although we all believed, including me, that power comes from being elected, here was a guy who was never elected to anything. He had more power than any governor, more than any mayor, more than any governor and mayor combined. He had held this power for 44 years. I had no idea where this power came from, and I was supposed to be writing about political power. I had realized that when I was at Newsday. I had gotten interested in Robert Moses. The reason I was coming up here was to learn more about urban planning and all, which I didn’t know anything about. I spent a lot of evenings thinking. What I realized was I couldn’t possibly do this in the context of daily journalism. I would have to do a book. I wrote a book proposal, and that got the world’s smallest contract.[laughter]
Hull: You pursued this at great personal cost. You and your wife ended up selling your house to subsidize this project. How did you come to that decision to pursue something at that cost?
Caro: That’s a good question.[laughter]
Caro: Part of it was simply I had no idea how long it was going to take. The contract was too small. I was a reporter. We didn’t really have any savings to speak of. I couldn’t quit, so for some months, I was trying to start the book while I was still at Newsday. I wasn’t getting anywhere at all with that. There used to be this wonderful grant they gave. It was called the Carnegie Fellow in Journalism at Columbia University, in the journalism school. What they did was they paid one reporter at a time his salary for one year, gave him an office there, while he wrote a book. I was sure I could finish this book in this year. In fact, I told Ina … We had always wanted to go to France. I said, “I have this schedule. I’m going to be done in nine months. We’re going to get three months in France.”[laughter]
Caro: At the end of the year, of course, I had hardly started.[laughter]
Caro: We were really broke. I came home one day, and Ina said, “I sold the house.” This was before the real estate boom. We hadn’t paid very much for the house, but after selling it, after the mortgage, we cleared 25,000‑some dollars. That was enough to live a year. But then I was still only starting…[laughter]
Caro: When you ask about that, you really say it was years of being broke, until … then I got a different publisher. My first publisher wasn’t really interested in the book. Then it got easier for me.
Hull: The Power Broker published. How did you then seize on Johnson as a subject? It’s like a delicious no‑brainer now. House of Cards is partly based on his character, LBJ. But back when you decided, it was not in vogue. He wasn’t an approachable biography subject. Why LBJ?
Caro: I never thought of The Power Broker as being a biography of Robert Moses. I never had any interest in writing a book just to tell the life of a great man. I wanted to tell about how political power worked in New York and really all the cities of America, how urban political power worked. That’s what The Power Broker is supposed to be. I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I had thought, while I was doing the Moses book, that if I could ever do another book, you have to pick the right man, like Moses had thought of ways to get power that nobody had thought of before. I wanted to do national political power, and Johnson was the right man to do it because he made the Senate work. That was the thing I first focused on. When he was Majority Leader, the Senate actually worked and created legislation. Hard to believe but…[laughter]
Caro: In the hundred years before Lyndon Johnson, the Senate, since the days of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, which was back in the 1840s and 1850s, the Senate was the same dysfunctional mess that it was today. Johnson becomes Majority Leader in January 1955 and for six years, the Senate works. It is the center of governmental energy, creativity, and ingenuity in Washington. They write their own bills. The Civil Rights Bill of ’57 is Johnson’s bill, it’s not Eisenhower’s bill. Johnson leaves to become vice president, and in one instant, the Senate is back in the same mess that it is and has continued to this day. You say if you could figure out how Johnson did it — what did he do that no one else did before or since? — then you would find out something about how power really works in Washington. That was what first drew me to examine it. I’m sorry, I wanted to work on that, but I wanted to do Johnson. That’s why I wanted to do national political power.
Hull: You and Ina ended up moving out to Texas.
Hull: To both go into this fourth-story library of Johnson’s, and also you spent time in a tent trying to figure out what a Texas night is like. Can you tell us about that?[crosstalk]
Caro: Just a sleeping bag. [laughs]
Hull: Oh, okay. Tell us about how you approached that kind of reporting. That’s a huge building and there are many people still living at that time, I guess, who worked with Johnson when you first began.
Caro: Yeah, the great thing was, he had died so young. He died in 1973. I was starting this book in ’76, so the people who grew up with Johnson … If you went to Johnson City, and you say, “His best friend was Truman Fawcett.” Truman Fawcett lived on the other side of the courthouse square. Truman Fawcett was still living on the other side of the courthouse square. If you said, “Lyndon Johnson’s first girlfriend was Kitty Clyde Ross,” well, now she was Kitty Clyde Leonard, but she was still living in Johnson City. The people he went to college with were his own … you could interview all of them, just about. They were all the people who were his first political machine. What I was doing, I said, “There were already seven Johnson biographies had been published, and a lot on his youth.” I thought everything that was basically done. I didn’t think they had enough color in it, but I would add to that by interviews. What I would do is, every day I’d work in the library from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. That’s when it closed.
