LBJ biographer Robert Caro speaks out

Prize-winning author working on fourth volume about president

October 22, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

In the mid-1970s, beginning work on the first volume of his monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, Robert A. Caro moved for three years with his wife and indefatigable researcher, Ina, from New York to the Texas Hill Country where Johnson had grown up.

"I realized that was a world I didn't understand, and I was never going to get to understand it unless I lived there," says Caro, a New Yorker. "It was a land of great isolation, loneliness and poverty when Johnson was growing up there."

Later, to understand Johnson's mastery of the Senate, Caro took an apartment in Washington and spent months observing on the floor and in the halls.

Now, for his fourth and final volume, Caro says he plans to spend time living in a small Southern city and in Vietnam to understand the impact of Johnson's presidency at home and abroad.

At 67, with two Pulitzer Prizes, Robert A. Caro may be America's most honored chronicler of other lives. He will speak on "Power and Politics" tomorrow at 8 p.m. in Shriver Hall on the Johns Hopkins University campus.

He spoke by telephone this week with The Sun.

When you began your first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974), did you know you were choosing a career as a biographer?

No, I thought I was just going to do that one book and then go back to journalism, to my job at Newsday. Nobody thought a book on Robert Moses would sell.

However, I realized while I was doing it that I wasn't really writing a book about Robert Moses. What I was really interested in was political power, how it works. And that The Power Broker was actually, without my intending it, a study not just of Moses and not just of his power, but of urban power, power in the cities of America during the 20th century. And I thought, gee, if I could ever do another book, I wanted to do it on national power, and I knew immediately I wanted to use Lyndon Johnson because he understood national power - how it's used, how it works - better than any president in the second half of the 20th century.

Did Johnson begin as a one-volume biography?

No. I thought I was starting on a two-volume biography. The Power Broker is 700,000 words [1,336 pages] - the maximum pages they could then fit into what they call a trade biography. But the manuscript that I gave to Bob Gottlieb, my editor - not a rough draft but a finished, polished manuscript - was 1,050,000 words. So we had to cut out 350,000 words [equivalent to three mid-length novels].

So when The Power Broker started to do OK and I realized I could do another biography, I didn't want to be in that position again. So I said I'll do it in two volumes. Then it became three volumes, and now it's four volumes.

After giving you several interviews years ago, Lady Bird Johnson stopped cooperating. In coaxing intimate friends of Johnson to talk, did you ever conceal your decidedly mixed view of him?

No, absolutely not. When I started, I wrote every Johnson person and said I'm not planning to write either a favorable or unfavorable biography of Lyndon Johnson, I'm planning to write whatever I find.

In the first place, when you're doing a biography, you have to live with the same people and go back and interview them [repeatedly]. In the second place, you have to live with yourself. With really the exception of a handful of people, every last person now not only is willing to be interviewed but my problem at the moment is so many are calling and saying, "Why haven't you called me?"

George Christian was Lyndon Johnson's last press secretary. I had been trying to talk to him for 10 years, and he had not wanted to. I said, I'll call him one more time. And he said, "I guess it's time for us to talk." He was dying of lung cancer, and he knew it. So I had three truly wonderful interviews.

Horace Busby, who was Johnson's great speechwriter - he had been talking to me for 25 years. But he had a stroke. ... They took him into the hospital and he wrote a letter to my wife [about his approaching death] saying "it will be hard on Robert - nobody else can tell him about the vice presidency."

Are there any biographies you've taken as models?

There's one work of history: It's Francis Parkman, France and England in North America [seven volumes on the struggle for control of the North American continent, published between 1865 and 1892].

One of the most important things for a biographer to realize is the quality of the writing matters as much in nonfiction as in fiction. Sometimes you feel that some biographers and historians, excellent on getting the facts, feel that all that is necessary is to set them down. Where I feel the things that are important in fiction - getting the right word, setting a sense of place so the reader can see where the action is taking place - is just as important in history and biography as in novels.

Your Johnson is a very memorable character. But is that the only Johnson there is?

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