Book Review: 'Working'

Jul 2, 2019

Want to be a political journalist or biographical historian? Forget graduate or journalism school. Read Robert Caro’s "Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing." Caro, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and recipient of so many other prestigious awards, got them for superb investigative reporting on brilliant, ruthless men. The books include "The Power Broker" about Robert Moses – “the greatest builder in the history of America, perhaps in the history of the world” – and "The Passage of Power," book four of Caro’s five-volume series, "The Years of Lyndon Johnson." Book five, the final book on the man who made the Senate work for the first time in 100 years, notably enacting civil rights legislation before getting bogged down in Vietnam, should be out, he hopes and jokes, “in his lifetime.” He’s 84. 

What takes him so long? It’s his most un-favorite question, but he addresses it in “Working” – with honesty and humor and in a wonderfully conversational style. It’s as though he’s in your living room, telling you a fascinating story adding dialogue and details about setting that make you feel you were there. But the stories are long. Caro was actually known as a fast writer when he was at Newsday but when he left to probe the nature of political power, he started taking more time because his subjects were so complex and he wanted to make sure he explored everything from every point of view. “Turn every page,” a colleague once told him, and Robert Caro has been doing just that.  

He sought out documents no one knew existed. Read and reread masses of materials. Doggedly pursued people major and minor because he believed that those who were affected by the machinations of great men, for better or worse, would contribute to an understanding of the nature of power. How it was achieved, what it cost and what it said about America in the last half of the 20th century. The going could get rough.   

When Caro confronted Robert Moses with evidence that the Master Builder had commanded the Northern State Parkway take an odd southern detour that wrenchingly displaced local farmers leaving Gold Coast robber barons at a remove from the working poor, Moses was arrogant and dismissed Caro from all further access.

But the going could also yield memorable, moving insights, such as when Caro camped out on the isolated Texas Hill Country in order to understand Lyndon Johnson’s fierce political drive. And why, when Johnson brought electricity to that impoverished region, he was hailed as a hero. 

Caro’s depressing life portraits of poor women farmers, alone and old before their time on the Texas plains, are unforgettable. 

Through it all his only assistant was and still is his beloved wife of 62 years, the historian Ina Caro. She supported him every step of the way. Selling their Long Island home when they couldn’t afford to live there anymore, when he was working on the Moses book, and moving with him to the Texas Hill Country for LBJ.

Sections of “Working” have been previously published, but they are effectively united here and augmented by new musings, including a summary interview he gave to The Paris Review in 2016 on the art of biography. 

Attractive inside book covers show Caro’s obsessive editing – he writes longhand, uses a typewriter and revises even final proofs. But it’s his passion to “discover and disclose” the “raw, naked essence of political power” and make the reader feel what it is and how it came to be, that distinguish his work. This is an amazing, inspiring memoir – an example of How To Do It Right. As a reviewer I jot down page numbers I want to return to because I think they exemplify something about substance or style. In “Working” I noted just about every page.