Hull: The Johnson Library?
Caro: I’m sorry, I would work in the Johnson Library from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then I’d drive out into the Hill Country to interview one of these people. I came to realize that there was something that they weren’t telling me, you know? Over and over, they were very different kind of people from the North. There’s a real honesty there, but a reverence for government. There weren’t going to say anything bad about a president of the United States. They had seen reporters come, and they’d call them, “portable journalists.” Ever since Johnson’s presidency, these reporters would come down for a week, and go back and write the true story of the Hill Country or the true story of Lyndon Johnson. I finally said to Ina, “I’m not getting through to these people. I don’t understand them, and I don’t understand the Hill Country, so I don’t understand Lyndon Johnson.” I said, “We’re going to have to — how do you feel about moving?”[laughter]
Caro: Ina said, “Why don’t you do a biography of Napoleon?”[laughter]
Caro: Of course, she said, “Yes,” and we rented a house for three years. We were probably there eight or nine or 10 months of each year. This is what’s urgent: There’s no difference between really doing a thorough reporting job whether it’s for a newspaper or book. As soon as the people realized that we were living there, that we had come to stay to try and understand them, the interviews became different, instantly. They started to tell me all the stories about Lyndon Johnson, terrible stories about his ruthlessness when he was young and all. Then you came to understand that the Hill Country was a big part of him. I was a city boy. They tried to explain to me: “Hey, you’re a city boy. You don’t understand the land, and if you don’t understand the land you’re never going to understand Lyndon Johnson.” I thought that was some Grade B western. I said, “This is really terrible.” Then she said, “I’ll show you what I mean.”
She took me out to the Johnson ranch. Those of you who have read the book know that the central thing in Johnson’s life was that his father, who he idolized, went broke and lost the Johnson ranch. The reason he went broke was he thought that the ranch could support a certain amount of mortgage, because it would grow a certain amount of cotton. He didn’t understand what the land was like. She took me out there and said, “Now get out of the car and kneel down, and put your fingers in the ground.” If you just stuck your fingers in the ground they wouldn’t even go down to the end of your finger. There was almost no soil there — it’s rock underneath.
What that meant was one crop of cotton and you couldn’t grow basically anything. She said, “You see, you can’t make a mistake here. This isn’t like a city where there are safety nets and things. Out here if you make a mistake, you lose your home.”
I suddenly thought about Lyndon Johnson, how he was the greatest vote counter in the Senate. If you go down to the Johnson Library, one of the fascinating things that you see is the very tally sheets in the Senate when he was a majority leader. Those of you who have seen them, they’re long thin pieces of paper with 96, and then a hundred names down the center. On each side there is a blank line so you can write the number of checkmarks on which sides they are going to be on the bill. When you look at these tally sheets, they’re smudged. The pencil marks are smudged. The reason they’re smudged, I found out, is that Lyndon Johnson would go down these sheets. That was his thumb mark, and his thumb wouldn’t move onto the next senator until he knew how the senator would vote. He would send his staff out to talk to senators and they would say, “I think he’s going to vote.” Johnson would just become infuriated. He said, “What good is thinking to me? I have to know.” He never lost these votes. He never lost a close vote.
I thought back to, “You can’t make a mistake in life.” You know, that’s part of what made Johnson what he was. This whole thing all was one continual process.
Hull: You were an oddity to them. You were probably really strange to them.
Hull: You said that you still go to work in your office in a suit and tie, because it gives you the impression that you’re working.
Hull: Did you wear a suit and tie doing that reporting in the Hill Country?
Hull: Okay. Tell us about your dealings with Lady Bird Johnson.
Caro: Let me say first of all, she really hated my books, but there was a time at the beginning where she talked, spent a lot of time with me, was very helpful. She’s a very smart person. What she would do is, I would see her each Saturday, and she would take, I forget what you call them — desk calendars, where you have that page for each day and you keep it on your desk? She would go through each year and she’d say, “Oh, I see you had dinner with Sam Rayburn … I remember we talked.” She was really, really helpful to me while she was talking to me. She was also a very cautious person. I came home and told Ina once, “Boy, I just spent four hours with someone and not one word was going to pass her lips that she didn’t intend to pass her lips.”
Hull: How did the relationship change?
Caro: With me?
Hull: With Lady Bird.
Caro: I never knew why. It wasn’t anything I wrote. Long before I published anything, she and all the Johnson people stopped talking to me. I think if I want to put it in a complimentary way to myself, but I don’t know that this is true, I was looking into this story of how Lyndon Johnson got started by obtaining federal money and authorization for a dam that Brown & Root was building down in the Hill Country. It’s quite a story. I thought it was quite a story. I was talking to George Brown, of Brown & Root, and Abe Fortas, who was then the young lawyer at the Interior Department, who’s all the people involved in this. Then they had a gathering at the Lyndon Johnson Library, and there was a picture on the front page of the Austin American‑Statesman, and there George Brown and Abe Fortas, and John Conway were, all talking together. I said, “All my sources are talking to each other.” Right about that time, everyone stopped talking.[laughter]
Caro: Someone said, “I saw this guy Robert Caro is writing a book. I told him so‑and‑so…” The realization must have come that between them, I knew the whole story. They weren’t prepared, if I want to compliment myself, for someone really looking into these stories that Johnson had told all his life.
Hull: What was the relationship with the press and Johnson back then? Philip Graham ran the Washington Post, wrote speeches for Kennedy, then started helping Johnson. Can you talk about Johnson’s relationship with the media in general, and also Kay Graham and Philip Graham, how that might have shaped his policies?
Caro: With the media in general, it changes very dramatically. When Johnson came into the presidency, he came in on this wave of good feeling. Everyone wanted him to succeed, because Kennedy had been assassinated. He passes Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill. Gets all of Kennedy’s legislation moving. Starts the war on poverty. … At the end of 1964, his relationship with the press, you would say was, “adored the president.” By the middle of 1965, Lyndon Johnson is really distrusted, disliked. The term “credibility gap” has already been coined. Life magazine has a cover story, “The President’s Feud with the Washington Press Corps.” How did all this change in six months? Johnson had a real problem with the truth. In college, his nickname was, “Bull Johnson.” He didn’t seem to realize that now that he was president, the things that he said were going to be checked. The press got to realize this and a lot of it had to do with he was escalating the Vietnam War. It would take forever to go into this, so I won’t do it today. Basically, James Reston wrote, “The United States entered the land war in Asia yesterday in secret.” He thought he could do this without people realizing what he was doing …
But, on this other hand, you mentioned Mrs. Graham, if I can tell another story to this. This was a really interesting story. I had written my first volume, and I was at a birthday party for a friend of mine, Arthur Schlesinger, at the Century Club. Afterwards, everyone was standing around talking. Ina comes up to me and says, “There’s a woman behind you, who I think is waiting for a chance to talk to you.” I look over my shoulder and I said, “I don’t think so. That’s Katharine Graham.”
But, in fact, she was. She came up to me and she said, basically, something very complimentary about my book, and she said, “But, you haven’t talked to me.” I said, “Well, I’m really not up to that point.” She said, “Well, you know, I want to make sure…” — I can’t remember her exact words — “…that you understand how important Philip was in changing Lyndon Johnson’s views on Civil Rights.”
Of course, I knew that already. I said, “Well, I’d like to talk to you about it.” They were remarkable interviews. For one thing, I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone quite as determined. She wasn’t interested in talking about herself. She wanted to talk to me so that her husband, who had by then died, got the credit he deserved, for getting Johnson to push the first Civil Rights Bill, the 1957 bill, since reconstruction. I knew that that was true. There’s a wonderful memo from Philip Graham; it’s basically, if you wanted to have a chance in 1960, 1957 is when you have to pass the Civil Rights Bill. Johnson listened to him.
The thing that is so great was Katharine Graham is a reporter. I had heard, because my publisher’s Knopf, which is part of Random House — I had heard that Katharine Graham had this contract to write her memoir from Random House, but that she wasn’t really doing it. She brought this up — did I have any suggestions? I didn’t have any suggestions because I get very tired of reading Washington memoirs. They’re generally just self‑aggrandizing books.
Then she said something that I couldn’t believe. We were seeing each other on a regular basis. She said, “I can’t see you next Thursday, because I have interviews of my own to do.” I said, “What do you mean interviews of your own?” She said something like, “I don’t want this to be just another Washington memoir that’s from my point of view. I want to know what else was happening in the room at that time, so I’m interviewing the other people.” I suddenly realized this is going to be a different kind of book. I actually went back and told my editor that this was — he became her editor. The result is this wonderful book of hers. I thought the world of her.